A software-defined radio system, or SDR, is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system. While the concept of SDR is not new, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital electronics render practical many processes which used to be only theoretically possible.
A basic SDR system may consist of a personal computer equipped with a sound card, or other analog-to-digital converter, preceded by some form of RF front end. Significant amounts of signal processing are handed over to the general-purpose processor, rather than being done in special-purpose hardware. Such a design produces a radio which can receive and transmit widely different radio protocols (sometimes referred to as waveforms) based solely on the software used.
Software radios have significant utility for the military and cell phone services, both of which must serve a wide variety of changing radio protocols in real time.
In the long term, software-defined radios are expected by proponents like the SDRForum (now The Wireless Innovation Forum) to become the dominant technology in radio communications. SDRs, along with software defined antennas are the enablers of the cognitive radio.
A software-defined radio can be flexible enough to avoid the "limited spectrum" assumptions of designers of previous kinds of radios, in one or more ways including:
The ideal receiver scheme would be to attach an analog-to-digital converter to an antenna. A digital signal processor would read the converter, and then its software would transform the stream of data from the converter to any other form the application requires.
The ideal scheme is not completely realizable due to the actual limits of the technology. The main problem in both directions is the difficulty of conversion between the digital and the analog domains at a high enough rate and a high enough accuracy at the same time, and without relying upon physical processes like interference and electromagnetic resonance for assistance.
Most receivers use a variable-frequency oscillator, mixer, and filter to tune the desired signal to a common intermediate frequency or baseband, where it is then sampled by the analog-to-digital converter. However, in some applications it is not necessary to tune the signal to an intermediate frequency and the radio frequency signal is directly sampled by the analog-to-digital converter (after amplification).
Real analog-to-digital converters lack the dynamic range to pick up sub-microvolt, nanowatt-power radio signals. Therefore a low-noise amplifier must precede the conversion step and this device introduces its own problems. For example, ifspurious signals are present (which is typical), these compete with the desired signals within the amplifier's dynamic range. They may introduce distortion in the desired signals, or may block them completely. The standard solution is to put band-pass filters between the antenna and the amplifier, but these reduce the radio's flexibility - which some see as the whole point of a software radio. Real software radios often have two or three analog channel filters with different bandwidths that are switched in and out.
The term "software radio" was coined in 1984 by a team at the Garland Texas Division of E-Systems Inc. (now Raytheon). A classified, yet fairly well known, 'Software Radio Proof-of-Concept' laboratory was developed at E-Systems that popularized Software Radio within various government agencies. This 1984 Software Radio was a digital baseband receiver that provided programmable interference cancellation and demodulation for broadband signals, typically with thousands of adaptive filter taps, using multiple array processors accessing shared memory.
Perhaps the first software-defined radio transceiver was designed and implemented by Peter Hoeher and Helmuth Lang at the German Aerospace Research Establishment (DLR, formerly DFVLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, in 1988. Both transmitter and receiver of an adaptive digital satellite modem were implemented according to the principles of software-defined radio, and a flexible hardware periphery was proposed.
The term "software defined radio" was coined in 1991 by Joseph Mitola, who published the first paper on the topic in 1992. Though the concept was first proposed in 1991, software-defined radios have their origins in the defense sector since the late 1970s in both the U.S. and Europe (for example, Walter Tuttlebee described a VLF radio that used an ADC and an 8085 microprocessor). One of the first public software radio initiatives was a U.S. military project namedSpeakEasy. The primary goal of the SpeakEasy project was to use programmable processing to emulate more than 10 existing military radios, operating in frequency bands between 2 and 2000 MHz. Further, another design goal was to be able to easily incorporate new coding and modulation standards in the future, so that military communications can keep pace with advances in coding and modulation techniques.
SPEAKeasy phase I
From 1992 to 1995, the goal was to produce a radio for the U.S. Army which could operate from 2 MHz to 2 GHz, and operate with ground force radios (frequency-agile VHF, FM, and SINCGARS), Air Force radios (VHF AM), Naval Radios (VHF AM andHF SSB teleprinters) and satellites (microwave QAM). Some particular goals were to provide a new signal format in two weeks from a standing start, and demonstrate a radio into which multiple contractors could plug parts and software.
The project was demonstrated at TF-XXI Advanced Warfighting Exercise, and met all these goals. There was some discontent with certain unspecified features. Its cryptographic processor could not change context fast enough to keep several radio conversations on the air at once. Its software architecture, though practical enough, bore no resemblance to any other.
The basic arrangement of the radio receiver used an antenna feeding an amplifier and down-converter (see Frequency mixer) feeding an automatic gain control, which fed an analog to digital converter that was on a computer VMEbus with a lot of digital signal processors (Texas Instruments C40s). The transmitter had digital to analog converters on the PCI bus feeding an up converter (mixer) that led to a power amplifier and antenna. The very wide frequency range was divided into a few sub-bands with different analog radio technologies feeding the same analog to digital converters. This has since become a standard design scheme for wide band software radios.
SPEAKeasy phase II
The goal was to get a more quickly reconfigurable architecture, i.e., several conversations at once, in an open software architecture, with cross-channel connectivity (the radio can "bridge" different radio protocols). The secondary goals were to make it smaller, cheaper, and weigh less.
The project produced a demonstration radio only fifteen months into a three-year research project. The demonstration was so successful that further development was halted, and the radio went into production with only a 4 MHz to 400 MHz range.
The software architecture identified standard interfaces for different modules of the radio: "radio frequency control" to manage the analog parts of the radio, "modem control" managed resources for modulation and demodulation schemes (FM, AM, SSB, QAM, etc.), "waveform processing" modules actually performed the modem functions, "key processing" and "cryptographic processing" managed the cryptographic functions, a "multimedia" module did voice processing, a "human interface" provided local or remote controls, there was a "routing" module for network services, and a "control" module to keep it all straight.
As a military project, the radio strongly distinguished "red" (unsecured secret data) and "black" (cryptographically-secured data).
The project was the first known to use FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) for digital processing of radio data. The time to reprogram these was an issue limiting application of the radio. Today, the time to write a program for an FPGA is still significant, but the time to download a stored FPGA program is around 20 milliseconds. This means an SDR could change transmission protocols and frequencies in one fiftieth of a second, probably not an intolerable interruption for that task.
Joint Tactical Radio System
The Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) was a program of the US military to produce radios that provide flexible and interoperable communications. Examples of radio terminals that require support include hand-held, vehicular, airborne and dismounted radios, as well as base-stations (fixed and maritime).
This goal is achieved through the use of SDR systems based on an internationally endorsed open Software Communications Architecture (SCA). This standard uses CORBA on POSIX operating systems to coordinate various software modules.
The program is providing a flexible new approach to meet diverse warfighter communications needs through software programmable radio technology. All functionality and expandability is built upon the SCA.
The SCA, despite its military origin, is under evaluation by commercial radio vendors for applicability in their domains. The adoption of general purpose SDR frameworks outside of military, intelligence, experimental and amateur uses, however, is inherently retarded by the fact that civilian users can more easily settle with a fixed architecture, optimized for a specific function, and as such more economical in mass market applications. Still, software defined radio's inherent flexibility can yield substantial benefits in the longer run, once the fixed costs of implementing it have gone down enough to overtake the cost of iterated redesign of purpose built systems. This then explains the increasing commercial interest in the technology.
SCA-based infrastructure software and rapid development tools for SDR education and research are provided by the Open Source SCA Implementation - Embedded (OSSIE) project. The Wireless Innovation Forum funded the SCA Reference Implementation project, an open source implementation of the SCA specification. (SCARI) can be downloaded for free.
Amateur Radio or Home Use
A typical amateur software radio uses a direct conversion receiver. Unlike direct conversion receivers of the more distant past, the mixer technologies used are based on the quadrature sampling detector and the quadrature sampling exciter.
The receiver performance of this line of SDRs is directly related to the dynamic range of the analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) utilized. Radio frequency signals are down converted to the audio frequency band, which is sampled by a high performance audio frequency ADC. First generation SDRs used a PC sound card to provide ADC functionality. The newer software defined radios use embedded high performance ADCs that provide higher dynamic range and are more resistant to noise and RF interference.
The SDR software performs all of the demodulation, filtering (both radio frequency and audio frequency), signal enhancement (equalization and binaural presentation). Uses include every common amateur modulation: morse code, single sideband modulation, frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, and a variety of digital modes such as radioteletype, slow-scan television, and packet radio. Amateurs also experiment with new modulation methods: for instance, the DREAM open-source project decodes the COFDM technique used by Digital Radio Mondiale.
There is a broad range of hardware solutions for radio amateurs and home use. There are professional-grade transceiver solutions, i.e. the Zeus ZS-1 or the Flex Radio, home-brew solutions, i.e. the SoftRock SDR kit, and starter solutions, i.e. the FiFi SDR for shortwave.
Finally, it has been discovered recently that a common DVB USB stick (with Realtek RTL2832U chip) can be used as a wide-band SDR receiver.
More recently, the GNU Radio using primarily the Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) uses a USB 2.0 interface, an FPGA, and a high-speed set of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, combined with reconfigurable free software. Its sampling and synthesis bandwidth is a thousand times that of PC sound cards, which enables wideband operation.
The HPSDR (High Performance Software Defined Radio) project uses a 16-bit 135 MSPS analog-to-digital converter that provides performance over the range 0 to 55 MHz comparable to that of a conventional analogue HF radio. The receiver will also operate in the VHF and UHF range using either mixer image or alias responses. Interface to a PC is provided by a USB 2.0 interface though Ethernet could be used as well. The project is modular and comprises a backplane onto which other boards plug in. This allows experimentation with new techniques and devices without the need to replace the entire set of boards. An exciter provides 1/2 W of RF over the same range or into the VHF and UHF range using image or alias outputs.
WebSDR is a project initiated by Pieter-Tjerk de Boer providing access via browser to multiple SDR receivers worldwide covering the complete shortwave spectrum. Recently he has analyzed Chirp Transmitter signals using the coupled system of receivers.