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Three-way race to the future

Nov. 1, 2019

A little over a year ago on this page (October 2018), I looked toward the future of 5G, autonomous vehicles, and manned missions to Mars. Widespread practical applications of 5G communications and autonomous automobiles remain in the future, as does any manned mission to Mars (or even the return of men to the moon). Nevertheless, progress is occurring on all fronts, with 5G likely to be the first to make a significant impact on our lives.

Shortly after I wrote my October 2018 editorial, NASA announced that its InSight had signaled from the Martian surface that its solar panels had opened and were collecting sunlight.1 Shortly after, InSight began transmitting photos and videos with audio. You can hear some of the “peculiar” sounds InSight has captured at the Mars InSight Mission website.2 InSight is also delivering weather reports for Elysium Planitia. As I write this on October 1, the high is -15°F, and the low is -155°F.

As for autonomous vehicles, expectations that level 4 or level 5 self-driving cars will soon appear have waned, mostly because of safety concerns. Researchers are working on both sensors and software to overcome current limitations, and it’s possible that the traditional vision, radar, ultrasonic, and lidar sensors might need to be augmented with additional technology.

A recent New York Times article3 outlines the initiatives that several companies are taking on the sensor front. Companies including AdaSky, FLIR, and Seek Thermal, for example, offer infrared sensors that perform well in rain and at night. WaveSense offers ground-penetrating radar that could be adapted to automotive applications. Meanwhile, makers of lidar and radar sensors are working to improve their technology as well. As for the software that ties sensor systems together, Yole Développement sees a role for artificial intelligence in the autonomous-automobile market.4

Considerable progress is occurring in 5G, with test-and-measurement instruments playing a key role. “Within the high-performance signal-generator area, it is all about 5G as demand increases for complete testing solutions for 5G products,” says James McGregor, global head of test, tools, and production supplies at Newark, in the special report on signal generators in this issue. A key trend is a move to smaller footprints. “This trend is apparent in the drive to support 5G and other emerging technologies as more and more functionality is implemented in this compact package,” adds Jon Semancik, director of marketing at Marvin Test Solutions. Of course, frequency range is an issue as well. “5G FR2 applications currently aim for frequencies up to 44 GHz, and 6G will presumably use even higher frequencies,” notes Simon Ache, director of signal-generation product management at Rohde & Schwarz.

Did Ache mention 6G? Yes, he did, and work on the technology is commencing. To that end, in September, NI announced a real-time sub-THz software-defined-radio (SDR) for 6G research built on NI’s mmWave Transceiver System (MTS) and Virginia Diodes’ radio heads. “Now that 5G is becoming mainstream, communications research must move deeper into the millimeter and submillimeter wavebands,” said Gerhard Schoenthal, COO of Virginia Diodes, in a press release. “It seems D-Band is now the new E-Band.”

So, which will appear first—humans on Mars, fully autonomous automobiles, or 6G networks? It will be an interesting three-way race to watch.

Rick Nelson

Interim Chief Editor


1. “InSight Is catching rays on Mars,” EE-Evaluation Engineering Online, November 28, 2018.

2. “NASA's InSight 'Hears' Peculiar Sounds on Mars,” InSight Mission News, NASA, October 1, 2019.

3. Quain, John R., “These High-Tech Sensors May Be the Key to Autonomous Cars,” The New York Times, September 26, 2019.

4. Artificial Intelligence Computing for Automotive 2019 , i-Micronews, February 2019.


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