IEEE RWW Keynotes: Future of RF Looks Rocky and That’s a Good Thing
At IEEE Radio and Wireless Week (RWW), keynote speakers highlighted the trends in RF and wireless technology, and how design engineers must adapt to meet the new challenges head on.
We’re back again with more coverage of last week’s IEEE Radio and Wireless Week (RWW). The event featured not only the latest academic research but keynotes from the industry giving insight into the future of wireless technology. All About Circuits was there in Las Vegas to cover the conference.
Despite the fact that radio frequency (RF) electronics have become increasingly pervasive in day-to-day life, there is still quite a bit of room for improvement with the looming potential for 6G cellular or D-band electronics.
Radio and Wireless Week (RWW) 2023 comprises seven conferences spanning all RF and wireless topics—five of which are topical conferences in specific sectors. Image used courtesy of IEEE
RWW is an umbrella title for seven collocated conferences showcasing the latest developments and highlighting trends in the RF community, spanning topics including wireless sensors, space hardware, power amplifiers, and almost any imaginable radio/wireless topics. This year, among all the novel research, two keynotes stood out for their unique takes on the uncertain future of wireless communications.
In order to give readers a broad sense of the trends and hot topics in the RF community, this article summarizes the keynote speeches representative of the conference as a whole. In addition, the implications of both keynotes (good and bad!) are discussed in regard to the expected bumps in the road to innovation.
Hooray, a 6G Crisis!
Closing Tuesday’s plenary session, National Instruments Fellow Charles Schroeder opened his talk on “Future Trends in RF And Wireless Test Capabilities” with an anecdote from a past mentor who said: “Charles, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” And while Charles admitted that calling the status quo of wireless tech a crisis is a bit of an overstatement, he maintained that the current trends cannot continue indefinitely.
He reported that wireless service revenue is expected to increase by 6%. This isn’t a bad thing in its own right, but it does represent slowing growth. At 6% revenue growth, it becomes quite difficult to fund the R&D needed to continue innovation, especially when system complexity has increased exponentially.
Highlighting the uncertainty of the status quo in the wireless industry, Charles Schroeder suggests that an entirely new, yet previously unknown model is needed to keep the momentum of industry advancements. All About Circuits image
Because of this, Charles suggests that a complete paradigm shift is required if the wireless industry is going to continue its momentum into 6G and beyond. Likening wireless to camera technology, he showed how in the 1980s after the invention of the first CMOS image sensor, cameras moved beyond simple memory capturers and rapidly became an integral part of day-to-day life.
While no one yet knows how 6G communication can be integrated with other technology, Charles encourages designers to go back to the basics.
“I think the combination of a constrained economic environment, rapidly increasing complexity, shrinking development times, and constrained resources means that it’s time—and a good time—to rethink and restart with a blank sheet of paper.”
In stark contrast to the purported 6G crisis, Erik Luther, VP of Product at CesiumAstro also spoke regarding trends in communication, with one caveat: we aren’t limited to Earth-based communication. As LEO missions become more and more numerous, new problems surface for constellations hoping to fly under the radar of heavy radiation.
This increase in LEO missions is likely supported by the reduced launch cost, with reports showing a $2.6k per kilogram cost to launch a payload into LEO. In addition, increased interest in lunar missions has put Earth-Moon communication under a microscope to determine how we may be able to support an increased number of channels and devices.
Erik Luther highlights the impact that phase arrays may have on the space industry, as their solid-state beamsteering capabilities allow for adaptive coverage for LEO downlinks. All About Circuits image
Erik’s answer: beamforming—which aligned with answers from the members of the panel. At its core, beamforming relies on constructive interference from multiple antenna elements to create a “beam” of electromagnetic (EM) radiation. By varying the phase and amplitude of each antenna, it is possible to construct and control beams within a wide angle, with Erik reporting a 120-degree steering angle in CesiumAstro’s design.
Beamforming for LEO satellites allows for optimal coverage to be given based on the density of devices in an area. In Erik’s example, “Whether you're in West Texas, where there's nobody—believe me, nobody—or you're in Austin,” there should be an adaptable solution to ensure that needs are met without wasting resources. In addition, beamforming may improve Earth-Moon communications by increasing antenna apertures and allowing for dynamic adjustment of the spacecraft’s transmit signal.
It’s All About Innovation Sparked by Change
Whether you are talking about 6G, D-band, or high-density LEO constellations, one thing is certain: the glimpse of the future for RF provided by the RWW speakers looks quite bright in nearly every sector. This may appear to be in contradiction to the themes of the keynotes, where the exact direction of wireless tech seemed uncertain, but these two are not mutually exclusive.
A graph of smartphone sales over time highlights the need for a paradigm shift in the wireless industry. As growth slows, a new approach to innovation is required to maintain progress. Image used courtesy of Statista. (Click image to enlarge)
While it may be true that 6G will bring about a widespread change in thinking amongst RF engineers, or that a lunar satellite constellation will bring unforeseen problems to the surface, this is all good news for engineers.
Perhaps it is our duty as design engineers to identify and solve problems, and these rough tides that may be ahead will ultimately bring about more innovation than smooth sailing ever could.