One company focused on equipping the defense industry is Mercury Systems, evidenced by multiple defense prime contractors utilizing the company’s solutions for various applications. At the recent IMS 2018, those who visited Mercury’s booth had the opportunity to learn about its latest developments. On top of that, the company is actively engaged in efforts to bring more young people into the RF/microwave industry.
Advanced packaging techniques and millimeter-wave (mmWave) development are two of Mercury’s target technology areas. Another is high-power gallium-nitride (GaN) development, which is taking place in the company’s Oxnard, Calif. location. Furthermore, its San Jose, Calif. facility is involved in satellite-communications (satcom) development. Its GaN-based solid-state power amplifiers (SSPAs) are currently used in space.
Kevin Beals, VP of Mercury Systems’ RF and microwave group, recently spoke about some of the trends that he is seeing—and that the company is addressing. He said, “We’re seeing that our customers are looking to build and conceive more multi-functionality (one antenna for multiple purposes). And in the amplification realm, we have to build multipurpose amplifiers that can handle both comms and electronic warfare (EW). This has typically been handled by two different amplifiers.” Essentially, rather than optimizing either the linearity or saturated efficiency of an amplifier, Mercury is now developing the technology to maximize both.
While microwave assemblies have traditionally been built using chip-and-wire construction, Beals pointed out that the company is relying more on surface-mount technology (SMT). “We’re trying to move toward SMT technology at higher frequencies and broader bands,” he explained. “We want to build cost-effective ‘tune-free’ products.”
It should be noted that realizing successful high-frequency, broadband SMT designs is not easy. To address the associated challenges, Mercury is exploiting advanced nonlinear device modeling and automated assembly to reduce both variation and the sensitivity to variation.
Shown is a densely integrated RF multichip module that offers ruggedization in a miniaturized size.
Using advanced packaging techniques to build products in much smaller sizes is another one of Mercury’s focal points. “Densities are going way up,” noted Beals. “We have some unique capabilities to densely package multi-function microwave circuits.” Furthermore, a recent blog post from Mercury delves into the topic of “smaller, faster, and more affordable” solutions in more detail. In it, the author, Mario LaMarche, discusses miniaturized EW systems and more (see figure).
As mentioned, mmWave development is also an area of concentration. “We’ve been building 20- to 100-GHz circuits for some time—specifically for airports,” added Beals. “We’re now leveraging this in the military market. We’re seeing more demand due to the greater threats. It’s important to move up in frequency to counter these threats.”
Recruiting the Next Generation
On a different front, Mercury Systems is also involved in efforts to bring the next generation of engineers into the RF/microwave industry. Beals recounted some of the industry’s history. “In the early 1980s, there were many new college graduates entering the RF/microwave world. But then the Department of Defense (DoD) slowed down in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For about 10 years, no engineers were coming into the DoD arena because there was no demand.”
Beals explained how there was a big gap in the RF/microwave world, as commercial narrowband wireless technology elicited a much greater demand for engineers in comparison to the defense realm. “However,” he added, “that has turned around in the last few years.”
Mercury Systems now has an internship program that’s designed to create relationships with universities that have strong microwave programs. “This year, we had students reach out to us for internships,” said Beals. The effort to attract young engineers will be essential, as more colleagues near the retirement stage.