Richard Mumford, MWJ International Editor
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Former Editor Richard Mumford's archived blog postings are available here. Serving as MWJ’s liaison to the international microwave community for more than 17 years, Richard filed his monthly international report and contributed articles from our London office.

4G/5G/Cellular / Test and Measurement Channel

NI Days London 2016 Highlighted Partnerships and Evolving Technology

December 7, 2016

NI Days London 2016 saw more than 600 engineers convene at the QEII Conference Centre in London on 29 November for the annual graphical design technical conference and exhibition.

Complementing the slick and informative morning and afternoon keynote sessions were nine technical tracks covering the entire spectrum of technologies and applications that NI develops and supports. Hands-on sessions offered a practical insight, while the Academic Keynote titled, Engineering Education and the Path of Discovery examined the challenges and opportunities facing the next generation of engineers.

Of particular interest for RF and microwave engineers was the Wireless Technologies track and particularly the 5G Summit where industry experts presented their vision for 5G as they considered new physical layer designs, Massive MIMO systems, advances in millimetre wave communications, etc.

One of those 5G Summit speakers was Derek Long, Head of Telecoms and Mobile Wireless at Cambridge Consultants who presented, Software Defined Radio’s Next Wave – Fully Digital Radios. In a one-to-one interview he gave me an insight into the company’s participation at NI Days and the benefit of being both an NI customer and partner.

As product developers and technology consultants Long stated: “NI Days is the perfect platform to showcase Cambridge Consultants’ expertise in the design and development of software defined radio, and where we can demonstrate that is in the Pizzicato product, which is a world-first: a radio transceiver that directly generates and decodes GHz radio signals in low-cost digital circuits.”

Pizzicato enables truly flexible software-defined radios that are able to change frequency, bandwidth or radio standard in an instant, allowing a much more dynamic or ‘cognitive’ use of the radio spectrum. To do so Cambridge Consultants has transformed the mathematics behind RF, developing innovative algorithms and designing a radio that can perform 78 billion calculations per second on less than one square millimetre of today’s silicon. With computations running in parallel, the conversion between analogue and digital is updated in the time it takes light to travel just centimetres.

Regarding NI’s input into the development of Pizzicato, Long explained, “As a customer we use NI software as part of our testing and prototyping. Pizzicato was developed over a number of years and as with all the work we do we are very thorough in our testing of procedures and protocols so that we can produce high quality results. What NI offers is the ability to modify and adapt their components and integrate them into our larger test framework so that it does exactly what we want.”

What NI components offer is a great deal of flexibility, which Cambridge Consultants demonstrated on its stand that was part of the NI Days exhibition. Long explained, “We are using LabVIEW in two different ways; one is as a demodulator so that you can experience what Pizzicato is producing and the second is as a signal analyser, which enables us to visualise RF signals in a manner not possible otherwise.”

As well as being an NI customer, Cambridge Consultants is a member of the NI Alliance Partner Network, which encourages and enables partners to work with customers to develop custom solutions. As a design and development company Cambridge Consultants is well placed to fulfil that role on various levels. Although only having been a member for a year, Long said that a number of projects have emanated from the Alliance including current developments related to 5G.

Partners and customers benefit from NI’s aggressive and productive approach to technology and product development. Offering an insight into current evolution, Francis Griffiths, Senior Vice President, Regional Sales and Marketing at NI outlined the latest key technology relevant to the RF and microwave market.

He began by highlighting a product that was prominent on the NI stands at European Microwave Week and electronica recently – NI’s second-generation PXI Vector Signal Transceiver (VST) that offers 1 GHz of instantaneous RF bandwidth for signal generation and analysis. The PXIe-5840 VST combines a 6.5 GHz RF vector signal generator, 6.5 GHz vector signal analyzer, user-programmable Virtex-7 690T FPGA, and high-speed serial interface into a single 2-slot PXI module.

Providing some background Griffiths explained, “We are finding that our customers effectively want a way to do custom FPGA-based designs inside a VST. Some of the benefits they get from the VST 2.0 are the speed of development and the reconfigurability. Also, if we look at a lot of the semiconductor to system level testing the coverage that customers want to apply to the testing of silicon is increasing dramatically. Increased bandwidth is a key requirement here.”

He continued, “We are also seeing Massive MIMO as a major application for VSTs. We have lots of prototype work going on in this field – it is a real sweet spot for us.”

Griffiths gave an example of the activity in this sector, namely the collaboration between Bristol University and the University of Lund, supported by National Instruments, that set a new world record in 5G spectrum efficiency. Bristol’s Massive MIMO system operates at a carrier frequency of 3.5 GHz and supports simultaneous wireless connectivity to up to 12 single antenna clients, with each client sharing a common 20 MHz radio channel. The individual data streams are then unravelled using complex digital signal processing algorithms. The group achieved a record breaking rate of 145.6 (bits/s)/Hz for 22 users, each modulated with 256-QAM, on a shared 20 MHz radio channel at 3.51 GHz with an 128-antenna massive MIMO array. That represents a 22-fold increase in spectrum efficiency over today’s existing 4G networks.

Identifying another area of technological growth Griffiths stated, “Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) is another sweet spot for us in software defined radio, which has been incredibly successful for us as customers continue to look for a lower cost point in RF. USRP has been very popular in the academic sector but more and more our industrial based customers are looking towards USRP to squeeze out performance. That has been very exciting for us.”

Significant too is NI’s work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to supply core infrastructure for a path-breaking channel emulation testbed, called Colosseum, which will play a central role in the DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge, whereby NI will provide USRP software defined radios (SDRs) that support a wide variety of open source and proprietary tool flows including GNU Radio, RFNoC and LabVIEW system design software.

Griffiths commented, “Being developed through John Hopkins University it is a very big project that is a great example of what we are seeing in Massive MIMO. USRP is very adaptable so there are a lot of applications.”

He also pointed out, “Probably it has been understated but an important ‘focused’ product is the LabVIEW Communication Design Suite that enables customers to prototype new LTE stats. Nokia is currently using it to prototype their software stats. So offering engineers and scientists a tool to do LabVIEW design prototyping is another big area for us, as well as other areas such as Massive MIMO, which is using regular LabVIEW.

He concluded, “Our goal is to get ahead of the development cycle and be upstream as opposed to being just downstream.”

Whether upstream or downstream the flow of ideas was not in short supply at NI Days London 2016, especially at the Keynote sessions. The morning Keynote – Impacting Today’s Business – asserted that the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Analogue Data are no longer just trends but are fast becoming a reality. The Keynote demonstrated how these key themes are already influencing businesses and economies today.

The afternoon Keynote offered: A Glimpse into the Future. It focused on how IoT is impacting product design, manufacturing and infrastructure and considered how technology must evolve to realize IoT’s full potential.

The Keynote concluded inspirationally when Joel Gibbard, former NI employee and now CEO and Co-founder of Open Bionics, outlined how his company uses 3D printing to make open source, custom fitted bionic hands that are not only cheaper and faster to produce but also aim to remove the stigma of prosthetics that has resulted in Iron Man, Frozen and Star Wars inspired prosthetics that Open Bionics has developed in cooperation with Disney.

Throughout the day a complementary exhibition showcased the latest advancements in design, control and test, where NI experts and industry partners demonstrated products, services and solutions for test, measurement and control systems. There was also a Meet the Engineer Booth where a combination of experienced, certified alliance members and knowledgeable NI technical support staff were available to offer advice.