Executive Interview: Jon Jacocks, CEO, Empower RF
1. When we last interviewed you, at the end of 2017, you said Empower RF was on a journey to transform the RF power amplifier from providing brute force saturated power to being "intelligent." Let's start there. What's your definition of an intelligent amplifier?
Our definition has expanded since that last interview as we have successfully implemented and moved beyond the key capabilities of our earliest “next-generation” units. In 2017, amplifier intelligence was all about multi-mode operation: an amplifier that had programmable mode settings and the onboard sensing to optimize output power with user defined parameters for waveform peak-to-average ratio, numbers of carriers on the signal, type of modulation and output power and gain settings managed by the amplifier.
Today’s definition of an intelligent amplifier includes those—now baseline—capabilities plus additional computing power and higher speed digital processing that enable an array of amplifiers to operate coherently and be optimized for power. This “intelligent array” is using a network topology to enable systems performance that far exceeds what we were able to do in 2017.
2. Where are you on that roadmap? What capabilities does your intelligent amplifier offer customers?
We have delivered hundreds of our early revision (Gen2) intelligent platforms to key customers with demanding requirements across a broad range of mission-critical applications. The multi-mode operational features and programmable settings described above simplifies the hardware setup and systems integration work that is required to bring a high power RF system online. Precise control of the amplifier allows the systems operator to configure the amplifier for best performance via programmable settings.
Building on the experience from fielding those systems, our customers have asked—and we are responding—for increased power density, signal handling and pulse fidelity that enables them to meet systems requirements that far exceed current capabilities of aging equipment based on older technologies. Our Gen3 architecture pulls together lessons learned from manufacturing, thermal management, mechanical packaging, built-in-test and high speed digital processing. We are also introducing WEB-API for our power amplifiers, which further simplifies and standardizes the user interface, monitoring and control of our equipment by the systems integrator.
3. To build an intelligent power amplifier, your team needs more skills than working with high-power semiconductor devices. What additional technologies and capabilities have you developed?
The intelligence in the amplifier operating system is made possible with detailed work in the digital domain, and that requires considerable expertise in software and firmware design. Our team is well versed in the implementation of high speed FPGA, microprocessor and microcontroller architectures along with sophisticated algorithms that implement the required behavior of the amplifier in each application and for each set of operating conditions. The intelligent amplifier will make decisions on its operating capacity and adjust itself to the conditions available. Our ability to do that in the amplifier and across an intelligent array of amplifiers is a unique combination of engineering disciplines: RF design and embedded computing.
4. Do you see a role for AI and machine learning in your amplifiers?
We’ve already introduced real intelligence (RI) into our amplifiers and we continue to introduce more capabilities through our use of embedded computing and high speed sensors in standalone amplifiers and amplifier arrays. The amount of synchronized sensor data being processed inside each of our latest generation amplifiers is on the order of 9.6 Gbps, and that’s a solid foundation for machine learning and the application of AI. Interactively correcting amplifier nonlinearities is an area of interest for us and for a number of our key customers as well. Our CTO would be happy to talk to you in much more detail about those possibilities.
5. What is the window of output power and frequency that you offer today?
Our portfolio has continued to expand and, importantly, these are solid-state power amplifier configurations that are leveraging our patented architecture at the systems level, and our embedded computing capabilities across that landscape as well. Our lowest level of integrated product—basic PA module—is available from HF up to X-Band with power levels in the 10s of watts, up to 100 W. Fully integrated SSPA, air-cooled chassis designs are likewise available from HF to X-Band, and those power levels are typically 100s of watts and multi-kW—operating both CW and pulse—on the high end. Our liquid-cooled, scalable power transmitters are delivering 100s of kilowatts in very demanding pulse width (i.e., 20 percent) and duty cycle applications. That remarkable platform is more application specific and currently focused on radar bands from UHF to C-Band.
6. GaN has certainly given you more table stakes as you compete with tube amplifiers. What other advantages do you have to counter tubes and how is the contest going?
I wouldn’t say it’s a contest with tubes. Done right, it’s a pragmatic comparison of technical performance, mission assurance and cost to operate and maintain.
The power density of the semiconductor device (GaN or LDMOS) is a critical element in the equation and, when integrated into one of our intelligent, high power amplifier solutions, the comparison math is usually favorable up to X-Band—especially in broadband, land-based and shipboard high performance CW and pulse applications: 20 percent duty cycle, pulse width from 200 nsec to 500 sec and 500 kHz PRF. Our unique hardware design and embedded computing architecture enable us to maximize the results from a solid-state platform, and we are seeing strong customer interest across a range of applications.
But to be clear, not all applications favor SSPAs. Currently available semiconductor device technology and other technical hurdles do not support a favorable comparison for SSPAs versus high power tubes for small form factor, UAV/fast mover/space flight hardware and frequencies above X-Band. With that said, we had record growth last year, and our SSPA alternatives to tube-based designs were one of the keys to that growth.
7. Beyond higher power at higher frequencies, what are customers asking for and, in aggregate, what themes are you seeing in your markets?
There are a number of customer requirements that we see on the horizon which can be addressed, and systems performance enhanced, by further expanding the capabilities of our integrated, intelligent amplifier solutions. As an example, high speed embedded computing offers some interesting possibilities for handling signal distortion with corrections that are self-generated by the amplifier. Separately, and a point not to be missed in the technology discussions, is this: regardless of the market, people want to work with and work for companies that combine innovation and creativity with ethics, integrity and customer focus. We are driving hard to be that kind of company, and our results are validating that approach.
8. What business lessons has the pandemic taught you?
I’m big on communications and leading by example. Staying flexible and successfully navigating through the pandemic has required that both of those elements are constantly visible and reinforced. We have a resilient team, and our employees responded well in dealing with the disruptions and distractions. Contingency planning related to key materials, especially those coming from suppliers with offshore operations, came into sharp focus as well early in the cycle. Attention to detail in supply chain and strategic sourcing is definitely a lesson learned and something that will stick with me.
9. Post pandemic and with a new administration in Washington, where do you see the best growth opportunities for Empower RF?
The new administration is wrestling with many of the same issues that the last one did—and the administrations, regardless of party, before that. If you remove commercial wireless from the equation, many of the opportunities that we see for high power RF amplifiers have a link to some kind of government funding, and that’s always going to be a consideration in our business and not just here in the U.S. Government funding is not just the military. There are numerous agencies and departments, and prime contractors who support them, doing important work that we are addressing with our products. There is aging equipment and infrastructure across that landscape and making up for lost time is a priority. The technology gaps are real, the threats are real, the opportunity to step-up is real. Technical innovation that supports the end user’s need for performance enhancements, mission assurance and risk reduction is at the forefront of our business planning.
10. When we last spoke, your mantra was “ask better questions.” What is your goal these days?
Getting good answers and results from those “better questions” is an important extension of that story from our previous discussions. I’m excited about the success we are having with our product developments and key program design wins. Continuing to accelerate our growth and turning our record orders and backlog into record revenues is the goal for the team. This is challenging work that we do.