Chambers of Innovation
INSIDE THE R&D CENTER OF EXCELLENCE AT THE HEXAGON CALGARY CAMPUS
The campus incorporates one of the industry’s most advanced engineering research and development (R&D) labs as well as a manufacturing facility. Specifically, the engineering
area incorporates a 3,600-square-foot R&D space which includes a hardware design laboratory with a semi-custom Radio Frequency (RF) Chamber, Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) chamber, RF Shielded Room, mobile environmental chambers and numerous RF and digital high-end specialized test equipment.
Dean Foster, Director of Hardware Engineering at Hexagon | NovAtel, said, “Our new lab is illustrative of NovAtel’s top-down commitment to not just hire the best people, but also to provide the tools to facilitate innovation and creativity.”
The R&D lab is already making waves in the industry, helping innovators solve some of the industry’s most difficult positioning and navigation challenges.
Home Court Advantage
The new R&D facility provides the opportunity to assist customers with more challenging requirements (e.g., autonomous driving) and drive the NovAtel time-to-market commitment without having to rely on the limited capabilities and time availability at external laboratories.
Foster explained: “Our customer base has changed considerably in recent years. For instance, UAVs and autonomous vehicles have very different and often highly challenging navigational requirements that far exceed anything the industry has required in the past. These solutions will require extensive testing to prove precision, robustness and operational effectiveness.”
In the past, NovAtel has performed testing on its collaborative solutions with help from external laboratories located around the world. “We’d fly to test labs in Canada, the U.S. and other places,” recalled Foster. “This is not the best method from a time-to-market, cost or design, testing and verification perspective. A pivotal belief of the new facility is that when a customer has a problem, we have the ability to test and simulate virtually any scenario to help them resolve that problem and come up with next-gen solutions in a timely manner.”
In many ways, the new campus was structured around the high-powered lab equipment and in fact, directly involved Foster and the rest of the R&D team in the design and construction.
In particular, the lab needed to fit the large RF and EMC chambers. The chambers required unique electrical and grounding considerations, and specialized support systems were needed to accommodate the 25,000 lb EMC chamber.
Foster continued: “Few companies have the ability to perform highly accurate measurements of GNSS antennas, wireless communications, EMC and a host of other tests to ensure performance, reliability, robustness and regulatory compliance all in one facility.”
The antenna chamber integrates the most advanced multi-probe spherical near-field measurement system for validating antenna concept and production cycles from MVG. It mimics an RF “clean” environment to measure antenna 3D radiation performances, such as antenna gain, efficiency, patterns, directivity, beam width, sidelobe, polarizations, phase center and multipath rejection.
Further, the system can measure antenna performance in wide sweeping frequencies in one comprehensive test. The 3D near-field (NF) and far-field (FF) measurement reveals the patterns, gains, axial ratio and many other performance parameters over frequency.
Foster notes that the chamber drastically reduces the time to capture near-field radiation and can also be mathematically transformed into far-field radiation with NF/FF algorithms. “Our old chamber required between 30 and 40 minutes to complete testing while the new chamber completes the same tests in minutes, which allows us to expand our testing opportunities.”
For antenna measurements, the anechoic chamber helps:
- Refine simulations and optimize the design for the manufacturing process
- Predict the quality of the GNSS solution provided by the antenna
- Audit the manufacturing processes to ensure antenna performance
- Verify antenna design quality and compliance
“We’re able to identify operational and environmental challenges like jamming, spoofing or multipath and then test common signal error and mitigation techniques,” Foster added. The chamber has a unique setup that allows the product under testing to undergo various types of jammers at all azimuths and altitudes.
Not only does the new chamber facilitate wireless testing to current standards, but it can also measure calibrated wireless over-the-air (OTA) performance, such as Total Radiated Power (TRP), Total Isotropic Sensitivity (TIS) and Effective Isotropic Radiated Power (EIRP), for different wireless communication standards. It can also be used for troubleshooting the antennas or large arrays by reconstruction of equivalent current distribution at extreme near fields from the antenna measurement data.
Quieting the Noise
The laboratory is equipped with a semi-anechoic chamber. The chamber provides electrical and RF noise isolation from the outside ambient environment so that it can accurately measure intentional and unintentional radiated RF noise emissions generated from products. Inversely, the chamber can be equipped to radiate RF energy to verify a product’s level of susceptibility to that interference.
The laboratory is also equipped with an ETS-Lindgren Shielded Room—essentially a chicken coop for electrical and RF noise isolation from the ambient environment and, most importantly, containment of noise generated inside while performing susceptibility tests.
The room is used to test the following:
- Electrical Steady State (ESS)
- Electrostatic Discharge (ESD)
- Electrical Fast Transients (EFT)
- Conducted Power Transients (ISO 7637)
- Surge Immunity (EN61000-4-5)
- Voltage Dips and Interruptions (EN61000-4-11)
- Conducted emissions (FCC/CISPR/MIL standards)
The functions of the lab are guided by the principles and practices of Continuous Improvement, 6S (Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain and Safety), ESD compliance and Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). The test and measurement equipment is maintained and calibrated annually using ISO 17025 suppliers and can be booked for use through a custom equipment database.
Foster said that having the ability to perform these tests in-house significantly increases the R&D team’s ability to understand and design to current and emerging challenging requirements.
“Overall, the chambers and other testing solutions in this facility greatly improve our time to market by providing in-house capabilities which previously had to be contracted and scheduled at external test facilities,” explained Foster. “They also allow us to perform design experiments, train staff on electromagnetic interference, test methodologies and concepts, develop custom test methods, and further mature the electromagnetic compatibility skills and understanding of our staff.”
Beyond the chamber’s test and measurement equipment capabilities, the R&D lab is built with collaboration in mind. The new lab features an open workspace where multiple engineering teams share resources, regularly interact with each other, resolve challenges and design best-in-class products.
As Foster put it: “We develop solutions that must survive the harshest environments, from high moisture to high vibration. Our goal is to push our products and our customer’s solutions to the extremes.”
The value of the new testing facility is best realized in customer relationships. Foster concluded: “While it’s early, I believe we’re more productive and more innovative. We
pride ourselves in meeting strict operating standards and high-value initiatives yet allowing enough flexibility to the users to do their work without limiting or sacrificing their creativity and innovation. The result is a positive, adaptive and safe working environment that enables us to compete in this fast-paced and ever-changing world of positioning technology. We are ready for everything.”