Seeing Through the Noise

Apr 24, 2017
Following 20 years in electro-optics and the telecoms industry, I’ve recently shuffled along the electromagnetic spectrum and joined the RF community in earnest. I’m busy preparing a range of educational seminars which we will be announcing soon and thought it might be a great way to introduce those by sharing a few of my own thoughts and experiences in the RF domain.
First, what a culture shock!
We have been utilizing the RF spectrum for a range of applications as diverse as communications to astrophysics since humans were first able to master the physics. My shock comes at the realization of just how we don’t really “master” the RF spectrum. Quite the opposite. In a lot of the applications I’ve encountered so far, we look like cavemen carving stone wheels - most solution designs are compromised due to signal noise issues, interference and the natural or urban geography. The fact we achieve quite so much is frankly a testament to the dedication and bloody mindedness of the engineers involved.
There are some amazingly powerful applications out there waiting to be used effectively. Signal capture and demodulation, transmitter direction finding and geolocation, optimization of channel utilization and occupancy, electronic defense capabilities etc. Many times, I’ve been astonished at the way some of these applications have been targeted using extremely cumbersome equipment, huge processing capabilities and engineering brute force. Indeed, many clients have abandoned such applications because the equipment’s too expensive, too difficult to use and not feasible outside of the lab. These clients will then be amazed when they discover that these applications could have been implemented with our incredibly low size, weight, power and cost receivers all along!
My telecoms experience is a one of constant technological change and improvement: Technical capability, speed, intelligence and size reduction. Just compare the smartphone in your pocket to the first sat phones in use 20 years ago… Hence my surprise to find RF engineers fighting on with large 19 inch rack mounted equipment, spending half their time fixing connectivity and data capture/parsing issues rather than actually addressing the real challenges at hand.
I mentioned the geography issue. Solving RF propagation puzzles in difficult environments such as dense urban conurbations is still one of the most tricky aspects of design and implementation work. It’s worth noting that even with the huge investments seen in telecom, everyone still struggles to simulate RF propagation in urban environments. Their philosophy seems to be to deploy dense and expensive networks first, optimize performance later. For the rest of us utilizing RF spectrum, our pockets are not so deep and we are resigned to trial and error to find the “right” compromises and optimize performance as best we can. In the software age, you need not compromise. The physics of propagation is known, so we just provide customers with the propagation and modelling software they need to work out the optimum receiver networks.
Secondly, I’m having a ball!
It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m having a great time introducing next generation hardware and software to the industry to enable more sophisticated spectrum monitoring applications. Next generation means industry leading range (9 kHz to 18 GHz), speed (250 GHz sweep speed with IBW of 100 MHz) and low noise figures (sub 10 dB) all in an intelligent receiver weighing less than two bags of sugar (and the same size).

I’m often challenged by credibility issues. Engineers find it had hard to digest such performance doesn’t need to be compromised in terms of speed, cost, size, complexity. Given the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we have worked to deploy test networks in our facility now that can be networked into and tested. Its great fun showing engineers how to enable real time TDOA geolocation for example – a typical application which used to require £200-300K of investment, as well as three trucks filled with electronics and engineers to drive it (both the equipment and the truck!). Now such applications are deployable out of the box for sub £50k. Once engineers see this, I get such a warm welcome and its great feedback to see so many new applications springing up.
I’m having a lot of fun, learning more about the challenges of the RF world from some great engineers and feel I still have a long way to go in my mission to bring RF monitoring into the modern world. It’s even more rewarding to see the reaction to the next-generation RF spectrum monitoring solutions which are available. It’s not really a case of teaching old dogs new tricks, it’s all about helping them “see through the noise”, enabling a whole raft of applications and help them solve their old problems with huge efficiency. Hope to see you soon on one of our coming webinars and understand more on your challenges!

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