What wireless trends are you currently seeing in the aerospace and defense market?

First, is the evolution from RF systems that focus on a single function to multifunction RF apertures. The adoption of phased arrays on the RF front-end increases the flexibility of systems being developed and modernized. This starts to blur lines between radar, communications, and electronic warfare (EW). This trend also helps to accelerate the adoption and integration of standards-based wireless systems like 5G into aerospace and defense systems.

Second, is the rapid adoption of AI for a range of RF applications. This includes applying deep learning to areas like modulation identification, target identification, channel estimation, and RF fingerprinting. It also includes using reinforcement learning techniques to improve the performance of the end systems that operate in crowded and challenging RF environments.

Third, is the rapid pace of adoption of 5G technology along with commercially available SDRs and radio architectures. A bi-product of this rapid pace of adoption is that the aerospace and defense industry is able to leverage the technology investments driven by the 5G roll-out. There always has been a goal for aerospace and defense system developers to leverage off-the-shelf technology but the technology driven by 5G really overlaps with requirements for new aerospace and defense systems.  

Which of these trends are gaining the most traction in aerospace and defense applications?

It is difficult to pick one because our customers have been so active in each of the three areas. If I have to choose, I would say the adoption of AI. We have seen a large uptick in the engagements related to deep learning and reinforcement learning. This includes using our tools to synthesize data to train networks. It also includes pre-processing and labeling data collected from radios and radar systems.

What are the similarities and differences between requirements for military and commercial aerospace customers?

In the past few years, there are a growing number of similarities between the two categories. Commercial and military systems need to operate and co-exist in the same crowded RF spectrum. This presents challenges and drives the need for efficient system-level resource management.

For commercial systems moving to millimeter wave frequencies, we see the commercial companies benefiting from many of the same techniques used in military systems for many years. Some examples include the large phased array designs with sub-arrays, the RF/baseband partitioning, and spatial signal processing techniques used.

One difference is the time it takes to field a new commercial system vs. the new military system. Due to market demands and competition, the commercial systems still have a much faster time to market. Also, many of the projects for military systems seem to be upgrading or modernizing existing systems which can be more challenging than starting from a clean sheet. Many leading organizations (commercial and military) are adopting Model-Based Design approaches to further accelerate the design process and get upgrades to market faster.

What new capabilities does enhanced wireless system performance offer for aerospace applications?

The drive for higher bandwidth, smaller footprint, and lower power commercial wireless systems provides direct benefits to the aerospace applications. The extreme pace of industry investments related to 5G development and deployment ripples throughout the ecosystem of RF, antenna, and signal processing subsystems. The aerospace industry has been very aggressive in taking advantage of this wave.

How are customers using MathWorks’ tools for innovations in wireless?

System developers use MathWorks tools across their product life cycle. From the earliest stages of concept exploration to the deployment on end hardware and all aspects in between. They use our tools to design many portions of their system. They also use MathWorks tools as the integration platform for the larger system-level development.

Beyond our platform products (MATLAB and Simulink), system developers use our tools to design the PHY and MAC layers of their systems. They can directly connect to test equipment, instrumentation, and FPGAs. They also leverage our standards-based products like 5G Toolbox and LTE Toolbox, which helps them generate waveforms, customize test benches, and start with a working system level simulation rather than build from scratch. In the end, this is what helps them focus on innovation and differentiate their systems.  

How are wireless systems being deployed across applications in the aerospace and defense industry?

As noted earlier, the convergence of radar, EW, and communications helps engineers in the industry think more broadly – “How many different ways can the system I build be used?”.

The other growing area for wireless in aerospace and defense is connecting sensors of many different sensor modalities. The challenge is creating secure, low latency, and low power connections to these sensors.

What role does model-based design play when designing complex wireless systems?

Model-Based Design plays a very important role when developing complex wireless systems. The key word in your question is “complex”. Model-Based Design helps to reduce complexity in multiple ways.

Model-Based Design helps teams connect the analysis work done early in the life cycle to the work done when systems are being actively developed and integrated. Trade-offs made early in the project can be made with full knowledge of how decisions impact a system level model. This means issues can be uncovered before any hardware is developed. This also means team deliverables are available across each discipline much earlier than traditional development. It is an important way to bring the team closer together and ensure there is a common understanding throughout the project. For example, antenna design, RF design, and signal processing all require specific domain expertise. In a project without Model-Based Design, the designs for individual subsystems might not be integrated until much later in the project when it is much more costly to correct.     

What kinds of challenges are wireless designers facing that are unique to the aerospace and defense industry?

The goals for higher data rates, lower-latency network accesses, and more energy-efficient implementations are clear. System developers need to build a cost-effective system that achieves all of these goals. We know that higher data rates drive the need for greater bandwidth, which moves operating frequency bands up into the millimeter wave range. This creates new challenges in understanding complexities in the propagation channels. We also know that all of the subsystems, from the antenna, through the RF chain, to signal processing, have to be active parts of the system-level solution. These subsystems each contain design “knobs” that can be tuned together to meet system design goals.

The rise in system complexity is becoming a main challenge for engineers. This complexity is driven by many external factors such as the need for higher bandwidth and lower power systems. The RF spectrum is crowded and the chance for interference is greater than ever. Systems that previously were focused on a few key functions now need to perform a more diverse set of tasks. Today’s systems also get deployed in ways that were never possible in the past.

System development teams may be smaller today in than in past. They are certainly likely to be spread out across multiple locations and multiple partners. All of the challenges described add risk. MathWorks goal is to make it easy for system developers and integrators to model and simulate their systems before they build them. Finding issues early in a project greatly reduces the cost in fixing these issues, helping to reduce risk. We also want to help system developers leverage all of their modeling work by making it easy to deploy code directly from models. System reliability is critical so we work to make it easy to verify designs directly from the modeling results as well.

MATLAB has a great community of resources; how do designers get involved and also find answers to their questions?

We have a strong technical support organization. Our extended MATLAB community is fostered on MATLAB Answers and our File Exchange where code can be shared. Many times, our customers also foster strong internal communities of practice as well.

We also have a great field organization including application engineers and consulting engineers who work closely with our customers to help them get started or can help answer questions.

How does MathWorks support the next generation of engineers?

MathWorks invests in a large number of STEM organizations. We volunteer our time to help the next generation of engineers, even before high school. To this end, we make our tools very accessible to colleges and universities. We sponsor student competitions that really result in some impressive work and provide students with the opportunity to work with industry-standard tools.