Ben Hilburn: Welcome to Software Defined Radio

As we head into the last few months before the Bay Area Hackfest in November, this blog will feature a series of abstracts of the talk that our speakers, each of them a thoughtful and engaging expert in their field, will be sharing in November.

a photograph of Ben Hilburn
Ben Hilburn
Project Lead and President,
The GNU Radio Foundation

The first known use of the term “software radio”, and the construction of the first known prototype, was in 1984—over three decades ago. Around the same time, the GNU Project (1983) and the Free Software Foundation (1985) were founded, which began building the foundations of the open-source software ecosystem that today is the force behind a tremendous amount of technology and infrastructure.

While Software Defined Radio (SDR) was at first prohibitively expensive and narrowly focused, it followed a common trend of technology adoption and grew inversely with its decline in cost – SDR systems are now both affordable and pervasive. While they first spread through the expected markets of communications, aerospace, and defense, SDR systems are now being leveraged in novel ways to disrupt other existing markets and to create entirely new ones. Additionally, the coincident rise of the maker / hacker community and commercial, low-cost, general-purpose SDR hardware has led to an explosion of interest, especially in fields like IoT, cybersecurity, and education.

Further, many of the commercial SDR devices are partially or fully open-source hardware, and there is a large and growing ecosystem of SDR software. The availability of highly capable open-source software, like GNU Radio (part of the aforementioned GNU Project), has accelerated the spread of SDR and has dramatically lowered the barrier-to-entry for a field that can otherwise have a very steep learning curve. Another advantage of the prominence of open-source software is that it enables the integration of SDR with otherwise disparate technologies, such as web applications, machine learning, distributed computing, and embedded systems. The diversity and vibrancy of the SDR field has created tremendous opportunities that industry, academia, governments, and amateurs are exploiting to significant benefit.

My talk at the DARPA Bay Area SDR Hackfest will explore these topics in further detail and discuss how SDR is enabling scientists and engineers, both professional and amateur, to achieve incredible things.