The Future of SatCom Design: RF Technology Trends

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Over the last four decades, the number of devices that need to maintain mission-critical satellite communications (satcom) has rapidly grown. At the same time, the information transmitted on these devices has become increasingly more complex. As a result, the RF circuit building blocks that make up satcom technology have been through many changes to accommodate the latest advancements in the industry including miniaturization, increased reliability, and the ability to rapidly transmit more complex data.
Let’s explore the following four RF design trends we’ve identified based on our 40-years of expertise in the RF industry that are helping satcom design engineers meet the demands of the many industries relying on their devices today.

Trend 1: A Shift in Active Electronically Scanned Array Construction
Today, satcom applications consist of active electronically scanned arrays (AESAs) that use multiple transmit/receive modules (TRMs) to electronically steer beams independently. In the past, AESAs were quite large since they used a 3D brick configuration made up of boards placed side-by-side and attached using multiple connectors and cables. Instead of this bulky configuration, designs are now using 2D planar arrays built like a PCB using surface-mount (SM) attachment of components. This planar configuration removes the need for most connectors and cables, which not only improves the size, weight, and power (SWaP), but also increases reliability and simplifies manufacturing.

Trend 2: Operating at Increasingly High Frequencies
In response to the ever-increasing demand for communications via satellite, satcom designers are pushing through X and Ku bands to the Ka and V bands. This shift is ideal for high-throughput satellites since up to 3.5 GHz of bandwidth is available in the Ka band, which is four times more than what is available in other commonly used bands. This increase in bandwidth is critical because, all other things being equal, a system with four times the bandwidth can help users do one of two things – send more information in a given amount of time, or send the same things in a fraction of the time.

Trend 3: A Shift to Build Smaller More Efficient Radio Architectures
Like most communication equipment, satcom devices are following the general trend of performing more functions with less components. As a result, there is a shift to move from traditional heterodyne architectures to a direct RF sampling approach. While removing components inherently reduces size and cost, some level of filtering is still needed for direct sampling, which creates new challenges. Since we do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to design, we can easily address this challenge with solutions to fit any filtering need.

Trend 4: Improving SWaP-C with a Surface Mount Device Assembly Approach
Today, there is a push to move from traditional chip-and-wire or hybrid assembly approaches to a full surface mount device (SMD) assembly. One of the biggest cost-savings of SMD assembly is that it uses a single automated assembly line, dramatically reducing the cost of assembly versus a chip-and-wire or hybrid approach. Additionally, using a single-line SMD assembly can help companies accelerate time to market.

At Knowles Precision Devices, we’ve helped lead the industry through more than 40 years of changes with the RF technology used in advanced communication devices. This makes us well positioned to guide you through not just today’s RF technology trends, but also the innovations we are likely to see in the future.