RF converters: A technology that is enabling wideband radios

October 01, 2018 // By Daniel E. Fague and Steven Rose, Analog Devices.
Converters to directly synthesize signals in the radio frequency range (RF converters) have matured to a point that they are poised to transform conventional radio designs. With the capability to synthesize instantaneous signal bandwidths as high as 3 GHz, RF converters can deliver on the promise of truly wideband radios, enabling radio designers to dramatically reduce the amount of hardware needed to create a radio, and enabling a new level of reconfigurability via software. This article explores the advances in RF converter technology that make this new breed of data acquisition systems and wideband radios possible, and discusses the possibilities that software configurability creates.

Introduction

A design constraint that faces every radio designer is the trade-off of designing for signal bandwidth with the highest possible quality vs. the power consumption of the radio. How the radio designer meets this constraint determines the size and weight of the radio and fundamentally influences the placement of the radio, which includes buildings, towers, poles, underground vehicles, packs, pockets, ears, or glasses. Each radio location has an amount of power available that is commensurate with its location. A building or a tower, for example, will likely have more power available to it than a smartphone in a pocket or a Bluetooth® headset in an ear. In all cases, a fundamental truth exists: the less power a radio takes and the more throughput it is able to deliver per unit of power, the smaller and lighter the radio will be. This has immense consequences, and has been the driver behind much of the innovation in the communications electronics industry over many years.

As semiconductor companies have integrated more functionality and higher performance into the same or smaller size component, the equipment that uses them has been able to deliver on the promise of smaller, more functional, lighter, or all three in some cases. The smaller, lighter equipment that is better, with more functionality, enables placements of this better equipment in locations that were previously prohibited due to some other constraint, such as the amount of real estate needed for a building that is reduced when the unit can go on a tower, the size of a tower radio unit that can be reduced to a pole unit if the weight of the unit is low enough, or a unit that was required to be carried in a vehicle due to its weight can now be carried in a pack.

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