NASA Spinoff

Radio Relays Improve Wireless Products

XCOM has two products made possible by the MEMS technology the company developed under the SBIR from JPL. The first is an industrial relay used for high-frequency test equipment and instrumentation, the XW3100 single pole double throw relay. The second, an RF MEMS tuning circuit, is in development for the wireless communications industry.

altThe XW3100 relays offer faster performance for automated test equipment, with frequency switching as high as 20 GHz—much more efficient than large electromagnetic relays. Typically the size of sugar cubes, electromagnetic relays consume a lot of power, and because of their large size, they are very slow. Conversely, the XW3100s incorporate gold contacts to offer speed in a small footprint. Industrial systems that reconfigure different testing for computer chips or cell phones, for instance, depend on the speed of these relays. Reconfiguration speed can account for half of the total cost of testing final products, so companies are able to cut costs by having faster, smaller relays. “Fifty percent improvement in profits to the chipset makers is our compelling value and why our parts are so desirable,” Hyman says. The XW3100 relays also offer other advantages, such as linearity, lifetime, and bandwidth, but Hyman suggests that the most attractive features are the reduced power consumption and significantly higher switching speed, especially when contrasted with electromagnetic relays. The relays offer a continuous RF current of 400 milliamps.

Although early interest for the RF MEMS technology was primarily for instrumentation for aerospace and defense industries, the opportunities are now far more varied. Newer applications include fixed and wireless broadband data link equipment, wireless network hardware, cell phones, laptop computers, and personal digital assistants.

The second product, which will be available in 2010, is an RF MEMS tuning circuit for use in hand-held radios and cell phones. These circuits use the low-loss switch technology developed with the NASA funding, and Hyman expects the technology will greatly improve interoperability and power consumption in tactical radios. Miniaturizing the circuits and integrating them with filter and antenna subsystems allow older and newer radios to communicate seamlessly, making multi-agency operations more efficient. Hyman also expects XCOM’s relays will be incorporated into multiband third generation (3G) cellular systems because they enable cell phones to have better worldwide service, improved simultaneous data and voice use, and better wireless local network service. American cell phones typically do not work in Europe, for example, but the relays can make the numerous waveforms all compatible, thus enabling seamless global coverage. The relays can also switch a phone call from a cellular network to an available broadband wireless network automatically, thereby reducing the use of cell phone minutes and reducing dependence on overloaded cellular infrastructure. Lastly, the technology can also extend battery life and reduce dropped calls.

Hyman expects more commercial broadband companies will take advantage of the technology soon. The applications are still growing today as consumer wireless companies continue to reduce cost while increasing functionality in each new model. “These are the technologies and opportunities that will shape the next generation of wireless,” Hyman concludes.