Mercury Systems stirs up RF world with open standard initiative

They’re doing it again. Officials at Mercury Systems in Chelmsford, Mass., fed up with a lack of interoperability standards in the RF world, have decided to create one all by themselves. They have launched an initiative called OpenRFM that will create standard interfaces for RF boxes so that they can essentially be interoperable regardless of who built them. The move is bold and resembles their efforts to forge interoperability in the backplane with OpenVPX in 2009.

Back then they had opposition, but their critics/competitors were all part of the same VITA Standards Organization (VSO). With OpenRFM they are working without a standards group and targeting a market where proprietary architectures – not open ones – have been the rule.

There has been a lack of standardization on the microwave side, which has made upgrading technology challenging, says A. Lorne Graves, Chief Technologist, Embedded Products at Mercury. OpenRFM is looking to change that culture with affordable, modular, and scalable technology that can uplift existing systems, he adds. According to Mercury, OpenRFM essentially standardizes the interfaces of integrated microwave assemblies “to streamline the design and integration of RF and digital capabilities within sensor processing subsystems” in electronic warfare (EW) and signal intelligence (SIGINT) applications.

Mercury’s OpenRFM products come in 3U and 6U form factors and can work with any module – VXS, VPX, VME, etc., Graves says. The products are protocol agnostic and also use a common test bed, which reduces development time (see Figure 1). Currently Mercury has three main customers for three different missions spaces working on OpenRFM and providing feedback, Graves adds.

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Figure 1: Pictured is Mercury Systems' OpenRFM wideband IF module.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

The company has strengthened their RF technology through acquisition over the last decade, snapping up key suppliers Echotek in 2005, LNX in 2011, and Micronetics in 2012. They also opened an Advanced Microwave Center earlier this year in Hudson, N.H.

Their RF pedigree gives them credibility, but I believe Mercury’s efforts will prevail in the long run, because the company is responding to current procurement trends. Across the Department of Defense (DoD) there is a push toward commonality – using the same equipment, hardware, and software across multiple platforms to reduce operational and training costs. The government doesn’t want to invest in proprietary technology and development and they don’t want power points. They want tech that works today and that can be interoperable with other current systems, as this not only saves money but also improves efficiency, combats obsolescence, and eases training and maintenance.

Mercury’s initiative reminds me of the DoD’s efforts to create a common unmanned aircraft system (UAS) control station architecture – the UAS Control Segment (UCS). The DoD was tired of having to pay for a different ground control station for every UAS. The key UAS integrators were not happy at first, but they bought into the concept because their customer demanded it, and the UCS program is now moving forward.

Much like the UAS platform builders, Mercury’s RF market competitors make their living off proprietary interfaces and architectures and will be loath to change, which is what makes Mercury’s move so daring. However, the end user – the U.S. military – wants commonality and open architectures among all its systems.

Not the first time

Defining standards in the RF world will be a more difficult process than what Mercury experienced when they spurred OpenVPX because with OpenVPX they and the VSO members all had common goals, says Ray Alderman, Chairman of the VITA Board. “There were conflicts, but we sorted them out.” That type of harmony doesn’t exist in the RF world.

It wasn’t harmonious at first when Mercury officials decided to work outside of VITA, after being frustrated with the lack of progress being made in the organization to develop the VITA 46 (VPX) standard. There was conflict among competitors, and at times the discussion got bogged down. As a result Mercury formed the OpenVPX Working Group, made up mostly of customers – primes – and stepped outside of VITA and the VSO’s development process. Some members were not happy and felt left out for competitive reasons. However, nearly everyone got to play and eventually they came back to VITA, working together to get VPX ratified.

Alderman, who was initially skeptical of OpenVPX, says today it was an “amazing model.” By developing about 50 percent of the standard externally “they saved months or maybe a year or more of development time.”

He says he believes the OpenRFM effort will be successful as well. “Standardization is needed for the RF industry and it is what the end users – the government and the major primes such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin – want. It is really intriguing what Mercury has done, but there are 10 or 15 more areas where [standardization in military systems] needs to be done as well and the top primes want to do it,” he continues. “This is only the beginning.”