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Software Defined Radios and Their Applications

Person modulating wireless device

Companies are increasingly replacing their older serial-only or analog radios with software defined radios (SDRs). The ability to reconfigure transmission protocols, irrespective of hardware, offers tremendous flexibility to businesses to redeploy devices and extend their investment. It also opens up a range of new applications for their SDR transmitters and receivers, helping them scale more easily.

As processing power becomes more affordable, this transition is likely to gather even more pace until SDRs become the new standard for wireless industrial data transmission. Here’s a quick primer on software defined radios and their applications for businesses.

How Do Traditional Radios Work?

In a traditional radio, the hardware components are responsible for most of the signal processing. This means that you have limited ability to reconfigure or reprogram the device to transmit new waveforms. If there is an error in the hardware, there is no way to correct the problem. What’s more, it also prevents you from redeploying the radio for a different use. If your company scales or you’d like to transition to a different niche, your radio devices can’t necessarily scale with you.

What Is a Software Defined Radio?

A software defined radio is one where all of the communication is done through software. The radio frequency (RF) signal is converted to a digital bit stream and all the necessary modulation and demodulation is done via digital signal processors (DSPs). Essentially, if you’d like to transmit a new form of radio protocol, you can do that just by reformatting the device. This opens up an SDR to a host of new applications.

An SDR comprises two main functional blocks — a radio frontend (RFE) and a digital backend or the DSP. The frontend acts as the receiver and transmitter for the SDR, tuning into radio signals across a wide frequency band, ranging from 150 MHz to 2.4 GHz. 

The digital backend functions as the ‘brain’ of the radio, performing modulation, demodulation and reconfiguration functions. Together, this architecture allows SDRs to support multiple devices and transmit simultaneously across channels, giving industrial users the flexibility they need.

Applications of Software Defined Radios

SDRs are highly versatile devices; practically every industry has a use case for them. Here are some of the most popular uses for SDRs.

1. Testing and Measurement

Test and measurement (T&M) systems are crucial for a range of industrial functions, from system calibration to performance evaluation, and ensuring compliance with regulatory standards. Various industries such as aerospace, medical devices, additive manufacturing and more require T&M sensors in place. 

However, conventional T&M methods depend on outdated technologies that aren't able to handle the volume of data at the pace required. This makes it an ideal application for software defined radios with efficient transmitters and receivers that can meet the demands of modern data management. The flexibility offered by SDRs means they can easily be reconfigured to a different T&M function easily and cheaply.

2. SCADA Systems

Supervisory Control and Data (SCADA) systems are used for remotely monitoring, controlling, and analyzing industrial devices and processes. A SCADA system typically combines software and hardware components that facilitate remote and on-site data collection and computing. 

SCADA systems are ubiquitous across a range of industries, such as water and wastewater plants, oil and gas wells, agriculture, utilities, and more. SCADA is a great application for SDRs, given the latter are purpose-built to enable rapid data transfer and analysis. Versatile systems, such as those provided by XetaWave, tend to have built-in diagnostic tools and provide robust integration with third-party apps for powerful intelligence gathering. 

3. On-Site Edge Computing

With the right SDR technology, you can move beyond reporting and controlling to powerful on-site computing. One of the primary benefits of SDRs is that they facilitate data networks in spots where commercial cell service is hard to come by, such as a remote oil rig or mining operation. 

In these spots, edge computing systems are an excellent SDR application that help you collect and process equipment data on-site rather than have it relayed to off-site computing centers and back. This offers site managers the flexibility to pull insights, preempt events such as machinery breakdown, and proactively respond to maintain uptime.

4. Satellite Navigation

Satellite navigation is one of the most useful modern-day applications of SDRs. Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSSs), such as GPS, GALILEO, and BeiDou operate at different frequencies. SDRs are built to be flexible and can tune into any of these frequency bands without having to modify the hardware. What’s more, an SDR transmitter and receiver can operate on multiple channels and tune into all these bands on a single device. 

5. Remote Command & Control

SDR technology has proven transformative for remote command and control situations, such as for civilian and military drones. Often, drones need to be operated in remote spots with patchy cell networks for aerial photography or surveillance. SDRs can help bridge this gap by providing a robust data network, allowing operators to seamlessly complete their missions. 

6. Medical Devices

SDRs are very useful for medical applications, particularly devices that work off wireless radio technology. Devices such as CT scanners, MRI systems, minimally invasive energy devices, IoT-embedded devices and transmitters, and more can all function using SDRs. The technology is also a tremendous help when designing and prototyping medical instruments. The fact that SDRs can be reconfigured to different frequency bands means innovators can repurpose SDR hardware at minimal cost for subsequent iterations. 


Partner With Industry-Leading SDR Experts

XetaWave is an industry leader in the SDR space and the largest independent U.S. manufacturer of such devices. Our catalog features a near-comprehensive selection of high-performance SDR solutions across a global frequency of 10 MHz to 2.4 GHz that can be fully customized to any use case. Benefit from the expertise of a team of highly technical professionals with over 35 years of experience in the wireless communications industry. See outstanding results and robust support with XetaWave. Schedule a demo or speak to an expert today.

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