FlexRadio CTO – Steve Hicks – FlexRadio SDR Technology
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FlexRadio CTO – Steve Hicks – FlexRadio SDR Technology

Steve Hicks talks about what we’ve been up to as a company, a little bit about the Flex 6000 history and where we’re going with it, a little about supply chain, and about how we’ve entered the broadcast amplifier business.

Video transcript

An edited version of this webinar’s full transcript has been provided below for your convenience.

Mike Walker — Good day. It’s Mike Walker from Flex Radio and welcome for the QSO Today for September, 2022. Today my guest is none other than Steve Hicks from Flex Radio. Steve and Five Alpha Charlie is the Chief Technical Officer and Vice President for Flex Radio Systems. Hey, Steve, how are you?

Steve Hicks — Good. How are you doing, Mike?

Mike — Good. We’ve had Steve on before and I’ve asked him to join us again. We did a presentation at Dayton and some of you may have seen it, but the rest of the world may not. So I’ve asked him to run through it again and we’ve refreshed it. And I’ll give you a warning, we’re recording this in early August, so it’s possible that things might have changed a little bit, but I think we’re pretty stable for the next while. Steve, you’ve been a busy guy. We got a lot of stuff going on so we’ll get started in your presentation. And whenever you’re ready to go.

S.H. — All right, sounds great. Thanks, Mike. I appreciate all you all for showing up for QSO today. It’s been a great event for us and we really enjoy talking to all of our customers in this format because it gives us an opportunity to reach out and contact people who can’t travel or with Covid going on and all that sort of stuff.

All right, well here’s a little bit of what I’m going to talk about. I’ll talk about what we’ve been up to as a company, a little bit about the Flex 6000 history and where we’re going with it. Want to talk a little about supply chain, and I’m sure a lot of you’ve heard, if you’re not directly involved in supply chain, you’ve heard about some of the issues and I think it’s an interesting topic and help you understand some of the challenges that we face. So we’ll talk a little bit about that. We’ve entered the broadcast amplifier business as well and so I’d like to show you some of those mainly because everybody likes seeing QRO equipment. And then talk to you a little bit more about our software and hardware.

As many of you may know, we’ve been investing heavily in our US government contracts and they’ve made it difficult for us at times to invest as much in amateur radio as we want. They’ve kind of sucked up a lot of our people. That’s good and bad. There’s good news there. The good news is that the people that have been working on that have been learning a lot of new skills in new technologies, which we can bring to the amateur market. And we’ve also grown our staff sizeable, which I’ll show you here in a minute. But in spite of all that, we’ve grown our amateur sales year on year. And I want to talk a little bit about how we got here and how that’s working out for us.

So the initial Flex 6000, we introduced back in 2012, we introduced the 6700 and 6500 together and then later came out with the 6300. As we worked with these radios, one of the things we realized is that we wanted a more modular platform and so we migrated those to the 6400 and 6600. We do still sell the 6700 because it has a lot of capabilities that are not there in the 6600 and 6400. Namely it has two meter IF in it, and it also has eight receivers and eight pan adapters if that’s something that you need in your application.

Some of the other things that we added were a front panel option. So we have in the 6400 and a 6600, what we call an M series (6400M and 6600M) that lets you put Maestro light display knobs on the front of the radio so you can buy the radio with or without that. And there’s a lot of expansion area in this radio to do new things in the future. In the 6600 we also added contest filters, which have been a real boon in contesting as well as the capability of doing SO2R in a single box. And that allows you to run one radio in one SO2R amplifier as if you had two radios and two amplifiers. So it really substantially lowers the cost of entry for someone who wants to try SO2R contesting.

All right, to get a little technical here, this is the main CPU board of a flex 6400 or 6600. They use the same base CPU board, but there’s a couple things we did to this that we didn’t have in the 6600 and 6700. In the left there you can see a square around something that looks like nine little gold patches. And then in the lower right there’s a larger gold, funny looking shape there. And so I want to talk about what those are.

5:00

If you look at the amount of bandwidth that we move from the radio out to your client or somewhere else, if you’re just streaming audio from your radio, it’s not very much. It’s 70 to 200 kilobits worth of audio. That’s something you could run over an ISDN line or even a cell phone line that’s challenged. But as you go up and decide that you want to run a couple of pan adapters, audio, and you want to do DAX over this, which sends unadulterated samples from the radio out to your client so that it can decode things, we’re working upwards of 20 megabits worth of data.

And so the original, this is a picture from the original flex 6000 architecture diagram, and you can see we have the ADCs there, which kind of look like rectangle shapes with a triangle on the end of them, those pump a lot of data into our FPGA, which then used to send it directly through our base band processor. And it has a limit of around 100 megabits a second that it can process. So what we did in the 6000, that first little picture that you saw that showed the, I can bounce back there real quick, but showed this shape here that has the little nine patches on it, we placed an ethernet switch in the radio and that allows us to pump up to a gigabit worth of data out of the system. And that’s been a really interesting thing for us and has allowed us to do some really unique applications.

One of those is we’ve been working with a top 10 university on a life sciences application that they’re actually using flex 6000s on to do research and develop a new piece of equipment. So this is a really exciting thing for us. And in that piece of equipment, we’re running four three megabit streams out of the radio, which is 865 megabits a second, which your radio off the shelf has a lot of the capabilities to do. It doesn’t have all the software to do this, but we put this in here for future expansion.

The other thing that we did was this other shape that you see on the circuit board, and this is a space for a very high technology DSP modem. And the modem that we chose to go in here, which we chose before the introduction of the 6400 and 6600, does MIL standard wave forms. The top one is a data, the MIL standard 188-110 A/B/D is a data wave form that goes up to 256 QAM. And the 141 supports ALE. 141D goes up to 4G ALE. So you probably heard of ALE, 2G ALE is what most hams are working with, but there’s 3G and 4G and there’s a lot of other NATO wave forms in this. And that’s one of the things that really got us into the military world is that we had this capability in the radio.

Okay, so how do we end up here? Well, there’s a number of things. One of them is that there’s a lot of pressure for the military to look for other communication mechanisms. Why is that? Well, they started out using HF, EHF, UHF and eventually migrated a lot of the communications to satellite based communication systems. And there’s a heavy reliance on satellite today for a lot of different reasons. It’s accessible 24/7, the communications are good, it has wide bandwidth because it’s on the microwave bands, all those kind of things. But with the advent of the ability to shoot down satellites, having a satellite denied environment, if you want to talk around the world, HF is one of the few things that can do it anymore. And so this has made HF important again, and as that’s happened, there haven’t been very many innovators in HF except for in the amateur radio world. And so HF has continued to be a big source of users in the HF spectrum and or technology development. So what’s old, HF, is now new again and of interest to the military.

So this is the radio that the Air Force has been using, the US Air Force, for many years in aircraft for HF. And this is what’s called an ARC-190. It’s a wide temperature range, high altitude radio, operates in a hostile electromagnetic environment. This radio’s gone through about eight revisions and it’s been built for the last 40 years. So it’s very old technology. In fact, if you look inside it, you can see there’s a lot of through hole components and big electrolytic capacitors for power supplies. And even look at the integrated circuits over there on the right, you probably recognize some of those if you’ve been in electronics industry as being ceramic, dual inline packages or what we call dips. So lots of old technology in this radio. So we got a call from one of our customers who wanted to know if we’d be interested in participating.

10:00

That customer actually worked for Raytheon at the time. And so we ended up discussing building an HF radio together with Raytheon and decided to do that and entered a contract with them. And so this was the announcement when it came out on the ARL website. And so here’s the details about what this contract is all about. Flex Radio is the design authority and is responsible for all aspects of the design. So it is a Flex Radio product that is built and that will be placed in the aircraft. And BAE, mid-contract Raytheon got acquired and they sold off this portion of the business to BAE. So BAE is now the contractor that we’re working with. But they’re responsible for everything except for the design of the radio. So there’s a lot of other things that happen in military contract other than just the design work and they do all that extra work.

So the neat thing about this is that Flex Radio owns the intellectual property that’s developed during this contract jointly with BAE and all the IP that we brought into it is owned exclusively by Flex Radio. So all the things that we’ve spent time developing over the last couple years, the ones that we can, we’ll share with the amateur community. So that’s a great thing for amateurs. The other thing here that I put at the bottom is that BAE is the exclusive sales arm for the product. We won’t be out selling this BAE, this radio that was built.

Here’s what one of the first radios looks like. It’s a prototype. And when we did the migration, we started with a base 6400, 6600 and said, “What are the additional things that would be needed by the government in an airborne radio?” And together, us, worked with Raytheon BAE, which have 50 plus years and tens of thousands of radios in the field. Many of them are airborne and we used their experience to help us design this airborne radio. And one of our key design requirements was to future proof this radio and build as much technology and do it as we can because it could be used for a long time to come.

So you look at some of the capabilities there, we’re only using a very small fraction of the CPU and memory that’s in this device. And we added a bunch of modern capabilities as well around waveform, spectrum analysis, adaptive power control, all kinds of things. So very fancy radio. It’s orange just because it’s a prototype and it cannot fly in an aircraft. We’ve tested the radio in aircraft, but it has not flown yet in this configuration. And the orange is to remind people not to do that.

This is the control head that we chose for the radio. It’s made by a company called Avalex. It’s an ACM9433. It’s a software defined control head, makes sense to attach that to a software defined radio. It is an Invis compatible and sunlight readable display. Invis is not what we think of, which is near vertical incident, skyway. In this case it’s for night vision. And so the requirement is that if a pilot has night vision goggles on, the display can’t do anything that’s going to interfere with the operation of that or blind the pilot while he has the night vision on. So in combining the old and the new, this radio speaks ethernet, which is what we do in our radios, which is kind of the new, as well as RS-485 and a bunch of other older protocols. And so it talks RS-485 to the control head here.

Just taking a look inside the radio, this is what it looks like when you flip it upside down. There’s two very large microprocessors in it. They’re literally the fastest and most capable microprocessors we could find to put in the radio to give the Air Force as much capability as we could. There’s a module in here that houses the same kind of waveform technology that we showed you we put into the Flex 6400 and 6600. FPGA board, receiver board. We also put space in here for expansion and there’s a large 400 watt power amplifier in here.

So one of the things I wanted to tell you about is what technology we put in here and what the benefit might be to the amateur community if we decide to move that forward. And so the lines here that are green all the way across are ones that I think could benefit the amateur world moving forward. The ones that don’t have the green on the left hand side are ones that we don’t think necessarily apply to the amateur world.

So in the Flex 6400 and 6600, we use the TI Da Vinci processor or TMS-320, and there’s the actual part number. What we were able to do as part of this contract is to run on two additional processor families and they’re very different processor families. And that capability got us into a mode where we’re very easily able to port our base software defined radio to lots of different other platforms, which gives us a lot of legs moving forward. We can scale it down, scale it up, whatever else we need to do. We did add an ultra low phase noise oscillator in here and added a capability to it that substantially reduces out of band phase noise. And so should we choose to bring this forward in the amateur world, it would provide a better contest capability as well as field day capabilities.

We did a lot of electromagnetics protection in this radio. We had basic stuff in our radios, but we had to harden this radio against all kinds of EM challenges including lightning. And so we believe that technology is something we can move into a radio to help build out its lightning capabilities. We also added a brand new waveform support for it. So we had a waveform API in our existing radio, but we significantly upgraded that, made it multiprocessor capable and made it easier to add new waveforms. So we think that’s something that would be beneficial in the future to hams.

So if you look at our radios, the kind of mass RF input to them before they begin to overload is around plus seven to nine DBM. That’s about 10 milli watts. What we did with this radio is we made it capable of ingesting 20 watts directly into the snout of the radio. So we don’t think in general that’s something that hams are going to want to do, certainly not on purpose. And so I don’t know if that has a lot of applicability here. We did, from an IO processing standpoint, we added some ancillary IO processors in this radio that allows to do a lot of fancy input output on the radio. We did that because this radio carries forward a lot of legacy interfaces so that the radio can work with existing equipment. Again, this is not something we felt like was really useful for the ham community.

Today we offer 100 watt MOSFET amplifiers in our Flex 6400, 6600, 6700 radios as well as external 1500 watt LD Moss amplifiers in the form of the PGXL. What we did with this radio is to put a 400 watt LD Moss power amplifier in it and integrated that into it. We do believe there’s value in providing higher power in amateur radios, but we have some other ideas about how to do that in a different way than we did in this radio. So for that reason, we decided not to look at this as a technology we can move forward.

We did do a lot of environmental conditioning in this radio, as you might imagine. It is to survive military temperature, vibration, shock, altitude, all kinds of other stuff. And we did a lot of testing at those harsh environmental conditions. Again, we don’t think there’s a lot of value in this for amateur radio operators. Most of them are going to have these radios sitting at their house or sitting out on a picnic table at field day and not being vibrated to death on an aircraft. But again, new things that we learned.

I did mention the modem that we have in the radio is now capable of doing a lot of different MIL standard wave forms. Some of these are used in Mars and in other amateur endeavors. And so we may pull some of those wave forms into future amateur products for use by hams if it makes sense to do that. So we’ll be looking at the market and talking to other amateurs and Mars members and trying to figure out if this makes sense to do. In fact, I have a meeting next week with some to talk about that.

Let’s see, clocking and timing. We did a very advanced clock system in this that provides GPS holdover. I don’t think that’s something that hams are really probably terribly interested in, but it’s something we can migrate if we decide to do that. We also added the capability of using a bunch of different reference inputs. Today our radios expect a 10 megahertz reference input if you want to use one. Again, I think this is really mainly benefit to the military and not a lot of ham usage. We’ll probably stick with 10 megahertz, it’s the only reference input we support for hams. Then we did a really novel RF filtering capability in this where we went from just having received band filters to a tracking band pass and tracking notch filter. And so this is something that we’re likely to move forward into future amateur products as it provides some unique benefits. Before we were running on a single FPGA family known as Vertex-6, we now are running on multiple other families that are lower cost and higher performance. And so we expect to use some of those at PGAs and future ham products.

20:00

And finally the last thing we did was if you look inside our Flex 6000 series, we’re running at 24 kilo sample for our base band processing. That allows you to run waveforms or modes that are up to 20 kilohertz wide. Most hams aren’t ever going to exceed 10 kilohertz, but we did have the capability of doing variable rate processing in the radio so we can process it a number of different sampling rates and that gives us some more advanced DSP capabilities if we decide to use them.

So what is the status of this contract? We finished the initial contract prototype, delivered that to the Air Force. We were down selected as the winner, there were two competitors going for the final radio. It was us against L3 Harris. We beat L3 Harris and were selected to mature the design and supply around 1500 radios to the Air Force over the next five years in a new contract. And the radio has been given an official Air Force nomenclature, which is RT-2122. And most of our work is concentrated now in this contract in the near term. We’ll be finished with almost all the work on this contract by December and then we’ll have time to move on and do new things. So that gives you a little background on that.

I mentioned earlier I wanted to tell you a little bit about the supply chain and what’s going on here and what all this means to you. So as you might imagine, as an electronic supplier we have to source all the individual components that we put into a radio. Those components get placed on a circuit board, the circuit board gets assembled, we put them into radios, write the software on them, all that kind of stuff. And there’s a wide variety of components that we source that are everything from resistors and capacitors, passers, if you will, to advanced integrated circuits like processors and FPGAs and those kinds of things. And Covid has been like somebody throwing a stone into a pond and the ripples keep coming.

And parts that usually we could buy off the shelf at any number of places now have just vaporized and we’re told we can’t have them for six months or a year. And so we’ve had to be very aggressive about figuring out how to manage that supply chain, and in cases, redesign when parts have become unavailable. And so that’s been a real challenge for us. It has occupied a lot of our time as well on the amateur side to make sure that we have all the components that we need to build radios. We’ve also moved most of the management of components inside of Flex Radio. Before we had left some of that with our contract manufacturers so we’ve moved most of it inside.

This slide just gives you an idea of what this is. One of the key parts we use in our radios is a field-programmable gate array, or an FPGA. And if you look here on the left in July of 2020, the lead time on that component was 12 weeks. So it took us about three months to get the component and the price of that component shown on the right hand side, let’s just call it one, and you can see what’s happened over time. The lead time, which is the red line, has moved to around 78 weeks. So that’s well in excess of a year that it takes us to actually get a now. So we place an order, over a year later we actually get the part and the price is escalated from one to one and a half or 1.45 or whatever. So the price has risen by 45%. So this kind of thing’s happening all over the electronics industry. And so it’s required us to be much more careful about how we buy and manage our parts.

Okay, I mentioned we’d entered the broadcast amplifier business. This is a palette that we use in a larger amplifier. This is a one and a half kilowatt LD Moss HF module that’s designed to run brick on key. It’s based on two 1800 watt 65 volt transistors. It’s very high linearity to support multi-carrier wave forms. And we take four of these modules that look like this and combine them together to make a four to five kilowatt amplifier or we combine eight of them to make an eight to 10 kilowatt amplifier.

And so like all of our products, it uses ethernet for communications control and monitoring, it’s a very modernized amplifier in many respects. It uses LD Moss as well as its communication and management capabilities. This is what a rack of the equipment looks like. On the right you can see the four modules, in the middle of them is a combiner. We have a exciter on top and a control system. And over there on the left you can see, that’s Gerald, our founder, K5 SDR and he’s standing next to the dummy load that we use. I think this dummy load here is a 10 kilowatt dummy load.

This is a look inside showing you a couple of the pallets that are inside that 1500 watt amplifier. And you can see the huge heat sinks on the back of these that support the amplifier. This is what the low pass filter module looks like in this radio. I put a banana here for size so you can see how large these components are because you have to pass 1500 watts through these.

25:00

And there’s a variety of bands, of course, it’s not just amateur bands. This is the backside of that board. And there’s some expansion space here if we want to go up or down in frequency as well.

So we’ve had all the success in military and commercial amplifiers. Why continue amateur radio? What would be the rationale for that? Well, there’s a lot of them. We love designing and building products for amateurs. All the people that started the company and many of the people that are in the company are amateur radio operators. And we love amateur radio for many, many reasons. We just love amateur radio, of course. We also believe in it as a way to excite, train, and et cetera the young in our country to be interested in RF, to grow up to be RF engineers and understand RF.We have a lot of fun dreaming up immature products and new software. So this is for us a lot of the fun of the business. And of course we love our customers.

I don’t know if you know, but Flex Radio, one of our key tenets is that we exist to enrich lives. And so amateur radio is one of the ways that we do that. We enrich the lives of our customers that use our products and get pleasure out of using them. And so that’s a key thing for us. This is one of the reasons we take on business like the life sciences project I talked to you about earlier at a university, that’s not a project that we’re going to make a lot of money on and it’s distracting. At the same time, it’s something that we believe very deeply in and we believe has a huge societal impact and that’s why we’re involved in it. Of course we came from the amateur market and we’re committed to the future of that market.

So what’s next for Flex Radio? Well, if you look three years ago before Covid started, we had six engineers. Today we have 20 full-time engineers and seven contractors, most of which are full-time with us as well and we’re hiring additional engineers. You can imagine that going from six engineers to 27 is a huge deal. We grew that fast, that big, very quickly in the span of a couple of years and we have a lot of big plans for what we’re going to do with all of our capabilities moving forward so stay tuned. We’re really excited about all the stuff we’ve been working on and interested in showing you.

So on the software front, we have a SmartSDR 3.3, and it’s a maintenance release. It went out a while back. I’m not going to say how many weeks or months because this is airing a little bit after I actually recorded it, but it includes over 160 individual defect fixes. We did release a point release on top of that, which is a 3.3 point release, and the team currently is focused on getting 3.4 ready. So that’s the next version we’re working on. And we’re in the process of moving many of our engineers from working on government and other products over to the amateur side. And that transition has begun now and it will continue and happen even more next year as we roll off our key government contract.

On the hardware side, all of our top engineering team recently met offsite to discuss our hardware roadmap. And we went through that. Out of that roadmap, we ended up with 11 new amateur products and seven government products that we want to build. In every case, a government product is preceded by an amateur product because we feel like we can bring new technology to the amateur world, see how it works in that market, refine it before we go bring it to the government market. So in general, amateurs will be the beneficiaries of new technology that we create and then we’ll offer that technology to the military. So all these products that we thought about in that offsite may or may not make it to market, but it does show you that we’re thinking very actively about creating new products and what we want to do. We have a lot of new tools and capabilities as well as people that are going to help us accelerate our growth moving forward and we’re really excited about that. That’s it. Anything else, Mike? I think we’re going to move.

Mike — No. I wanted you to back up a couple of slides because it’s sort of cute and I know some people will notice it. Go back to the slide when you first showed the amplifier and there was an expensive piece of test equipment sitting at the bottom. Go one more? And if you look in the bottom right, you’ll see a tiny VNA, right?

S.H. — Yeah.

Mike — And I know the answer to this, but I’m sure people are going, “Really that’s your high quality test equipment?” And there’s a reason.

S.H. — Well, as you might imagine as a engineering company, we have a lot of different pieces of test equipment. We have a phase noise analyzer that costs $100,000. And you contrast that to the Nano VNA you see here, which is, I don’t know, they’re maybe a few hundred dollars.

Mike — 50 bucks.

S.H. — Yeah. But these are very nice to use to take quick measurements, they’re very portable and we own several of them. When we do preliminary filter tuning to check things out, we use them. They’re very accurate. So we enjoy using them.

Mike — And they’re not expensive if you make a mistake.

S.H. — Yeah, that’s right.

Mike — Yeah. So that’s what Dan was saying. Well, Steve, that was great. I’m fortunate to be part of some of those idea discussions and us in the marketing side. “Oh, just build them all. We need them all. They’re all great.” And they are. But we’ll see what comes out the other end in a little while.

S.H. — The tough part is deciding what to do first.

Mike — Yeah, Steve presented some stuff to me and he goes, “Mike’s going to like this.” And I went, “Oh my God.” Anyway, sorry to tease you guys, but that’s sort of telling you we can get there. Steve, I wanted to thank you for taking the time out of your day and any questions, you can email us at info@flexradio.com. Steve didn’t mention much about hiring, but we’re always looking for things. I guess, Steve, I can mention that. If you want, you can email me and I’ll get the resume to the right people.

S.H. — Yeah. We’re always hiring people and now more than ever. And if you are interested in working at Flex Radio, you can send an email to jobs@flexradio.com or jobs@flex.radio.

Mike — Great. 73 everybody, thanks for joining us and Steve, have a good weekend.

S.H. — All right. 73.

Mike — 73.

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