By David Kiesling
Originally published in Microwave Journal
Technology providers are creating advanced new wireless system designs within restricted space constraints in avionics, 5G, space and many other industries. These applications rely on high density RF interconnections capable of high signal integrity and reliability in ever more miniature housings. There are many challenges to providing practical RF interconnections in such dense housing environments. Fortunately, innovations in RF interconnections have led to reliable, high performance solutions that can fit the tightest spaces available, even at the most difficult interconnection angles.
Avionics applications have limited space as they accommodate more application needs throughout the airframe. In the past, it may have been common to have 12 antennas on an aircraft, but there are now 50—even hundreds in some cases—antennas serving advanced avionics systems. More antennas in aircraft environments leads to more signal paths and the need for more RF interconnect solutions to accommodate them.
As more users rely on 5G services, more antennas will be needed to provide coverage, both at lower FR1 frequencies (under 6 GHz) and at higher FR2 mmWave frequencies. Antenna densification is required to deliver increased peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, enhanced reliability, enormous network capacity and increased availability for 5G. Many 5G networks employ MIMO antennas, which are shrinking in size as higher frequency bands are used to accommodate larger bandwidth requirements. This translates into more antennas in smaller spaces and more RF interconnections within those smaller spaces.
5G small cells, such as micro, pico and femto cells, are examples of the electronic densification within 5G networks as they are spaced much closer than traditional wireless macrocell towers, often only 100 yards apart. Demand for high density cabling solutions to accommodate the necessary
connections in smaller, more compact installations will continue to grow.
Equipment used to support space technology must be lightweight, compact, reliable and capable of withstanding high levels of shock, vibration and radiation, as well as wide
temperature ranges. RF coaxial cable assemblies must be designed to perform reliably in the smallest possible footprint. The high frequency cables required for space applications
must support low loss communications, requiring a dense network of antennas.
High density RF interconnection solutions have evolved from individual assemblies with multiple coaxial connectors to a single connection port. There are a wide variety of unique high density options suited to fit the specific needs of an industry/application, including multiport and mini-multiport connectors, bundled cable assemblies, locking miniature blind mate connectors and cable assemblies for densely packed in-the-box applications. Common requirements for these environments include ease of installation, high vibration (cannot come apart) and environmental seals.
Multiport and mini-multiport connector solutions are ideal for high density avionics environments, where space is at a premium, accessibility for maintenance is limited and performance is mission-critical. These connectors consist of multiple coaxial contacts of the same interface integrated
into a single connector module or shell. There are numerous options for these types of connectors, including those with reduced size and weight that provide excellent electromagnetic shielding and phase stability with low VSWR and insertion loss to 20 GHz for multiport connectors and to 40
GHz for mini-multiport connectors. See Figure 1 and 2 for examples.
Densification creates numerous challenges related to installation, torquing, ensuring proper weather sealing and more. In addition, an increasing number of technologies such as 5G small cells have limited space for equipment, so minimizing size and weight are also key goals.
With so many components in such a small space, maintenance can be challenging. If an interconnect fails, it can be hard to troubleshoot the exact one. Moreover, installation can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive and logistical nightmare. Hooking up the right cables, ports and torquing can be difficult when working with multiple connections. Proper weather sealing is also necessary; it is imperative to ensure that the seal is secure but not over-torqued.
A bundled cable solution can help create the perfect flexible antenna jumper for applications requiring multiple runs, such as 5G. A spiral configuration of multiple flexible and ultra-flexible jumper cables can be created under a common polyurethane outer jacket to promote easy installation and
improved operation. The individual coaxial cable runs are spun together in a way that easily flexes, essentially creating a bundle, which is then run through a large jacket extruder where a ripcord is placed.
This design enables four or five individual cables to be fed into the back of an industry standard MQ4/MQ5 bundled connector, incorporating multiple RF ports and significantly reducing the number of cables that have to be hooked up. MQ4/MQ5 bundled solutions also save a lot of labor and enable
a more rugged solution. They also make the assembly more weatherproof and UV resistant.
Using the four- or five-conductor solution eliminates the need to create individual weather seals, resulting in tremendous labor savings. Furthermore, it reduces the need to worry about coupling torque, which is critical because all it takes is an error on just one weather seal to create a point of
ingress for water that could create a multitude of problems and even potentially shut the system down. With a bundled solution, the connection between the male and female cluster connectors is sealed to IP-67, as are the connector bodies and the transition from the cluster connector to the bundled cable. Any potential system troubleshooting becomes much easier. Finally, the possibility of hooking up the wrong cable to the wrong port is eliminated. The solution is keyed, so the cables can only be hooked up a certain way—no torque wrenches, know-how or special technique required.
Bundled solutions are optimal for high density challenges as they permit installation in tight spaces; instead of connecting multiple threaded connectors, just one will do the job. They are faster and easier to install and maintain and provide one firm, reliable connection to support consistent high performance. Their design has many use cases, thus becoming particularly popular in applications
where cable installations and rising operating frequencies demand coaxial cables and connectors to deliver high signal integrity and reliability. An example of this type of solution is the TMQ4 and TMQ5 bundled cable assemblies from Times Microwave Systems shown in Figure 3.
A new generation of locking miniature blind mate connectors (TLMB) is specifically designed to overcome performance issues arising from typical SMP connectors’ susceptibility to electromagnetic interference (EMI) and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) interference, liquid and salt ingress. Their rugged, sealed design is more durable to withstand harsh conditions and operate in severe environments. TLMB connectors retain the small form factor of the SMP for highly dense environments but add improved environmental, shielding and power capabilities, with a frequency
range from DC to 60 GHz.
While SMPs are still a valuable connector option for many designs, they pose problems as applications demand higher and higher frequencies. One of the critical issues is shielding and EMI.
Similarly, the SMP’s design reduces its ability to function without affecting other equipment in the same environment. The connector’s signal leakage issues often result in failed EMC tests. In short,
the SMP’s lack of proper electrical bonding and shielding exposes the conductor’s signal to external influence.
This signal leakage limits how closely the connectors can be placed in a single shell; without proper shielding, the contacts must be kept at a greater distance to prevent signal interference. With the improved shielding of a TLMB, more connectors and cables can be added in a much smaller footprint without interference issues.
Another major failure area in the SMP’s design makes them susceptible to ingress from saltwater, fuel and other contaminants. The lack of an environmental seal due to their mechanical openings makes SMPs prone to corrosion and failure. Another problem arises with using SMPs in high vibration applications, where their easy connect/ disconnect design makes them susceptible to unwanted de-mating in high vibration environments. TLMBs were created for high-reliability, high vibration environments such as military and aerospace. Areas where EMI may be an issue, such as
shipboard or aircraft, need an environmentally sealed and shielded connector.
The standard SMP may also disconnect in high vibration environments such as a carrier landing, weapons launch or any powerful weapons platform, making a locking miniature blind mate connector the ideal choice.
Additionally, it may be optimal in high density applications to reduce the footprint required behind the connector to help install numerous cables into a very small space. Minimizing space between the cables and connectors is also necessary for the interconnect system to survive the high vibration and other harsh environmental conditions found in applications such as space and avionics.
New cable assemblies can be bent around tight corners and very closely behind the connector to minimize footprint, save space and simplify cable routing in tight spaces while offering low loss and optimized performance. Originally designed for space flight applications, this type of high performance assembly uses a compact, phase stable, highly flexible, micro becoming axial cable that can easily accommodate densely packed in-the-box applications. For example, Times Microwave System’s new InstaBend™ high performance microwave assemblies provide a flexible
preassembled design for interconnects between RF circuit cards, modules and enclosure panels. InstaBend is ideal for in-the-box applications with space constraints, including space flight, thermal vacuum, microwave test and other commercial and military applications. The cable can be bent very closely behind the connector, minimizing footprint, saving space and simplifying cable routing (see Figure 4). This also eliminates the need to protect the back of the connector.
Additionally, InstaBend provides these benefits at a dramatically reduced lead time compared to competing solutions. The high performance microwave assemblies are available in standard configurations or customized to meet an application’s specific needs. This new product’s ability to bend from connector to connector provides maximum flexibility and minimum use of available volume in high density, inside-the-box applications.
As advanced new mission-critical technologies are introduced, RF interconnect requirements are changing drastically, including the need for novel solutions to accommodate extremely restricted space constraints and rising operating frequencies. New innovations in high density RF interconnects are emerging to deliver high signal integrity and reliability in increasingly dense environments.
When selecting the right high density RF cables and connectors, it is best to work with a partner whose engineers can identify the application’s unique needs and design an optimized, easier to use solution—creating better electrical, mechanical and environmental performance. Look for a supplier
with a long history of building quality cable and connectors, along with the skill, processes, techniques and materials to bring custom solutions for specific application needs to life
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