Autotestcon 2012 opening day
Larry Desjardin- September 12, 2012Autotestcon Conference opened today at the Disneyland Convention Center in Anaheim, California. Also known as the System Readiness Conference, Autotestcon has been the industry’s primary event for testing and maintaining mil/aero electronics. Typically, there is a large presence from the Department of Defense, who often is the final end user of the test systems. Not this year. With uncertain budgets and the recent GSA scandal in Las Vegas, many services considered it unwise to attend a conference nominally held in Disneyland. This is unfortunate. The conference is not actually inside Disneyland, and Disneyland is not Las Vegas. For example, nobody ever says, “What happens in Disneyland stays in Disneyland.”
Nevertheless, the show goes on. Most of the well known test vendors are represented at the exhibition. Due to the intense need for downsized and ruggedized test equipment by the armed services, Autotestcon has also become a defacto modular instrumentation conference, with many vendors introducing new products, even if they are focused at the commercial market. The number of vendors is so large that Test and Measurement World colleague Janine Love and I split duties to cover the event, each with multiple days of coverage.
Settling into the Disneyland Hotel is a surreal experience. The water faucets all have a Mickey Mouse silhouette to them. A cartoon hand coming out of the wall holds the light fixture. A Disneyland castle is set in relief across the bedroom wall. Is this really where we will see the latest advances in instrumentation? “Whistle While You Work” played in the loudspeakers as I walk to the conference entrance. Stepping inside the exhibit doors it all changed. We are now in the magic kingdom of test and measurement.
First stop was Pickering Interfaces. Pickering has been a supplier of electronic switching solutions for decades, starting as a relay supplier in 1968. They continue to manufacture and market their own relays, as well as offer PXI and LXI switches for ATE. New from them were several PXI switches, including a completely solid state RF matrix. The 40-884 is a 4x4 matrix RF switch that operates up to 6GHz. Solid state switch brings high reliability with low insertion cost. Pickering also introduced a powered USB hub as a single slot PXI module. It is in interesting concept that allows a user to either add USB instruments to a system or to directly test a USB enabled device without risking harm to the embedded controller.
Afterwards I headed upstairs to meet with Ametek Programmable Power Division. Don’t recognize the name? That’s because the parent company has kept the well established brands of California Instruments, Elgar, Sorensen, Amrel, and Emtest. I was intrigued by a couple of solutions they had. The ReFlex line by Elgar is a modular power supply with a twist. The power modules, both AC and DC, may be combined creatively to make larger supplies. This allows a user to define the power capability they need by combining modules for each DUT (Device Under Test), and then treating the combined modules as a single instrument. Think of it as the power supply equivalent of synthetic instrumentation. This capability has led to ReFlex being deployed on major military systems such as eCASS, VDATS, and NGATS where there is a long list of legacy products to be tested.
Ametek also announced three Elgar TerraSAS solar array simulators. While power supplies aspire to create a perfect voltage of current source, solar arrays are imperfect and have peculiar static and dynamic behaviors that challenge the power inverters that connect to them. The TerraSAS simulators emulate these behaviors for accurate testing of the electronics that surround an array.
I spent the lunch at the Giga-tronics booth. Giga-tronics has a good size portfolio of VXI and PXI switches. However, they also offer the 8800 and 8900 Series of flexible switching solutions. It is an interesting architecture where “cubes” containing high volume switches and signal conditioning may be inserted in the sides of the cabinet. The modularity and accessibility is designed to lower support costs for high longevity systems. By the way, open one of the drawers and you will find standard modular switches as well. They also introduced a high fidelity 10 watt amplifier that reaches to 18 GHz.
Next on the list was Geotest. They earlier introduced a new 6.5 digit PXI DMM, but I was intrigued by their new announcements of PXI signal generation modules. The GX1649 offers 64 analog outputs in a single PXI slot. Each can be programmed between -15V and +15V DC with 16-bits of resolution, or create a waveform up to 625Ks/s. That’s a lot of density. Typical use is sensor emulation to test an electronic control unit of some sort.
If higher speeds are needed, Geotest now offers the GX1120. It is a two-channel Arbitrary Waveform Generator that employs Direct Digital Synthesis techniques. It is programmable to 10 volts with 32M of sample memory at speeds up to 250Ms/s. Not high enough? Combined the two channels together to reach 400 Ms/s. Density and performance in a single slot.
In the afternoon I wandered to the Adlink booth. Adlink is a Taiwan-based PXI vendor that has been increasingly active in the modular instrument space. I was intrigued how all their exhibits highlighted applications. Just announced at the show was the PXIe-9848 8 channel 100Ms/s 14-bit digitizer. It was being used to test the dynamic and ripple behavior of a power supply unit like you would find in a PC. The sampling speed is needed to characterize the ripple, while the resolution is needed to look at the DC characteristics. Adlink was also demonstrating the PXIe-HDVG2A HDMI frame grabber. It could sample the streaming HDMI output of a set top box to measure the signal quality.
Adlink told me that their plans are to move all their PXI-1 products to become hybrid compatible. Readers of my blog realize this is a smart move as it allows the converted modules to be inserted in any hybrid slot, allowing nearly seamless compatibility with PXI Express based systems.
My final stop of the day was at Agilent. Agilent was highlighting their new PXI RF vector signal analyzer, which I wrote about last week. To sum it up, it should be called the “Fast and the Non-Spurious”.
Agilent had also introduced a very impressive set of 14 handheld spectrum analyzers and network analyzers. Greg Peters, Vice President for the product line, showed charts that showed their accuracy challenged that PNA network analyzer, except it is in your hand.
Finally, Agilent showed their new AXIe M9703A digitizer. This 8-channel 1.6Gs/s digitizer has been on the market for a few months, but now DDC (Digital Down Conversion) has been added to each channel. I saw a very powerful demonstration of its capabilities in evaluating phase arrays antenna systems. Each module can measure 8 elements, and a user can measure up to 35 channels in a single 4U AXIe chassis. The performance they are able to get from the digital techniques is close to magic. Each increasing amount of decimation pushed the noise floor below that of the raw digitizer. It is another application where it is difficult to imagine anything but a modular solution being deployed.
I’ll report more on Autotestcon in another couple days. Walking out of the first day of the conference, I was thinking of all the things I had seen. Innovation was ubiquitous. I couldn’t help but think about how much smaller test equipment had come- whether in handheld or modular form factors. As I walked back into the sunshine at the Disneyland location the speakers broadcast “It’s a small world after all”. How appropriate!
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