World's First All-Digital Radio Transmitter

Cambridge Consultants has successfully completed initial trials of the world’s first fully digital radio transmitter - a turning point in wireless design and a real enabler for the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and 5G technology. It’s a radio is built purely from computing power, using the same familiar digital technology you’d find in a computer microprocessor in your home or office.

Unlike traditional ‘software-defined radios’ (SDR), it’s not a mixture of analogue and digital components - for the first time, the radio is completely digital, which can enable new ways of using spectrum intelligently. This latest breakthrough - code named Pizzicato - unlocks the potential of the IoT. It  opens the door to a new dynamic way in which the predicted 100 billion IoT devices can operate together in a crowded radio spectrum. And it will enable the creation of 5G systems, with multiple radios and antennas.

The Pizzicato digital radio transmitter consists of an integrated circuit outputting a single stream of bits, and an antenna, with no conventional radio parts or digital-to-analog converter. Patented algorithms perform the necessary ultra-fast computations in real time, making it possible for standard digital technology to generate high-frequency radio signals directly.

In the first trial of the technology they created 14 simultaneous cellular base station signals. This technology has tremendous potential. Like mainstream microprocessing, a Pizzicato-based radio would directly benefit from Moore’s Law - shrinking in cost, size and power consumption with each new generation of silicon fabrication.

The radio can be programmed to generate almost any combination of signals at any carrier frequencies, nimbly adapting its behaviour in a way that is impossible in conventional radios. It is early days for this technology but they believe radio design has reached a turning point.

In recent decades, wireless design teams such as Cambridge Consultants have employed extensive digital techniques in radios and such SDRs have provided a tenfold improvement in the data rate that can be squeezed into a radio channel. But a more dramatic improvement is needed to cope with the growth in mobile broadband and the IoT.

Good radio spectrum is a scarce resource - only low frequencies (1GHz or lower) propagate well over distance or through walls, so they are in great demand. Greater efficiency requires the use of dynamic or cognitive wireless techniques to sense the radio environment and switch parameters on the fly. This could give access to more of the estimated 90% of the allocated spectrum which is not in use at any one time.

Making use of the higher carrier frequencies of 10 GHz and beyond, however, will require techniques such as meshing and beamforming to circumvent the inherently poor range and the analogue parts of radios are becoming an increasing bottleneck.

Crowding 50 analog radios together on one chip, switching their operational parameters every few microseconds and expecting them to work at 60 GHz is a designer’s nightmare. With Pizzicato, researchers have created a glimpse of future disruptive technology  a radio built purely from computing power.

Cambridge Consultants has one of the world’s largest independent wireless development teams, with more than 120 experts working in areas ranging from ultra-low-power short-range wireless connectivity to global satellite communication. During its 55-year history, the company has helped clients develop technology ranging from the world’s first wireless implanted pacing system to the ground-to-air radio system controlling air traffic over the majority of the planet. 

They believe this technology is hugely disruptive and are comparing it to their development of the first single-chip Bluetooth radio, which led to the spinout of the global short-range wireless and audiovisual giant CSR. Cambridge Consultants will be demonstrating Pizzicato at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, March 2 to 5.