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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

The Open Microwave Design Initiative Gets a Kick in the Pants Barry Manz

Imagine a world in which the design and architecture of every model of washing machine or refrigerator from a single manufacturer was significantly different from the others. Building them would be difficult enough but servicing them would be a horror. Welcome to the world of microwave systems, or at least those destined for service in defense systems. Owing to the unique requirements of radar, electronic warfare, and other applications, as well as politics, and a “stovepipe” mentality, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is the owner of a broad array of systems designed for a single platform and incompatible with others. It’s a bit like building “one-off” washing machines for each customer.

This is a problem of long-standing and one that DoD is working to change through initiatives at DARPA and other agencies by creating open-architecture subsystems that can serve a variety of different platforms: fighter aircraft for example, rather than just one. As is often the case at the nation’s largest agency, change takes time, and time there is measured in years not days or weeks.

In early October however, a fire was lit under this plan courtesy of Mercury Systems, which introduced its “OpenRFM” initiative with the goal of standardizing the electromechanical, software, control plane, and thermal interfaces used by integrated microwave assemblies (IMAs). The goal is to provide a roadmap to follow when designing and integrating RF and digital capabilities in the sensor processing subsystems employed in defense systems. In other words, they’re proposing an open standard for building “microwave subassemblies with digital characteristics” to steal a phrase from the Chinese government.

OpenRFM is at this point merely a flame, not even a blazing ember, but its potential ramifications are profound – if Mercury’s competitors agree to follow its lead, which is far from assured. It’s only natural that Mercury would be the company to dangle this carrot as it is almost unique among embedded systems (i.e. board-level digital subsystem) manufacturers in embracing RF and microwave technology. In little more than a decade it has acquired four RF and microwave companies, essentially adding a “front end” to its formerly all-digital capabilities and products, the only such company to do so.

OpenRFM is potentially a Big Deal, as it would put the onus on IMA manufacturers to work within a standard for the first time in its history, no small thing in this industry. If it becomes an open standard under the auspices of some trade association and is broadly supported by DoD, it could change the way almost all defense subsystems that incorporate RF and microwave technology are designed and built. It would join its digital embedded system counterpart, OpenVPX, formally bridging the digital/RF divide. The details of OpenRFM are just emerging and are beyond the scope of a blog, but at a high level, few could argue that idea doesn’t make sense.


An OpenRFM board riding on top of an OpenVPX module.

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Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.

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