DON’T FIGHT THE FUTURE
Resistance to the evolution of test equipment for installation and maintenance is futile. Manufacturers are trying to make the technician’s job easier, which may involve several changes in the appearance, ergonomics and functions of test equipment.
RF technicians might have a new nickname in the future. Instead of “Radiomen,” they might be known as “Robo-techs.” The future of installation and maintenance of communications systems looks curiously like a scene out of Robocop, except it’s the radio technician coming to save the day outfitted in … test equipment? Well, the future RF technician may be wearing at least part of his equipment used on the job.
The wearable equipment is just part of the forecast for RF testing. Actual functions and processes will most likely change as time goes on, also.
Test equipment manufacturers are trying to make the technician’s job easier, which spurs research, development and predictions. As the radio changes, so does the job. “The technician’s job drives the test equipment’s functions, and the radios drive the technician’s job,” said David Hagood, IFR Systems design engineer.
From the beginning … Over the years, test equipment has traveled the same path as other types of electronic equipment. Buttons have gotten smaller and softer, boxes have grown smaller and lighter, and designs have become more updated. More CRTs have digital, color displays – although we haven’t seen any “fashion-colors” test sets yet.
“Test instruments have gone from being upwards of 50 pounds to 70 pounds, down to 35 pounds,” said Yuenie Lau, Anritsu’s field solutions business unit marketing manager. “Test equipment doesn’t have to be big and large.”
A good example of the shrinking size of some test sets would have to be Anritsu’s four-pound spectrum analyzer, which it introduced in April 1999. “Losing 26 pounds,” the hand-held analyzer covered the 100kHz to 3,000MHz frequency range. Anritsu has also just introduced a new model of the analyzer (MS2711A) with a higher dynamic range and phase noise performance. Anritsu claims the analyzer’s firmware simplifies the process of making measurements and interpreting the results, which are shown on a large, high-resolution LCD.
Radios are also getting smaller. They feature smaller parts with more functions. With fewer test points to probe when troubleshooting, the technician is increasingly limited to finding which board is bad and replacing it. “This means the test equipment needs to be able to quickly supply a GO/NO GO on a board level,” Hagood said.
Manufacturers have also added more features and functions, whether they have produced whole new test sets, or upgraded existing boxes with new software. Agilent Technologies constantly releases new options for existing test equipment.
“[Companies] have put more functions in each instrument, added more tasks, and test equipment is much more software driven,” Lau said.
The type of radio systems has also driven changes in test equipment. “Gone are the days of plain-ol’ push-to-talk NBFM [narrowband FM],” Hagood said. More systems are going to trunking, so the technician will have to set up more parameters to test the radio (i.e., all the trunking functions – system ID, call group, channel mappings). The test equipment has to support these protocols and give the technician some means to save all those settings. Ideally, the test equipment should be able to get the parameters from the radio, or from the air by “sniffing” the control channel, Hagood said.
Spectrum allocations and the transition to digital are also changes that continue to spur test equipment development. The trunking protocols themselves are going to narrowband digital modulation (6.25kHz or less), so the radios require a digital signal processor (DSP) for final demodulation and decoding.
“The technician cannot use the time-honored technique of `push a 1kHz tone through and listen to it,’ since the system’s audio is almost always passed through the vocoder,” Hagood said. “The test equipment has to do a bit-error rate testing and supply canned bit patterns (the digital equivalent of normal test tones).”
Frequency use also changes testing. “Frequencies are going up as spectrum gets tighter. Systems above 1GHz will become more common in urban areas,” Hagood said. “Also, as repeaters are deployed, more microwave links will be set up to allow the systems to be tied together.”
The crystal ball Making the technician’s job easier means improving the ergonomics of the equipment he uses. For example, Hagood said a hands-free, head-mounted display might help a technician who’s “rummaging around inside of the equipment.”
“Any instrument that supports a standard external VGA display can use the head-mounted displays (HMD) that are currently available. So new service monitors should be able to use an HMD,” Hagood said. He questioned the current feasibility for RF technicians’ use of HMDs because of price, but “give HMDs about another two years to get below $200, and I think it’ll start to pick up.”
The military uses HMDs now, “to allow the techs to crawl around planes, tanks and ships, fixing things,” he said.
Hagood discussed the possibility of integrating service manuals with equipment in an interview two years ago (“Making the Machine Smarter,” MRT, November 1998). “One the of the things that may show up in future units would be to embed a Web browser and have an internal CD-ROM or hard drive that we could get manufacturers to put their service manuals on in HTML and allow the unit to bring that up,” Hagood said. “If you couple that with an HMD, you’d have a very good diagnostics system.”
Wearable computers with HMDs are already available for several applications. The company that holds the patent for hands-free wearable computing, Xybernaut, is already marketing its products to businesses. It includes telecommunications as an application for its wearable PCs.
“Your workers have to stop work to check work orders, schematics and manuals. How much time could they save with online manuals they can even reference on the move?” the Web site, www.xybernaut.com, reads. “Your field personnel have to repair and maintain equipment – sometimes 40 feet off the ground. How much safer and more productive would they be with hands-free computing power?”
Xybernaut says that its PCs can be used for repair, installation, wiring closet maintenance and GPS/GIS assisted inventory audits.
Currently, the Xybernaut products make users resemble Star Trek “Borgs.” The Mobile Assistant IV includes the 1.1-inch color HMD with microphone and earpiece, through which the user sees a video display. The unit also comes with a battery-powered central computer weighing less than two pounds that clips onto the vest or belt. The head-mounted display has an optional miniature video camera or a palm-size, color touch-screen that straps onto the arm. A mini-keyboard is also available.
Wearable computers could be in the cards for RF technicians, at least in one situation, according to Hagood. “In the case where the test equipment can be in one location and the tech at another (the base of the tower and hanging off the side of the tower, for example), then a wearable PC plus wireless link to the test equipment may make sense.”
For the actual test equipment to become wearable is another story. “Unfortunately, while the processing part of a piece of test equipment gets smaller due to advances in computers, the RF side doesn’t,” Hagood said. “Yes, a cellphone’s RF section is becoming a single chip, but when you have to do parametrics on the signal, you cannot use the off-the-shelf parts. Also, do you really want to try to feed a 250W repeater’s RF output into a device the size of a Palm Pilot?”
Lau sees test equipment as definitely getting smaller and lighter as technology develops. “If somebody starts producing low-power-consumption RF ICs that fit the test equipment applications, then we start heading toward blue-sky,” he said. “And [the blue sky] is low-power, battery-operated, good visual and audio system, one-button functionality, automatic feedback.”
Hands-free is the direction communications has always been heading, so voice activation of test features will probably become more common.
Lau predicts that test equipment will be voice activated and responsive. “The technician will ask the test equipment what to do, and it will say `yes’ or `no,'” he said. The machine just has to be advanced enough to understand language, which is one function under development and improvement.
Other advancements that will be made in the future are more function-oriented, as history has suggested. More and more protocols are coming onto the horizon, and “as users need interoperability between systems (LTR, EDACS, Project 25, TETRA, MPT-1327, etc.), they will need more equipment that can adapt to different protocols,” Hagood said.
Hagood predicted future instruments would be able to guide the technician through the calibration procedure with “calibration wizard”-type applications. The wizard may be generic to all radios, or may be specific to the instrument.
As radios evolve and test equipment must work with them, more diagnostics may be brought out of the radios themselves. “Some self-calibration routines will exist in the radios (e.g., feed a known carrier frequency into the radio, press a button and the radios adjusts its TXCO to null out any frequency error). At a minimum, more test points will have to be brought out of the radio to support things like BER testing,” Hagood said.
As a result of more adjustments in radios becoming digitally controlled potentiometers or software variables, more of the calibration will be done without opening the radio. Then, “the old `thumbwheels and dials’ interfaces to test instruments will give way to the more computer-like user interfaces,” Hagood said. “The complexity and flexibility of the test instrument will require user interfaces that are reprogrammable, and thumb-wheels, analog meters and switches cannot be reprogrammed.”
The Internet will play a larger part in the future of test equipment also, (as it does in everything else). Instruments will be able to update their software across the Internet, allowing users to purchase new options, get software upgrades and obtain bug fixes. They might also download setups for common radios without sending the equipment in to the manufacturer.
The test equipment will become “smarter” too, reading and writing the programming data for the radio, Hagood said. “This will allow the instrument to read the frequency list, trunking parameters and model number from the radio, or set it to a known state for testing.”
The future may come quicker if radio manufacturers standardize more, which is one of the only obstacles to the rapid-moving technology.
“Side connectors on radios, programming interfaces and protocols used all need to move away from proprietary protocols to well-documented standards,” Hagood said. “While it may make a company more money in the short run to have different cables, programming software and test fixtures from everybody else, it makes a service shop’s job far more difficult.”
Revelations IFR Systems, Wichita, KS, is working on a test set that embodies some of these futuristic features. The test set, the 2975 project for Project 25, is a software radio, according to Hagood. It features a “computer-like user interface; TCP/IP networking via Ethernet, allowing for full remote control of the instrument; a built-in scripting language for building test programs for different customers’ radios; software updates via the Internet; and a software design I hope will allow us to keep upgrading for a very long time.”
Anritsu also continues to work toward the “blue-sky” future of test equipment. “We’re looking into a lot of different technologies. Test instruments just haven’t gotten the glory and volume that other parts of the industry have gotten,” Lau said. The test equipment sector has had to pull components from high-volume markets such as cellular to spur production of test sets. “We have to take advantage of the DSP,” he said.
Advancements in job tools have made everyone’s job easier, and at least quicker (most of the time). Computers themselves have been adapted to just about any job you can imagine, and many workers have to continuously adapt to these instruments.
RF technicians’ tools are adapting to the changing face of RF communications, so the technicians must adapt to the changing equipment (maybe even become part of it?). Ideally, these tools will make the job more efficient and cost-effective. That way, technicians will have more time to play virtual reality games – or watch their digital televisions.