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What was in 2015? What is today? And what will be in 2016? These are some of the questions that I asked our RF/Microwave industry experts, as well as what is outlined below.

  • What was, in your opinion, the biggest/most notable technological advance or improvement in 2015? What technology or application was a “game changer” in your area of coverage?
  • What technology is making an impact now? Why?
  • What do you think will make an impact in 2016? What technology/application/market will “boom” in 2016?

We received a great number of responses, and some pretty interesting ones at that. Take a peek at what was, what is, and what's to come in the new year. And feel free to comment below with your input. Did we miss anything? Do you agree with the responses?

Mehul Udani, GM, Connectivity Solutions, Murata Americas

From my perspective, 2015 was dominated by C’s.  First off, we saw major consolidation in the wireless space with both large and small wireless IC companies.  Additionally, there was tremendous connectivity expansion in all segments of the IoT market – from appliances and automotive to wearables and sensor networks – resulting in a broad proliferation of new products.  Finally, cloud became a major push for wireless IC suppliers as they bolstered their connectivity offerings. 

We also saw an extraordinary level of M&A activity, specifically NXP and Freescale, Broadcom and Avago, ATMEL and Dialog, and several others that will be instrumental in shaping the industry’s future.  Also worth noting were the number of small and mid-size acquisitions, such as those by Silabs. 

We can expect additional consolidation and partnering throughout 2016, although at what level remains to be seen.  Needless to say, there is considerable opportunity to expand capabilities in order to carve out market share and companies will indeed leverage that.  Personally, I will also be closely watching this year’s mergers to see how they evolve and what things shake out. 

Obviously the wireless space is completely dynamic – sectors within are melding while others are emerging.  Again – opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.  And while the market is becoming more defined, there are still areas that are fractured and need a great deal of clarity.  For example, security and privacy issues relating to IoT will continue to be hot-button issues and be powerful factors in 2016 and well beyond.  Further, we are watching the standard space very closely since it is now mired in confusion. 

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, there is a greater awareness by wireless IC and module companies to enable highly integrated solutions so customers can build IoT based products in condensed time frame – three to six months versus nine to 12 months – and with fewer resources.  Sensor nodes with wireless connectivity, cloud capabilities, and built-in backend analytics set the stage for newer business models.  That aspect has a direct and very tangible impact on any company with skin in the IoT, Smart Applications, and M2M games.

To say that this is an interesting time may qualify as the understatement of the year. Certainly the upcoming months will be both challenging and thrilling as Sensor, Wireless Connectivity, and Cloud will form a prism to enable the IoT rainbow.  One thing I can say for certain – those companies that can harness new technologies, talent, and capacity will be at the forefront of realizing a truly connected world. 

Paul dal Santo, CEO, Cavendish Kinetics

RF MEMS based on metal-MEMS technology has long been known to have superior performance over solid-state transistors: much lower loss, better linearity, immune to performance degradation at higher power and voltage levels. The issue has been cost, reliability and manufacturability levels to support consumer market volumes and costs. 2015 saw the first, sustained shipments into millions of phones of an RF MEMS device with no issues in reliability or high volume supply. This significant milestone signals the emergence of RF MEMS in every RF front-end component, eliminating the insertion loss of SOI switches and enabling tunable filters that can replace multiple fixed filters.

2015 also saw first wider-spread implementations of wireless charging, and emergence of charging stations in coffee shops and at airports. Cutting the power cord is a key convenience for users. The industry started to rally around a single standard, helping to spur further adoption of wireless charging.

NFC payment and fingerprint security will combine to provide the ultimate mix of security and convenience, securing personal data and payment information. It will also securely store all passwords while making them immediately available with a single fingerprint. Apple Pay has started in this direction and Google Wallet is likely to drive the combination even further and faster.

The most significant, visible change will be the rollout of coverage over Wi-Fi, or LTE-U (LTE unlicensed). Operators will use Wi-Fi networks as part of their coverage scheme to address small, hard-to-reach areas, large buildings, and private campuses. This will place a further premium on high performance RF in mobile devices to cover 698MHz to 5GHz seamlessly.

Cees Links, CEO and Founder, GreenPeak

Analysts, media, and industry leaders have been predicting that the market for Smart Homes and smart devices will soon explode, changing everyone’s lives for the better, and as a result, driving this emerging technology sector to never before seen heights. However, over the last year or so, expectations have been dampened as the actual volumes have not quite caught up with the predictions.

What is new and very interesting is the growing awareness of why this is so. Yes, consumers love the idea of the Smart Home, the smart house with all kinds of gadgets to make our lives more comfortable, but most of them don’t want to be the ones to put it all together and make it work.

Why? It is becoming obvious that end users and consumers don’t want smart things, they want smart services. They want services that can be used to handle security, home conditions, energy consumption, health monitoring, environmental control, etc.

They want an entire system of services that makes their lives more comfortable, safer and more efficient, but they don’t want to have to take the time to research the numerous competing IoT technologies to figure out which will work best in their homes. They don’t want to take these devices home, try to assemble it all together, and then, once they get it working, to have to program and maintain it. Instead they want a service that just works.

It is like a modern car. Our automobiles come with a range of built-in smart functions like automatic door locking, automatic window closing, smart environmental controls, ABS, etc. When you buy a car, you don’t have to compare the different technologies behind each of these features. You don’t need to research which of these will work in your car, and with each other. You don’t have to install them or maintain them. The car manufacturer supplies these features as smart devices and services.

The technology industry is finally recognizing that in order to conquer the home market, they need to take a similar path by providing these features as part of a general Smart Home package delivered by services providers and MSOs. Let the service providers do the heavy lifting of choosing which technology is most appropriate. Let them handle the easy installation, troubleshooting and maintenance. Consumers are already comfortable paying service providers for access to entertainment, communications and internet. The Smart Home service would just be an additional line item on the regular bill.

Technology developers are learning that the best path to Smart Home tech success is by providing an entire system of sensors, gateways and intelligence to the various service providers and integrators.

Mario Narduzzi, Marketing Manager of Communications Measurement Solutions, Keysight Technologies, Inc.

Electronic Warfare

When it comes to national defense, the stakes are high. And in today’s ever changing radar threat environment, ongoing modernization of electronic warfare (EW) systems is an imperative for many countries. As you can imagine, identifying and neutralizing radar threats accurately and reliably is not an easy task in today’s complex battlefield environments. Historically, EW systems were developed using large, expensive proprietary test systems that have long lead times and limited support for ongoing end user customization. In these times of sustained conflict, rapid prototyping, development and validation of new EW capabilities is required to stay ahead.  Keysight is on the leading edge of addressing this challenge. Direct digital synthesis (DDS) technology has enabled a new commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) based reference solution for multi-emitter EW simulation for faster test system integration and customization. Proprietary DDS technology utilized in the Keysight’s UXG X-Series agile signal generator, a key component of the reference solution, enables fast frequency hopping with agile amplitude switching while maintaining phase coherency. As a result, one signal generator can be used to simulate multiple emitters (i.e. threats).  This is a game changer in the industry that will shorten the time to first test and reduce costs while enabling a higher degree of ongoing end user customization to quickly adapt to emerging radar threats.

NewSpace

What’s old is new again. The NewSpace race is on with a wave of investment in satellite communications driven by the growth in global data demand. The revitalized commercial space industry is investigating low earth orbit (LEO) constellations comprised of 100s to 1000s of satellites for worldwide internet coverage. Lower cost satellites are being designed with hundreds to thousands of megabytes of bandwidth transmitted over Ka-band links (26.5 – 40 GHz). The idea is to take advantage of the less crowded frequency bands where wide bandwidth signals can be transmitted with less interference. In response to these trends, Keysight added a wide range of new test equipment in 2015, including the industry’s first 50 GHz handheld analyzer and wideband 50 GHz PXI vector signal analyzer, to give designers modern tools in the Ka-band. Keysight also now offers Anite’s Propsim Aerospace channel emulator, a critical tool for reproducing realistic satellite link impairments in a lab environment.

5G Wireless

Even as fourth-generation cellular systems—LTE and LTE-Advanced—are being deployed, research has begun on fifth-generation or 5G systems with the vision of offering “everything everywhere and always connected.” The combined network will support everything from machine-to-machine (M2M) device communications to immersive virtual-reality streaming. It will monitor and control potentially billions of sensors and multiple simultaneous streaming services, and will support the massive data collection and distribution needs of the Internet of Things (IoT). In this environment, wireless data traffic is projected to increase 5000x by 2030. Making the leap from astonishing predictions to practical implementation will require innovation and new technologies will to be investigated and designed.  New radio access technologies (RATs) need to be defined below 6 GHz and at higher frequencies up to 100 GHz.  This will require evaluations of candidate physical-layer waveforms and characterization of cm and mmWave air interfaces for the development of new channel models. Researchers are looking to measurement companies like ours for help to gain more insight from measurements which will help them innovate and transform their ideas into reality. 

All of this puts very high demands on the measurement systems. Keysight’s expertise in high frequency and wide bandwidth measurements helps our customers bring their next generation technologies and products to market while reducing development time and risk. 

Dr. Steven LeBoeuf, President and Co-founder, Valencell

Frankly, I don’t believe there were any new technologies launched publicly in 2015 for wearables that rose to the level of “game changer.” However, the explosion of wearables on the wrist, primarily driven by fitness bands and smart watches, is likely the most notable change in the wearable landscape this year. According to IDC, vendors shipped a total of 21 million wearables in the third quarter of 2015 alone – a 197.6 percent increase from the 7.1 million wearables shipped in the same quarter last year. It is estimated that wrist-worn wearables, including bands, bracelets, and watches, will account for more than 80 percent of these units going forward. A few examples include the Apple Watch, Motorola’s Moto 360, Fitbit’s wrist-based products, Samsung’s Gear S-series, and many more.

One area of wearable technology that’s making an impact now is something called biophysical signal characterization. Optical heart rate monitoring has been around for decades, but what’s enabled that same technology to be used accurately in wearables is the capability to remove all the “noise” from the optical sensors that is caused by motion that is inevitable in wearables. Biophysical signal characterization actively identifies biophysical signals coming from optical sensors on wearable devices, removes the signals associated physical noise (i.e. walking, running, jumping, etc.), and extracts highly accurate biometric information, such as continuous heart rate, VO2 max, heart rate variability, and even blood pressure. Some of the early wearables did a poor job of biophysical signal extraction, which is why they were not able to measure biometrics like heart rate accurately, except at rest. This was not acceptable to users, which is driving renewed interest in highly accurate biometric wearables. In some of the latest wearables you are starting to see far more accurate biometrics and this is being driven by biophysical signal characterization technologies. 

While wearables on the wrist will continue to drive the market, you will see “hearables”, biometric stereo earbuds that have all the functionality of a wrist wearable and more, will have a big impact in 2016. You’ve had some hearables launch in the last few years, such as the Jabra Sport Pulse and SMS Audio’s Biosport, but in 2016 you’ll see the launch of “true wireless” hearables. These devices will be biometric stereo earbuds that are literally just the earbuds – no wires connecting the earbuds in any way. These will feature unique design and technical capabilities that will open up new use cases for hearables.

David Goins, CTO, Windfreak Technologies, Inc.

The biggest thing in electronics today is easy, low cost, open source FUN. Let me explain.

Tools such as Arduino, Raspberry Pi, GNU Radio, and a host of other low-cost solutions allow the small guys (like me) to design really neat things. You can use Raspberry Pi to stream your favorite movies for fun. Or you can use it to control that clever IoT (Internet of Things) idea in your head. Making profitable, low-cost products is now much easier than it used to be.

Before I started my own business I was purely an RF design engineer. I prided myself as an “RF Purist”. Even Purists have to dabble though. Unfortunately I had to learn to write Labview code to control the equipment to run tests on my famous (mostly infamous) RF designs. I guess it’s not really unfortunate because I found out that Labview can be kind of fun.

Going further into the dark world of code, I started playing with Arduino-based 8-bit microcontrollers, again, just for fun. Arduino is simple enough for 8th graders to write code for robotic competitions. But, it is also powerful enough for almost any embedded processor task you can throw at it. 

Very recently, I started using a 32-bit ARM processor running at 96 MHz to perform intensive 64-bit math in a USB-controlled, 14 GHz RF signal generator project at Windfreak Technologies.

For me, the hard work was learning to be the hardware guy. The rest was just play. Today, I’m doing three engineers’ jobs—I’m the hardware guy, the software guy, and the embedded firmware guy. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, it is powerful when you realize that with an engineer’s brain, and a shoestring budget, you can start your own successful business. 

Not all worthwhile ideas have to be million dollar ideas. Not all ideas have the potential income to support three highly paid engineers’ salaries, especially at product conception. However, you have the potential to double your salary. More importantly, you don’t have to answer to the boss with the inefficient ideas about Matrix Management, TPS reports, and timecards. Let’s face it: making money off of fun is the ultimate fun! 

For example, Nest Labs sold to Google for $3.2 billion dollars. The Nest thermostat functionality could be implemented in an Arduino-based controller that costs just $5—like the ESP8266 WiFi SOC (System on Chip). Quite possibly this implementation could have been done by a hardware guy playing with code on the weekend. 

New technologies = new tools = new opportunities = new business. The FUN in today's open source electronics solutions is that they will be used by thousands of engineers now. This will change the face of technology for years to come.

Now that’s something to think about.

Paul Hart, Senior Vice President and General Manager, NXP RF Power

There were quite a few advances in RF and microwave technology and its applications in 2015, but I believe the emerging transformation of the microwave oven to a true cooking appliance will prove to be the most significant. Granted, as NXP is playing a key role in developing this application, you might say I’m biased. But this really is a breakthrough, not just because of the inherent characteristics of solid-state devices (in this case LDMOS RF power transistors) that operate ten times longer than magnetrons with no performance degradation and allow cooking power to be varied. Rather, when combined with high-speed digital signal processing, advanced software, and sensors, it allows multiple foods of different types to be cooked with unprecedented precision. In short, it creates an entirely new type of cooking appliance.

Gallium nitride (GaN) is arguably the most disruptive compound semiconductor technology to enter the market since gallium arsenide (GaAs) in the 1980s, and its potential is just beginning to be realized. As a wide band gap material, it brings a tenfold increase in power density along with higher operating voltages that together translate into higher RF power output at broader bandwidths at higher frequencies using smaller devices than any competing technology.

Consequently, although first championed by the defense industry, GaN discrete transistors and Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits (MMICs) are beginning to permeate other markets such as cellular infrastructure. I believe this trend will continue to gain momentum as communications and other systems begin to operate at higher and higher frequencies. That said, GaN is not a panacea and will not replace GaAs or LDMOS in those applications for which these technologies are better suited. It is simply a complementary technology that will allow defense, commercial, industrial, and ultimately consumer applications to benefit from its capabilities.

Fortunately, a broad array of applications and markets that rely on RF and microwave technology will “boom” in 2016, not the least of which will be wireless communications in all its permutations from carrier wireless to Wi-Fi, distributed antenna systems to small cells, and others. Analysts over the years have predicted that once everyone has a smartphone and high-speed broadband, growth of the wireless industry will begin to slacken. I believe that if this does occur it won’t be for years or even decades as many people throughout the world still do not have either one. Even for those people who do, as data rates rise, new applications become possible, driving demand for devices and networks with greater performance.

One of my favorite applications is transportation, driven by the goals of increasing driving safety and reducing congestion and emissions. This is an enormous nascent market for wireless and other technologies that will begin to show its potential in 2016 and should accelerate rapidly in the coming years. It began with collision avoidance radar, cameras, and other sensors, but will ultimately be complemented by vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to infrastructure communications without which none of these goals can be achieved.

Mike Barrick, Sr. Business Development Manager, Anritsu

Two “fronts” in which cellular wireless technology advanced in 2015 were high-speed data and long battery life/reduced cost (AKA IoT). For high-speed data, LTE Cat. 9 3 Carrier Aggregation (3CA) supporting 450 MB/s downlink reached commercial devices and consumers in 2015. Anritsu was the first to demonstrate this technology in November 2014 using a Qualcomm device. The first Cat. 11 4CA devices supporting 600 MB/s downlink seem to be coming to the market soon, with expected deployment in 2016, as devices have been already announced.

On the IoT front, LTE Cat. 0 has added Power Savings Mode (PSM) to enable long battery life up to 10 years. Anritsu and Altair were the first to demonstrate this technology in September 2015 at CTIA Super Mobility. Continued improvements are promised with this technology too, with the new Cat. M standard scheduled for early 2016, and devices a few months to a year following that.

One technology making a big impact today is LTE Cat. 4 and 6 2CA, enabling downlink data rates of up to 300 MB/s. While the technology for higher data rates is available, most consumers are just starting to see smartphones with Cat.4 and 6 carrier aggregation on the market today.

The pre-standard version of LTE Unlicensed (LTE-U) should come to market in 2016, enabling CA using the 5.8 GHz U-NII unlicensed bands. Since data rates are proportional to the amount of spectrum used, LTE-U has the potential to drastically increase data rates to consumers, with over 500 MHz of spectrum available in the new band. It should be noted that data rates supported by the U-NII band will be limited by WiFi interference, and WiFi coexistence protocols for LTE-U are one of the key features for this technology.

Walt Strickler, Product Marketing Manager - Network Component Test, Anritsu

We also saw an unprecedented number of companies introducing E-band products in 2015. With the recent skyrocketing demand for data, driven primarily by smartphones and tablets, and the orders of magnitude growth expected from 5G, IoT, and connected vehicles, the market demand is now there to warrant broadened E-band component development.  

The growth in E-band product/component development has resulted in more challenging demands on test equipment to design and produce them. Additionally, there is great pressure to reduce the cost of test. Traditionally, most test equipment companies providing tools like Vector Network Analyzers (VNAs) have used step recovery diode technology and waveguide-based components to provide E-band test capability. This results in large and expensive instruments with limitations. Conversely, Anritsu employs patented monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC)-based nonlinear transmission line (NLTL) technology, also known as shock line. NLTL technology is used to generate very narrow pulses over an extremely wide range of microwave and millimeter frequencies. NLTL technology results in higher dynamic range and better raw directivity. The consequence is high performance, broadband measurement capability in small modules. Anritsu offers NLTL technology in its VectorStar™ high-performance VNAs, which are ideal for research and development of E-band devices and components. In addition, Anritsu recently introduced an E-band option for its NLTL-based performance ShockLine™ VNAs for manufacturing applications. 

Activity in E-band product/component development will continue to grow in 2016. An increasing emphasis will be on reducing cost of test to help enable mass market acceptance. Expect to see growing partnerships and cooperation between producers of E-band products and test equipment manufacturers.

Rajib Chowdhury, Engineering Manager, SDP Telecom, a Molex Company

While the development of 5G has made it the buzzword for 2015 in the wireless domain, mobile broadband (MBB) convergence is already here. Long Term Evolution Advanced (LTE-A) advancements continue to address foundational and novel use cases within MBB verticals.

Fundamental use cases related to voice over LTE (VoLTE) are maturing and gaining acceptance within various industries. These industries continue to employ spectrum re-farming analysis to drive the evolution of their network modernization efforts. VoLTE improvements are also allowing some companies to migrate away from wireless standards traditionally tied to voice. The migration is possible given the region of deployment and taking into consideration the user equipment (UE) price-points.

Traffic carried over MBB today is predominantly video, including live feeds and on-demand popular content, and being able to sense and address the behavior of popular content users via analytics and trend forecasting is essential. Operators and vendors in information and communications technologies (ICT) and other industries continue to invest in TV and media assets and develop their ability to utilize video over LTE via evolved multimedia broadcast multicast services (eMBMS).

In addition to eMBMS, carrier aggregation (CA) is one of several solutions deployed to meet the continuous growth in capacity demand. However, the ability to increase multi-band combination capabilities through CA is often limited. Other strategies are also needed for optimizing capacity. As spectrum capacity becomes more scarce, associating the radio bearers (multicast or unicast) with policy definitions on Quality of Service (QoS) is essential for prioritization of traffic.

In 2015, we’ve also seen that new indoor and outdoor cellular network morphologies are creating multi-standard mobility scenarios that need to be addressed with distributed and/or centralized architectures. As mobility scenarios evolve beyond UEs, so does the need for advancements on novel interference mitigation and cooperative communication techniques. The continued development of two LTE-A technologies—elevation beamforming within massive MIMO and coordinated multi-point (CoMP) transmission with joint processing, extended for machine-type-communications (MTC)—are expected to have an impact on coverage and capacity later in the decade.

In 2016, however, the use of LTE in unlicensed spectrum—via LTE Unlicensed (LTE-U) or Licensed Assisted Access (LAA)—will increase. LAA trials have already begun, and developers are reporting that LTE and Wi-Fi can harmoniously co-exist, leading the way for even more capacity growth. Also, as LAA becomes a candidate for initial deployment, device readiness will enhance its rollout.

Of course 2016 will also see further development of 5G, with the continuation of experiments on 5G trial test beds that started in 2015. While a few operators are already conducting 5G field trials, most verticals will be planning new trials in 2016. Concurrently, 3GPP (which unites seven standard development organizations) will focus heavily on 5G standardization.

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