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EXCLUSIVE: Expert Weighs in on RF/Digital Integration Challenges

Although they speak different languages, digital designers and RF designers have to integrate their subsystems at some point. Advanced tools help smooth the way.

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It's clear that both RF and embedded computing are critical technologies for a host of military systems-but the two worlds have traditionally run in separate circles. Today the push is toward streamlining the integration of RF and digital subsystems. Designers of advanced sensor processing applications want more affordable, flexible solutions that ease the integration of RF and digital subsystems (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Mathworks' Ken Karnofsky stresses the benefits of software that lets teams model and simulate digital and RF components in the same environment, at multiple levels of fidelity.

With all that in mind, COTS Journal's Jeff Child had the opportunity to sit down Ken Karnofsky, Senior Strategist for Signal Processing at Mathworks to discuss the complex challenges inherent in tackling tricky integration problems that encompass RF, DSP and the embedded software that ties everything together.

Jeff Child, COTS Journal: From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges facing today's wireless design teams?

Ken Karnofsky: Developing wireless systems today is a task that requires multiple design skills, including system architecture, DSP, RF, antenna, mixed signal, digital hardware, and embedded software. Most teams don't have expertise in all those areas. Even when they do, each specialist typically uses their favored tool. This makes system integration increasingly difficult, and pushes discovery of critical problems to the end of the development process when they're most expensive to fix.

This challenge has different impacts at different stages of development. For example, researchers can't effectively explore 5G hybrid beamforming techniques when they use different tools for digital and RF design. Advanced technology teams can't prove their concepts in hardware prototypes when they have to rely on other teams for RTL implementation. And design teams are spending far too much time debugging highly integrated radio designs in the hardware lab or in the field.

CJ: How does a single software solution address the disparate needs of digital, RF and system engineers who have different perspectives and tools?

Karnofsky: The primary benefit comes from software that enables those teams to model and simulate digital and RF components in the same environment, at multiple levels of fidelity. This enables system engineers to quickly build a reference design, and for each design team to elaborate the design with high-fidelity behavioral models that incorporate DSP, RF, antenna, mixed-signal, and control models. System-level simulation using these models provides insight into component interactions, exposes integration issues before building hardware, and enables more rigorous system verification much earlier in the development process.

CJ: Where does the introduction of wireless system design tools demonstrate the biggest benefit?

Karnofsky: System-level modeling and simulation pays large benefits in several ways. First, simulation can eliminate many system-level and integration errors before building hardware. This is the first step in Model-Based Design where system models automatically generate code for hardware and software implementation of algorithms, enabling algorithm designers to prototype on hardware without having to find programmers or HDL engineers from other teams. The models also provide a reusable test bench throughout the development process, saving time and ensuring consistency of testing. These combined capabilities enable faster design iterations and streamline verification. An upfront investment in modeling has been proven to reduce overall development time by 30 percent or more.

CJ: What unique challenges do existing and emerging wireless standards (Wi-Fi, LTE, 5G) pose for designers of defense electronics and military systems?

Karnofsky: Defense electronics and military system designers use commercial wireless standards in a variety of ways. Researchers want to anticipate the impact of emerging technologies such as mmWave and massive MIMO systems. System designers are looking to adapt those standards to lower cost and improve reliability of military communications systems. Other engineers are concerned with minimizing interference from other operational systems in a shared spectrum environment. And the signal intelligence community needs to understand how to extract information from systems using these standards.

These tasks are complicated by the scope and rapid change of commercial wireless standards. Defense system designers are users of these standards; they can't afford to maintain comprehensive knowledge or in-house tools to keep up with them.

CJ: How are IoT (Internet of Things) designers ensuring that RF technology and wireless connectivity are properly designed and integrated?

Karnofsky: Today, most IoT designers purchase RF modules to add wireless connectivity to their products. If something goes wrong, they face a lot of time in the lab debugging a design they didn't create. Leading edge designers are instead using Model-Based Design to simulate the integration of RF front ends into their designs, which helps them identify and fix issues earlier and at lower cost.

CJ: What role do MATLAB and Simulink play in addressing these challenges?

Karnofsky: MATLAB and Simulink serve engineers who do wireless design, system modeling, and advanced technology R&D by providing:

  • Rapid and flexible algorithm exploration, design, and analysis.
  • Unified simulation of digital, RF, and antenna elements.
  • Standard-based models for simulation and waveform generation.
  • HDL and C code generation for FPGAs, processors, and ASICs.
  • Multi-vendor hardware and software support for verification and prototyping.

CJ: What about specific applications in the military electronics sector?

Karnofsky: These capabilities serve a broad range of applications in the military electronics sector, including tactical radio and network development, radar systems, interference and spectrum management, electronic countermeasures, and satellite and space systems, and signal intelligence.

CJ: What is the future role of SDR (Software Defined Radio) technology in the defense arena and how is Mathworks enabling that?

Karnofsky: Low-cost, highly capable SDR technology is driving innovation and broader adoption. COTS SDR hardware can be connected to a PC to create highly capable testing and prototyping systems. The challenge is that those first generation SDR tools limited even broader adoption of the technology by forcing engineers to maintain low-level programming environments, or use software tools that work only with a single vendor's hardware.

MATLAB and Simulink support a broad range of SDR hardware, allowing engineers to select the appropriate hardware for over-the-air testing, rapid prototyping, and system development. Using SDR hardware directly with MATLAB and Simulink accelerates system deployment and verification. In addition, the HDL and C code generated for prototypes can be used on different devices for production deployment.

CJ: What technology innovations do you foresee as most affecting the military electronics landscape in the next 5-10 years?

Karnofsky: A partial list of innovations includes:

  • Technology emerging from the 5G efforts to support extreme mobile broadband and large-scale IoT communication, including massive MIMO, mmWave frequencies, and low-power operating modes.
  • Cognitive radio and spectrum sensing technologies to enable robust, flexible tactical systems.
  • Machine learning and big data techniques to add intelligence and flexibility to communications networks.

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