Test it your way

-December 09, 2012

This article is part of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013 feature, where EDN editors and guest contributors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2012 that promise to shape technology news in 2013 and beyond.

This year, as I walked the trade-show floors and met with test and measurement equipment vendors at their sites and mine, I was impressed by the increased capabilities of “alternative” test equipment. This category includes what has been dubbed virtual or software-defined instrumentation, providing programmable functionality that can change an instrument from an oscilloscope to a spectrum analyzer at the touch of a button. Product examples are available from such companies as National Instruments, Aeroflex, and Geotest.

This new class of instruments seeks to leverage the hardware that multiple traditional instruments have in common, using software to define the test functionality as needed. In addition to switching instrument functionality, some of the latest instruments incorporate FPGAs to speed test time and let designers define test setups, protocols, and triggers on the fly. Never before have you had so much flexibility to define your test, your way, to get the job done.

For example, National Instruments staked a firm claim in software-defined instrumentation with the PXIe-5644R vector-signal transceiver (Figure 1). Introduced in August, the instrument combines the functionality of a vector-signal analyzer, vector-signal generator, and high-speed digital I/O in a single, three-slot PXI (PCI Extensions for Instrumentation) module. With an FPGA on board, the PXIe-5644R lets users modify software and firmware using NI’s LabVIEW software.

Figure 1 NI’s PXIe-5644R seeks to define an entirely new type of instrument, the vector-signal transceiver, which can be reprogrammed using software to change functionality.

Aeroflex has been working with synthetic instruments for more than 10 years. Some of its solutions, such as the 7700 series, are designed to speed production test by providing signal generation, measurements, and DUT control in a single unit (Figure 2).

Figure 2 The Aeroflex vector-signal generator emulates a spectrum analyzer, vector network analyzer, oscilloscope, power meter, frequency counter, noise-figure meter, and microwave transition analyzer.

Strides in FPGA technology are responsible for much of what is making programmable instrumentation possible. Geotest has developed a user-programmable FPGA-based product line that includes the GX3700 and GX3700e (PXI and PXI Express, respectively) instruments, which use Altera’s Stratix III FPGA. The Altera device supports SerDes data rates up to 1.2 Gbits/sec, offers digital I/O clock rates of 700 MHz, and features more than 45,000 logic elements and 1.836 kbits of memory (Figure 3). Expect the power of software programmability to enable a whole new breed of instruments in the coming years.

Figure 3
The electronic signals
to the controller chip embedded
in most character displays includes
a data bus, read/write, clock,
backlight control, contrast control,
and a signal to put the display
into command mode.

Also watching:

  • Handheld test gear. Surprising capabilities from handheld test equipment (figures 4 and 5) take advantage of new materials, innovation, and programmability to bring the high performance of benchtop instruments to bear at the top of a pole or the end of the line. This is truly not your father’s handheld test instrument.

Figure 4 Tektronix has just introduced the H500 and SA2500 handheld spectrum analyzers, which display the live spectrum by respectively processing more than 2500 and more than 10,000 spectrum measurements per second.

Figure 5
Agilent’s FieldFox
microwave vector network
analyzer provides full
two-port VNA measurements.

  • PXI. The seemingly unstoppable force of the PCI Extensions for Instrumentation format continues to make inroads into new applications, from commercial to military, as evidenced by some of the latest PXI instruments from companies such as Aeroflex, Agilent, Geotest, National Instruments, and Pickering Interfaces. In many cases, the PXI format is combined with software-defined instrumentation, making for an impressive combination of test and measurement trends.

Read more of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013:

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