“Game Changer” may have been the understatement of Dayton 2012. Flex-Radio debut “Signature Series” Flex-6000 radios are a revolutionary product class never before seen in amateur radio.
On the pure technical and capability side, nothing out there comes close. This is truly a “Game Changer” product line, moving the main heavy lifting of SDR radio back into the radio box, using state of the art design that before the Flex-6000 series was available to commercial and government types at price points that match many ham’s mortgages!
In a development coup Flex-Radio has worked with primary chip manufacturers to bring FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) technology that only a year back would have cost more PER CHIP than the retail of the Flex-6500 to the amateur market.
The FPGA put simply is a way to put software on a chip so the code can rip through huge amounts of data processing it basically in parallel rather than in series. The FPGA is fluid and can be reprogramed in place.
Talking this trough, the way it came across to me was something like imagining if you had 1000 cars and hour to valet park – and for our purposes each car represents a bit of signal. A conventional SDR setup would do stuff to the signal, pump it down either Firewire or USB to a conventional PC which would take only so many – say maybe a dozen “cars” at any one instance and park them by processing and sending them back to the SDR unit again waiting for Firewire/USB space. The backup could be huge!
In the FPGA imagine that the cars first never have to leave the SDR unit, and the parking at one time limitation of waiting for space to be sent down the Firewire or USB is lifted, AND the FPGA can instantly call up thousands of Valets to park the cars at the SAME TIME. Obviously the potential throughput could be massive!
When FPGA ran $5000 upwards per chip (yes $5K in a single chip) the technology was not marketable. Flex-Radio has worked out a way to bring the costs of this massive processing power to amateur radio price points.
The added benefits of pushing the heavy lifting all back into the radio are massive. The new SmartSDR could be thought of as a CAT-gateway, VoIP like audio passing agent and the GUI. No longer does the PC have massive processing duties. This “thin client” arrangement should make it possible to work with non-Window’s operating systems, and it was obvious from every Flex-Radio staffer having an iPad that they’re open minded with using effective tools.
There is a lot of new jargon with is the Flex-6000s – Spectral Capture Units (SCU) (Flex-6500 has one, Flex-6700 has two) which act something like extremely broadband receivers. Each SCU can be divided into four “Slices” which are the SmartSDR “receivers” promising at least 384 kHz (and it is reasonable to expect this may be a rather understated number).
Initial launch will be with a SmartSDR thin client capable of networked operation from anywhere on the same router. Basically you can’t run the radio without at least a basic bit of networking. Down the road perhaps a year further will be a NAT-traversal agile SmartSDR upgrade allowing native remoting from the internet.
Little mentioned have been the USB links on the radio – they seem opportune to control an amp and other outboard units.
Very cool is a GPSDO GPS based time reference option, that would allow very accurate data time stamp coordination for use of a network of Flex-6000s in a diversity setup with units perhaps 1000s of miles apart. Major “gee wiz” nearly Sci-Fi stuff there!
The demo software is a skeleton and is the big hurdle to a full launch. The hardware is done, and having proven technology from secuirty receivers Flex-Radio had the experience to make that part happen when the economics of FPGA changed.
All this doesn’t come for free. Intro prices are Flex-6500 at $4000 and Flex-6700 at $7000, with the GPSDO adding $700. The only other options are rack mount kits and handles.
It was awesome to see history in the making as Flex-Radio rolled out the “Game Changer” at Dayton. While there is always a place for every category of radio from spark, tube, separates to conventional contest boxes and computer processor dependent SDR, the field has been expanded in a major way with the Flex-6000 series.