Unlike software-defined radio (SDR), the breakthrough – named Pizzicato – is not a mixture of analogue and digital components but is completely digital, which can enable new ways of using the radio spectrum intelligently.
When transmitting data, only low frequency signals of 1GHz or lower propagate well over distance or through walls, so they are in great demand. Expanding to make use of frequencies of 10GHz and beyond will require techniques such as meshing and beamforming to compensate for the frequencies poor range. However, the analogue parts of radios are becoming an increasing bottleneck in allowing this.
“Crowding 50 analogue radios together on one chip, switching their operational parameters every few microseconds and expecting them to work at 60GHz is an analogue designers nightmare,” said Monty Barlow, director of wireless technology at Cambridge Consultants. “With Pizzicato, we have created a glimpse of future disruptive technology – a radio built purely from computing power.”
The Pizzicato digital radio transmitter consists of an integrated circuit outputting a single stream of bits, and an antenna – with no conventional radio parts or digital-to-analogue converter. Patented algorithms perform the necessary ultra-fast computations in real time, making it possible for standard digital technology to generate high-frequency radio signals directly.
“Our first trial of the technology has created 14 simultaneous cellular base station signals,” said Barlow. “The technology is a lot more flexible than current radio technologies. Our first target areas for it are defence, and also WiFi access point technologies, as well as items such as intelligent thermostat systems - these have small radios in them, but are the expensive part of the system. We believe that, in the same way that microprocessors went from being expensive to being cheap enough to be installed in many everyday items, our technology can do the same for radio systems.”
Its design means a Pizzicato-based radio would, like microprocessors, directly benefit from Moore’s Law – shrinking in cost, size and power consumption with each new generation of silicon fabrication in order to provide many tiny, high-performance radios in the next generation of phones.