About Maia SDR

Maia SDR is an open-source project started by Daniel Estévez in 2022 with the goal of developing radio applications whose signal processing runs mainly on an FPGA. In this sense, Maia SDR is an FPGA-based SDR (see the FAQ if you find this term strange).

There are several motivations that led to this project:

  1. There is a thriving open-source SDR community, which develops great pieces of software. However, not many people are doing FPGA development (though there are some notable exceptions).
  2. There is an open-source FPGA community doing amazing work and projects. Most of these projects are not related to radio or signal processing, and the interaction between the FGPA and SDR communities is minimal (with a few exceptions).
  3. Affordable handheld and portable radios are not very flexible and do not offer much variety in terms of how to explore the RF spectrum and have fun with it. A PC running SDR software is vastly superior in capabilities to a compact solution.
  4. Portable solutions should use FPGA processing as much as possible in order to save power and offer capabilities which are not possible with embedded CPUs.

With these ideas in mind, Maia SDR starts as a project with the long term goal of building an open-source compact/portable radio that offers high flexibility in the same sense that SDR software does, and that uses an FPGA for most of its signal processing. The work-in-progress project will hopefully serve as a stepping stone that people can extend or use as a base for their projects, and will bring more FPGA development to the SDR community and more collaboration between the FPGA and SDR communities.

The ideal hardware for this project would be an affordable board (or stack of boards) with a relatively capable FPGA that supports an open-source toolchain, an RFIC of some sort, some kind of RISC-V SoC or microcontroller, and UI hardware (touchscreen, etc.). Unfortunately, something like this does not currently exist. This is a chicken and egg problem, in the sense that there are not enough open-source FPGA designs yet to make this hardware interesting, so the hardware does not get developed, and so there is no hardware to develop the FPGA designs for. If I started by developing the hardware, I would probably never finish. Instead of dreaming about this hardware, a good way to kickstart these activities is to focus on an existing, affordable, and widely available hardware that can serve as a "good enough replacement".

I have decided to focus on the ADALM Pluto because it is a very popular and common SDR, and it has a fairly capable Zynq FPGA + ARM SoC. Together with a smartphone for the UI, this pair of devices give a portable solution for which already many hobbyists have the required hardware. This platform serves to develop a "product" that can have useful features right from the start, rather than having something in a work-in-progress state that people cannot use until (and if) it is finished.

Maia SDR attempts to bring more interest in FPGA delopment for radio applications, and to serve as a starting point for other projects, by dealing with things which are usually entry barriers (such as how to move data around with DMAs or how to compute an FFT). It also serves as a playground to explore novel technologies and ideas.

The HDL code of Maia SDR is written in Amaranth, which is a Python-based HDL and toolchain. This is one of the flagship projects of the open-source FPGA community, and there have already been some small projects using Amaranth for radio applications (see an SDR transmitter tutorial at EU GNU Radio days and a post about how to use Amaranth for radio astronomy).

The software of Maia SDR runs on the Zynq ARM CPU and serves to control the FPGA and to provide an interface to a smartphone (or other device) connected to the Pluto. It does so by spawning an HTTP server that has a web application as UI, a RESTful API for control, and uses WebSockets to stream data. The software is written in Rust using asynchronous programming. I think that Rust is a very good language for systems development, and has a wonderful open-source community behind. Perhaps this choice of technology will give at some point a link between Maia SDR and FutureSDR, which is a very interesting SDR runtime project that is also implemented in asynchronous Rust.

The UI of Maia SDR is a web application that uses WebGL2 to render the waterfall display. It is implemented in Rust using WebAssembly.