Microwave Journal

Autotestcon: Gearing up for Future ATE Challenges

Show Exhibitor Wrap-up

September 19, 2013

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Autotestcon is an IEEE-organized conference and exhibition focused on automated test systems (hardware and software), covering a wide-range of applications and technologies related to the aerospace and defense sector. This annual event includes participants ranging from system integrators such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and EADS to RF/microwave test and measurement equipment and component manufacturers. This year’s event held September 16-18 in Schaumberg, Illinois offered a peak at the latest trends in test automation, synthetic instruments, COTS, modularity and high performance, cost sensitive components for embedded test systems.

Light first day floor traffic, which many vendors attributed to the impact of sequestration on DoD travel budgets, did not dampen exhibitor spirits as much as one would expect. In general, most vendors were pleased with their government business year-to-date and accepted the low turn-out as an opportunity to spend more time with individual attendees (and visiting media).

Rohde & Schwarz was highlighting their Legacy Pro products for obsolete test equipment emulation. Microwave Journal featured a cover story (March 2012) based on the support of aging automated test systems that are servicing weapon and military communication systems long past the expected lifetime of individual test equipment. The R&S Legacy Pro allows test engineers to swap out failing test equipment with new hardware that operates exactly as the original test box, using the same software commands. At this year’s event, R&S has expanded the number of supported instruments. The company was demonstrating a side by side comparison of a ZNB20 network analyzer performing identical measurements as on old HP 8720D, who’s front panel kepad had finally gone belly-up.  Also on display, a ZVA VNA test on a TR module typical of a radar array, demonstrating high-speed testing (S-parameters, Noise figure, intermod vs. frequency, CW and pulse power, etc.) of 1000’s of states (and associated data points) typical in transmit/receive path routing analysis. 

Dow-Key wasfeaturing their new line of reliant electromechanical switches, offering high reliability with a design life of over 5 million switching cycles, making them ideal for use outside the lab and harsh environments such as satellite communications.  The company was also featuring their switch matrix line, which caught the interest of a notable number of attendees.

Copper Mountain not only offers impressively compact Network Analyzers and reflectometers, the company walked off with the “Best Small Exhibition Stand” award from the Autotestcon organizers. Not to say that their booth was small - the company packed in at least three product demo stands in their well-designed space – enough room to highlight their R140 vector reflectometer, planar 808/1 “full-size” VNAs and 5048 compact VNA. The highly portable R140 (attached to a demo antenna) can operate in any environment without the use of a test cable and is fully programmable using COM/DCOM automation.  With a frequency range up to 14 GHz, its an alternative to other field instruments that users wouldn’t think of leaving behind in a remote site. The new 808/1 VNA offers a high performance 4 port network analyzer with a frequency range up to 8.0 GHz.  The compactness and innovative engineering behind Coper Mountain products should have engineers in the market for a cost and size friendly VNA to take a serious look at their offerings.

Agilent intrigued exhibition attendees with a mystery curtain and mock test instrument constructed from Legos in their exhibition space. The actual product demonstrations were featured in a separate demo suite stocked with refreshments and plenty of Agilent technical staff to walk visitors through several featured test solution demos. Receiving the first public demonstration at an industry event since its August 27th introduction, Agilent featured its Wideband MIMO PXI vector signal analyzer which consists of Agilent’s M9362A-D01 4-channel downconverter, M9202A 12-bit digitizer, M9302A LO, M9168C RF attenuator, and the M9352A IF Amplifier/Attenuator modules for one to four measurement channels, Designed to deliver simultaneous, wide bandwidth analysis on up to 4 channels in a 4U M9018A chassis, the current demo was demonstrating a 2 x 2 MIMO configuration based on a PXI solution that offers speed, flexibility and scalability in a small form factor and can be easily customized. This PXI solution provides analysis capabilities for up to 4x4 MIMO, and is ideal for 80 + 80 MHz SISO, and 80 MHz or 160 MHz MIMO 802.11ac measurements. The set-up was also utilizing Agilent’s 89600 VSA software demonstrating support for next-generation 802.11ac WLAN chips and devices.

The company was also featuring its recently introduced (September 5th) streaming and multichannel synchronization functionality for its M8190A high-speed arbitrary waveform generator. Engineers working on applications such as low-observable radar or high-density communications, can use the new functionality to perform realistic tests with long playtime and parallel signal generation for multi-emitter support. By combining streaming functionality and the ability to synchronize up to 12 channels, engineers can simulate an entire plane flight instead of just milliseconds of flight data at a time. Real-time events can influence signal scenarios, which makes testing as realistic as possible. The M8190A now can generate waveforms while downloading new waveforms into memory, which overcomes previous AWG limitations and streamlines testing significantly. This new functionality is now part of the M8190A product offering. Before the addition of this new functionality, engineers could not change AWG signal waveforms at runtime. Agilent's unique ASIC allows the M8190A to change amplitude, frequency and phase on the fly. That means engineers no longer need to conduct time-consuming downloads to change parameters. They can perform margin tests more efficiently by changing the parameters during runtime. Other products on display included the PXA signal analyzer for real-time spectrum analysis supporting radar and EW design and verification as well as the company’s line of field hand-held analyzers, the Field Fox.

Signal Core is a privately held company based in Austin, Texas that designs and manufactures radio RF/ microwave instrumentation-grade subsystems that are highly linear and low in noise, based in the company’s strong engineering knowledge of low noise design, particularly low phase noise design. The company was featuring a number of high-performance modules for instruments and embedded systems including the SC5506A – 6 GHz Dual Channel Signal Source Core module and its PXI e version the SC5505A. these offer low residual phase noise (-115 dBc/Hz at 10 kHz offset, -140 dBc/Hz at 1 MHz offset), low phase spurious content <-70 dBc  and more than 70 dB channel isolation.

 National Instruments had a commanding presence at Autotestcon thanks to their long history and involvement in PXI and modular instruments. The company highlighted several new and recently introduced test solutions and products configured to demonstrate support of automated tests targeting aerospace and defense applications. One demo featured Harness FPGA technology used to create real-time target emulation for Radar testing using LabView and Commercial-Off-The Shelf (COTS) hardware. FPGAs can be used as co-processors for process acceleration and can bring in real world signals through adaptor modules and custom front-ends, allowing extremely fast processing speeds by eliminating the need to transfer data over buses.  This demo emulated a radar test complete with modeled effects such as clutter and the Doppler shift associated with a moving target.

Also featured in this set-up was the NI PXIe-8135 2.3 GHz, high-performance Quad-core embedded controller released in 2012 featuring the new removable hard disk drive (for data security) feature. The next demo showed a multiprocessor system for real-time test and processing leveraging the power and speed of multiple processors within a single PXI system. The capability extends the processing power demonstrated at this year’s NIWeek in which Hittite Microwave engineers used instrument driver FPGA extensions and the RF and baseband I/Q analysis and generation capabilities of the NI PXIe-5645R Vector Signal Transceiver to process data for EVM measurements over a broad range of operating conditions rapidly. Further demonstrating the open system and capabilities of COTS hardware to configure high-performance test solutions, NI invited partner RADX to introduce their LibertyGT SDSI (Software-Defined Synthetic Instruments). LibertyGT SDSI combines RADX real-time measurement software and firmware with modular, open architecture NI PXI and LabView reference and tailorable deployment platforms for aerospace and defense applications.

 NI also featured their software defined radio platform based on LabView and NI URSP (Universal Software Radio Platform) as well as the QuickSyn and QuickSyn Lite fast switching synthesizers from NI subsidiary, Phase Matrix.  The 10 GHz and 20 GHz modules offer full function signal generation for automated test and embedded test applications.

Day 2 –The second day of the exhibition was free for all attendees. This helped with the initial floor traffic during the early show hours as local engineers and program managers visited the exhibition. Wireless Telecom Group was among the companies reporting worthwhile visits from representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, EADS, Harris and others despite the generally slow floor traffic of the previous day.  The team at WTG put together an interesting demo to address the evolving UAV market that is among the brightest prospects in the aerospace/defense sector.

As new applications of UAVs (or Drones) focus on domestic use for safety, surveillance, immigration, agriculture, etc. UAV platforms will need to drastically reduce their operational costs. Communication is key for control of UAVs and downloading of video. Real time control, high speed data channels and low-cost high volume COTS have system integrators looking at existing LTE networks to provide links for the next generation of UAVs. Engineers at WTG were demonstrating a cost effective way to test LTE signals with variable bandwidths for UAV Communications. Using a Will Tek 9102 handheld spectrum analyzer and Noise/Com Digital Noise Generator (DNG7500), the WTG team envisions the set-up well suited to amplifier and EW testing and troubleshooting. The company was also showing off their extremely well-received 55 series wideband USB peak power sensor. This real-time power meter allows engineers to capture and visualize RF pulsed waveforms with ultra-fast rise times (5 ns) for greater insights in their design and troubleshooting efforts.

 Aeroflex had two new announcements for Autotestcon. The company was featuring the 7215 Configurable Automated Test Set, a complete radio test system designed for production and depot-level testing of military and software-defined radios (SDR). The standard configuration includes a high resolution touch-screen user interface, RF testing up to 2.6 GHz, 90 MHz of instantaneous bandwidth for both digital signal generation and analysis, and multiple RF and audio instruments. Advanced signal analysis such bas EVM or power drop-out tests on frequency hopped waveforms are optional. The 7215 offers a smaller, cost-effective alternative to large rack and stack ATE systems for RF and non-RF radio tests. The company was also featuring the new 3515B military portable radio test set. This handheld replicates much of the capability of the 7215 configurable test set in a portable handheld unit to support communication equipment that requires field repair/troubleshooting in place of removal from service and return to a repair depot. 

Eastern OptX has been wowing customers with their delay line test systems that eliminate expensive outdoor range testing for radars with a realistic lab-based alternative to flight testing. At Autotestcon, the company introduced the series 5000 Doppler generator that allows users to set target and radar source speeds and directions. This system, that covers radar frequencies from 1 to 18 GHz, may be operated remotely using wireless control with scenario generator features that include flight path replication, moving source and targets and multiple target operations.