Executive Interview: Ross Q. Smith, CEO and Wade Lowdermilk, CTO
Flexible Synthetic Instruments
MWJ:Can you give us a little history about how RADX was formed?
RADX: For about a decade, Wade and colleagues (including a few now working at RADX) at BAE Systems were developing the concepts and ultimately some of the first real examples of Software Defined Synthetic Instruments (SDSIs) for RF and microwave test and measurement… such as the BAE Systems SIU5230. Wade was convinced that SDSI technology and the resulting benefits that stem from it (size, weight, power, obsolescence management, test program set portability, etc.) should enable SDSIs to provide a very compelling commercial product— especially in R&D, ATE or production test applications that require multiple instruments and long lifecycle support. At the time, it was unclear whether BAE Systems was going to actually spin up to transform the SIU5230 into a COTS product family. Over time, it became evident that BAE Systems was not going to truly commercialize the SIU5230, and since I had a background in running COTS startups, it was natural for us to create RADX and approach BAE Systems to license the technology- including the BAE Systems Synthetic Instrument (SI) patent portfolio. The BAE Systems SI technology became the foundation for the basic measurement science that is in the RADX LibertyGT 1211B SDSI Family.
MWJ: What are the key technologies and strengths that RADX brings to the market?
RADX: RADX’s core strength is in developing advanced, real-time DSP technology that’s focused on software defined radios (SDRs) and cognitive radios (CRs) that we implement in FPGAs, DSPs, CPUs and GPUs, depending on the application. SDSIs are essentially SDRs with added measurement science, so there’s a unique relationship between SDRs and SDSIs. For the RF and microwave test and measurement market, we’ve created high performance, real-time, COTS measurement science software and firmware that combines RADX real-time DSP expertise with National Instrument PXIe hardware and LabVIEW and TestStand software to create a COTS, modular, software defined synthetic instrument family that provides dozens of instruments in a single system. We’ve also added an intuitive touch screen interface and select hardware technology that enables what is basically a collection of COTS hardware subsystems to behave as a tightly integrated system. The life cycle cost savings, obsolescence mitigation, SWaP and other benefits of the solution are quite significant—which is one reason why we won the Frost & Sullivan Innovative Product Award for LibertyGT last year.
In addition to a unique technology offering, we’ve also crafted a unique business model that enables us to sell our COTS products at any level of integration—from software only to completely integrated, turnkey systems.
MWJ: You call your products Software Defined Synthetic Instruments; can you explain what that means?
RADX: Historically, RF and microwave test and measurement instruments have been crafted using custom hardware and software that are crafted to provide one basic capability (e.g., spectrum analysis, digital storage oscilloscope, etc.), which is why one typically needs a rack or two of dedicated “boxed” instruments to conduct comprehensive test on complex RF and microwave systems. With a Software Defined Synthetic Instrument, we actually synthesize instruments such as spectrum analyzers, DSOs and other test and measurement applications atop powerful COTS hardware using FPGAs and multicore processors. Those of your readers that are old enough may recall dedicated computing systems like word processors, CAD computers, control computers and even finance computers. As recently as the mid-80s, departments in my first company (Ford Aerospace) had their own systems with specialized hardware and software. Then, as powerful, standards-based and lower cost general purpose computers and ultimately PCs became available, the model the market evolved to specialized software applications (like CAD, word processors and finance, etc.) that run on this general purpose hardware. RADX LibertyGT SDSIs are, to our knowledge, the first RF and microwave test and measurement systems that reflect a pure SDSI approach and are designed to bring this new “app” model and its advantages to the RF and microwave test and measurement industry.
MWJ: How does your test equipment offer faster speeds and more configurability compared to traditional setups?
RADX: In terms of speed, the key reason why LibertyGTs can offer faster measurement throughput is a combination of system architecture and implementation. With the LibertyGT SDSI architecture, we digitize all our measurements and store the results in low-latency, hierarchical memory attached to either the FPGA and/or the CPU, where we can then perform multiple measurements in parallel on the stored data set. Accordingly, LibertyGT does not have to conduct measurements in sequence as is required in a conventional architecture. To further enhance our measurement throughput, LibertyGT employs a dedicated Xilinx 7 Series FPGA processing engine that we use to perform multiple operations concurrently and in real-time, which improves throughput to the extent possible.
In terms of configurability, because the LibertyGT is an SDSI built atop modular, COTS hardware, we can synthesize virtually any instrument provided the hardware can support it, which is impossible to replicate with dedicated instruments. And because the instruments are synthesized, we can preserve binary compatibility of the instruments over time as the underlying hardware changes due to tech insertion. This means user’s test program sets don’t have to change, which results in profound life cycle cost savings. It also means our customers don’t have to do End-of-Life purchases of obsolete components, which is another significant life cycle cost savings. And because we use modular hardware, LibertyGT SDSIs scale easily and accommodate technology insertion—so we can support 3, 6 or 26.5 GHz and beyond with the same system and software, by just swapping subsystems. We also get a nice maintenance and life cycle advantage from our modularity, since users can repair systems via module replacement, as opposed to system level repair.
MWJ: What advantages do the partnership programs with Xilinx and NI have to your business?
RADX: With the exception of select value added hardware like our LibertyGT touchscreen PXIe enclosure and our RF Interface Unit, RADX is a software company. And without our partnerships with Xilinx and NI, we would not have the kind of modular, high performance, programmable, COTS platforms on which on products are based. In the case of Xilinx, we get industry leading FPGAs and tool suites that make real-time DSP programming with unprecedented performance possible and in the case of NI, we get the world’s leader in modular PXIe instrumentation capabilities including very high performance RF and microwave subsystems and the LabVIEW ecosystem. With both Xilinx and NI, we participate in their alliance programs, which provide us with excellent training, great networking and access and advanced technology so we are able to deliver new capabilities to our customers almost concurrently with their introduction. We are very proud to be part of the Xilinx and NI Alliance Programs, both of which are essential to our business.
MWJ: How are LabVIEW and PXI modules integrated into your systems?
RADX: The LibertyGT family is based on LabVIEW and the PXI (and PXIe) modules and form the heart of our system. In the case of LabVIEW, we have developed the RADX LibertyGT Measurement Science on top of LabVIEW, LabVIEW FPGA and TestStand. We have basically implemented a touchscreen optimized instrument operating environment on top of LabVIEW and TestStand that interfaces to each of our synthesized instruments so that we can present an integrated capability to the user—either via touchscreen or remote interface. To make it easy for our users to program the LibertyGT, we provide an easy to use API and a Python-based scripting environment that they may use in addition to LabVIEW and TestStand. Relative to PXI and PXIe modules, while the LibertyGT appears to be a typical benchtop instrument, if you open the front door, you’ll find an 18-slot PXI/PXIe backplane that is populated with NI PXI/PXIe modules that provide the hardware foundation for our system. With PXI/PXIe, both RADX and our customers can tailor the system to meet their specific application needs.
MWJ: Can you tell us about the patented technology you licensed from BAE Systems?
RADX: BAE Systems has received several key patents in the area of synthetic instruments for RF measurement and test: US Patent No. 8514919: Synthetic Instrument Unit (20AUG2013), US Patent No. 8744025: Digital Signal Conditioning (03JUN2014), US Patent No. 8717006: Method of Performing Synthetic Instrument based Noise Analysis Using Proportional Bandwidth Spectrum Analysis (06MAY2014) and US Patent No. 8164498: ?Proper Frequency Planning in a Synthetic Instrument RF System (24APR2014). The first patent appears to be fundamental to synthetic instruments, in our opinion. RADX has incorporated the BAE Systems SI technology into its LibertyGT Base Measurement Science Firmware and Software and we have the exclusive worldwide license to ship commercial products based on this technology.
MWJ: How do you accomplish such a small form factor while maintaining usability on your instruments?
RADX: Because we synthesize our instruments on top of a suite common hardware, we can share the hardware between the instruments, which results in huge savings in size, weight and power, as well as total cost of ownership. This also has a big impact on the cost of spares. With LibertyGT, in one benchtop system, we can realize literally a dozen (or more) instruments. LibertyGT is essentially an “ATE system in a box” and we typically see a 5:1 SWaP advantage against conventional systems. And by developing our own touch screen optimized operating environment that sits atop LabVIEW, combined with an HD touchscreen with front and rear panel I/O that is part of our cleverly designed enclosure, we can provide a great user interface and still provide our customers the benefit of PXI/PXIe modularity.
MWJ: What are your key markets and where do you see the most growth in the coming year?
RADX: We see RF, microwave and wireless communications test and measurement markets where comprehensive test (i.e., multiple instruments), long life cycle (for both the units under test and the test gear itself), life cycle cost and user programmability are important factors to be the best prospects for the LibertyGT family. To that end, we see lots of opportunity with U.S. and allied military organizations that use COTS general purpose test equipment to maintain fleets of radios and other instruments, as well as domestic and international commercial customers that value the same characteristics. There is also a great play for LibertyGT in engineering schools where one needs lots of instruments for lots of students and the density of our solution and its open nature are very appealing.
MWJ: Can you tell us about Mr. Chompers, RADX Accounts Receivables Specialist and Credit Analyst?
RADX: Mr. Chompers was my Australian Cattle Dog. His real name was Bryan, and he was very skilled at getting timely payment from customers who showed any reluctance. Sadly, Mr. Chompers went to the great dog park in the sky last July so we are seeking a replacement. Wade’s golden doodle “Rookie” applied for the job, but he doesn’t have the right demeanor for the position. And my dog, “Sam” is too small, but he does have the right demeanor… so the search continues.