SDR: Nuand bladeRF – the USB 3.0 Superspeed Software Defined Radio

bladeRF – the USB 3.0 Superspeed Software Defined Radio

BladeRF: a low cost wideband SDR transceiver

 

title

With a 300MHz to 3.8GHZ range, 40MHz bandwidth, USB 3.0 interface and priced at only $400, it’s hardly surprising bladeRF reached its $100,000 Kickstarter goal in under 8 days.

A gap in the market

Research and development labs have been well served for a number of years by the modular USRP hardware family, which represents great value for money and offers configuration flexibility, but is priced out of the range of many hobbyists and those curious about software defined radio (SDR).

More recently, the Noctar board from Per Vices has provided a cost effective integrated option for particularly wideband and very high bandwidth requirements, but is limited to use with desktop computers and servers since it’s a PCI solution.

Not everyone needs hardware such as Noctar that has coverage from 100KHz to 4GHz and is able to manipulate a formidable 250MHz wide chunk of spectrum, and bladeRF is more than adequate for use with many current and future wireless systems and comes in at under half the price.

Capable features

The compact form factor and low cost of bladeRF has been made possible thanks to the LMS6002D from Lime Microsystems, an SPI programmable IC that integrates digital converters, PLLs, mixers, amplifiers and filters. Designed as a single chip transceiver for 3G and LTE femtocell and picocell base stations, it requires very few external components and has a Tx output of up to +6dBm.

The board includes a TCXO to provide the stability required by communications systems such as GSM, and also has expansion for 1PPS sync. An SMA connector is provided each for transmit and receive, and MIMO expansion up to 4×4 is possible by connecting boards together via SMB cables.

A Cypress FX3 microcontroller is used to provide the USB 3.0 interface, its JTAG port is exposed and the source code for the firmware will be provided under an open source licence.

bladeRF also includes an Altera Cyclone 4 FPGA, which can be used to implement signal processing functions and to create a standalone solution, with source HDL being provided for the default configuration and the JTAG port for the device also made available.

As you would expect, a Linux device driver is provided along with GNU Radio support.

Conclusion

bladeRF doesn’t do anything that existing digital radio hardware isn’t capable of, but what it does it achieves at an impressive price point and in a conveniently compact form factor. As such it’s probably safe to assume we’ll be seeing these at future open source and SDR hacking events. But bladeRF will be equally at home in R&D labs and in particular in RF test beds and MIMO systems.

— Andrew Back

Top: a bladeRF board pictured connected to a Raspberry Pi.


bladeRF

AN OPEN EDUCATION

bladeRF is a Software Defined Radio (SDR) platform designed to enable a community of hobbyists, and professionals to explore and experiment with the multidisciplinary facets of RF communication. By providing source code, thorough documentation, easy to grasp tutorials, and a place for open discussion modern radio systems will be demystified by covering everything from the RF, analog, and digital hardware design to the firmware running on the ARM MCU and FPGA to Linux kernel device drivers.

A Software Defined Radio platform should not end at the hardware, which is why there is such a strong emphasis on documentation and tutorials. Starting with basic radio architecture and spanning into modulation techniques, high throughput USB Linux kernel driver design, basic telecommunication coding schemes, and MIMO, the platform aims to be the perfect tool for learning modern software radio design.

POWERFUL AND PORTABLE

The bladeRF is a fully bus powered device that does not need to be plugged into an outlet for normal operation. For users who wish to do host processing, USB 3.0 SuperSpeed is the ideal high throughput, low latency interface that brings the PC closer to the antenna than ever before. For those looking for a standalone solution, the bladeRF accepts a 5V DC input and operates autonomously using the FPGA for signal processing.

PROFESSIONAL QUALITY, AMATEUR PRICE

Professionally designed and verified, bladeRF prototypes were inspected through X-Ray superimposed layouts (pictured on the left), and put through rigorous physical and electrical stress tests to ensure high quality mass production builds. Ultimately, this makes the bladeRF a high quality, low-cost Software Defined Radio capable of capturing 40MHz 12-bit full duplex quadrature samples in realtime.


TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS:

  • Fully bus-powered USB 3.0 SuperSpeed Software Defined Radio
  • Portable, handheld form factor: 5″ by 3.5″
  • Extensible gold plated RF SMA connectors
  • 300MHz – 3.8GHz RF frequency range
  • Independent RX/TX 12-bit 40MSPS quadrature sampling
  • Capable of achieving full-duplex 28MHz channels
  • 16-bit DAC factory calibrated 38.4MHz +/-1ppm VCTCXO
  • On-board 200MHz ARM9 with 512KB embedded SRAM (JTAG port available)
  • On-board 15KLE or 115KLE Altera Cyclone 4 E FPGA (JTAG port available)
  • 2×2 MIMO configurable with SMB cable, expandable up to 4×4
  • Modular expansion board design for adding GPIO, Ethernet, and 1PPS sync signal and expanding frequency range, and power limits
  • DC power jack for running headless
  • Highly efficient, low noise power architecture
  • Stable Linux and GNURadio software support
  • Hardware capable of operating as a spectrum analyzer, vector signal analyzer, and vector signal generator

Backward USB 2.0 compatibility makes it a perfect fit for embedded applications (ie. connected to and powered by a Raspberry Pi or Beagleboard)
USB 3.0 Superspeed

High speed, low latency and increased power delivery over a single cable: USB 3.0 Superspeed is the perfect interface for a wide bandwidth radio front end to modern computers. The Cypress FX3 microcontroller is the ideal solution with a powerful ARM9 processor and enough bandwidth to saturate the full duplex 5Gbps USB 3.0 link.

Fully Programmable FPGA

An Altera Cyclone IV FPGA provides the interface between the FX3 and RF transceiver. This FPGA has single-cycle access embedded memory, hard 18×18 multipliers for dedicated DSP and many general logic elements ready to be programmed.

Wideband RF Transceiver

From bits to RF, the LimeMicro LMS6002D is a fully integrated RF transceiver. Made to power picocell stations, this transceiver is capable of handling anything from simple FM audio to the latest 4G LTE standard to whatever the future may hold.

Professional Quality

The bladeRF’s design has been tested and verify to meet our very high standards. At peak RF performance, the bladeRF can occupy 28MHz of bandwidth over its operating bandwidth without any significant spurs.


Get involved

Come join us, and other RF developers, on IRC in #bladeRF on FreeNode (irc://chat.freenode.net). Our goal is to provide a place for collaboration and open discussion to further RF exploration and experimentation. We encourage people of all skill levels to join us. By getting involved, your input and feedback will help influence the direction in which the community will head.

Helping us achieve our Kickstarter goal is also a very important step toward making bladeRF a reality. Please consider checking us out on Kickstarter.

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