I’ve said it before, but 2013 will come to be seen in the RF industry as the year that open source finally broke through. Myriad-RF was the first major open source RF hardware initiative from a semiconductor company — launching back in March — but significant announcements came from many firms and it’s a joy for this to be finally taking off here, just as it has in the world of software and digital electronics.
Indeed, it’s open source approach even led to Myriad-RF winning a prestigious award from NMI (formerly National Microelectronics Institute), the UK’s electronic systems trade organisation.
If we want real and sustained innovation in wireless — and I think that’s an easy question to answer! — then we need to get programmable RF technology into the hands of as many people as possible, and not for it to just be limited to a small number of firms with substantial R&D budgets. It’s a bold statement, but I think it can be said that Myriad-RF along with other open source and low cost hardware platforms are leading to a democratisation of RF innovation, with significant consequences ahead of us.
The list of boards from our first year includes the Myriad RF-1, Fairwaves’ UmTRX open source base station, and Loctronix’ A2300 MIMO platform, with many more to come. Notable also is the DARPA Cyber Fast Track and Kickstarter-funded HackRF, which grew out of wireless security research, and the low cost BladeRF platform, which also ran a highly successful Kickstarter campaign.
But it’s not just innovation for the sake of innovation and the big story to highlight came from Mexico, with remote communities using open source Base Transceiver Station hardware (and software) to implement low cost mobile networks and access lifesaving services. Further information on this project is available on EE Times.
And 2014 is set to be even more exciting; we are presently witnessing an explosive growth in the open source hardware movement, with Kickstarter and similar platforms making funding more easily accessible and thereby fuelling this. In addition to which, the open source opportunity is coming to be recognised by major players including ARM, Atmel and others. Just to be absolutely clear: hardware engineering is considered to be cool once again.
Similarly, many new opportunities exist: these come from the Internet of Things (IoT), ever-increasing demand for mobile broadband, access to TV white spaces and numerous other developments — which are laying the groundwork for significant growth in wireless.
And lastly, the key barriers to entry have been lowered: highly-integrated silicon is making wideband RF much more accessible, there has been a proliferation of low cost FPGA and capable embedded boards, and open source SDR such as GNU Radio, Osmocom and OpenBTS are coming into their own and allowing us to dramatically cut the cost of implementing wireless systems. On the other hand, there is a major step forward in the availability of design tools for the implementation of a variety of wireless systems using readily available chipsets such as FPGAs and FPRFs. In particular, KiCad, the open source PCB design tool, is receiving the backing of CERN to bring it to professional quality, making complex hardware design accessible to all.
The revolution began in 2013, but RF design remains a highly specialist domain and is seen as a black art by most digital designers and programmers. But, as Dantzig showed when he mistook an unsolved theory for homework, things are only difficult if you think they are… In short, this misperception needs to change and will do so as participation in the area increases.
As such, this coming year we will focus on growing the Myriad-RF community to be inclusive to as many individuals and communities with great ideas as possible, as well as reaching out to both silicon vendors and system integrators. By extending access to those outside the traditional RF design community, we stand to benefit from a much wider participation that will bring us one step closer to bridging the chasm between end users and innovation.
If 2013 was the year open source RF for wireless communication truly got off the ground, then 2014 will be the year it reaches new heights. Watch this space!