The dawn of so-called “smart” — or cognitive — radio has presented Amateur Radio with an opportunity to regain the leading edge in radio technology in the near future. It will also alter our view of spectrum as a limited resource. Those points and others were part of a forward-looking, tag-team Sunday Seminar presentation, “Spectrum (It’s the frequency crunch for real),” by Michelle Thompson, W5NYV, and Bob McGwier, N4HY, at the 2016 ARRL and TAPR Digital Communications Conference (DCC), September 16-18 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Thompson heads the AMSAT Ground Terminal Team, a component of the Phase 4B geosynchronous satellite project. McGwier is chief scientist at the Hume Center for National Security and Technology at Virginia Tech. This week, HamRadioNow made the entire 3-hour presentation available as part of its conference coverage: HamRadioNow Episode 276 Parts 1, 2, and 3.
“If you put the smarts in the radio, what can possibly go wrong?” quipped Thompson, pointing to an example that demonstrated how sufficiently complicated technology is also more likely to fail.
Thompson said cognitive radio technology will alter the paradigm of treating spectrum as if it were land. “Spectrum is immediately reusable,” she said, “and land is not.” Regulation and spectrum allocation have been necessary to manage interference among services, but smart radios can avoid collisions among users, she said.
“[I]t hasn’t been until fairly recently that we’ve been able to inexpensively and quickly reconfigure a radio,” she said. Thompson’s Phase 4B project will take maximum advantage of cognitive radio technology, which can — among other things — determine an optimal clear frequency, mode, and path on the fly, transparently, and without human intervention.
McGwier called the computer “the tidal wave that has swept over Amateur Radio.” And, he predicted, “It is going to bring us back to becoming technical innovators.” He said radio amateurs “are uniquely situated to be the leading edge in radio again.”
McGwier said the innovation needed in Amateur Radio will come about through what he called “Amateur Radio freedom,” that encourages experimentation and thinking outside the box. “It’s the ultimate democratic assignment of frequencies in the world,” he said.
He painted a picture of intelligent radio technology that will operate like the human brain. “It’s going to design the radio on the fly, from scratch, without a subject-matter expert involved,” he said. “The radio will be done by artificial intelligence, from beginning to end. The object becomes not the radio, but the activity it allows.”
Responding to a question, McGwier conceded that today’s hams may balk at this sort of paradigm shift, since it’s far removed from how most Amateur Radio communication takes place today. But he said embracing smart radio technology is what will attract a younger generation of new hams.
“We need to not limit what these kids can do with Amateur Radio,” he maintained. “They are going to outdo us, if we only allow them. We can’t limit them, because this is a fundamental paradigm shift.”
Predicted McGwier: “You will not recognize your world in 10 years.” The HamRadioNow presentation also is available in audio format, and a highly condensed 11-minute synopsis is available on YouTube. — Thanks to Gary Pearce, KN4AQ/HamRadioNow