COTS or military: sometimes it's hard to tell

By John Keller

It's getting increasingly difficult these days to tell the real difference between commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and those purpose-built for military use. I think the reason for this is not that the two design approaches represent clearly different technologies, but instead that the two are simply opposite sides of the same coin.


Unmanned underwater vehicles like REMUS, shown above, will receive manual control from a Navy-designed joystick digital interface. U.S. Navy video

Let me illustrate: is a desktop computer COTS or military technology? Pretty simple, right? The PC is commercially available, and it comes off the shelf of your neighborhood Circuit City or other computer store. Of course it's COTS -- or is it? What happens when we consider the ancestral roots of the PC, or of many other commercial products, for that matter?

The desktop PC is a general-purpose electronic computer. I think we'd all agree on that. But what about the first such device -- the ENIAC, short for electronic numerical integrator and computer, which was developed during the Second World War, and was unveiled in 1946?

The ENIAC also was a general-purpose electronic computer, yet it was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army Ballistic Research Laboratory. So the ENIAC -- arguably a direct ancestor of the PC -- began its life as a military-specific system, yet evolved into one of the most successful commercial electronic appliances in recent memory. So, is the PC COTS or military?

Let's look at this evolution from a different perspective. What about those rugged tablet and palmtop computers that soldiers and airmen routinely carry onto the battlefield these days? These devices are purpose-built rugged for military applications, yet their innards often contain the same microprocessors and software operating systems as those COTS PCs on the shelf at Circuit City. Are these rugged battlefield computers COTS or military?

I think you can see my point. Look at most electronic technologies these days. The most successful see military and commercial applications, with some alterations to fit their specific uses and operating environments. Are these devices commercial or military? The answer is they're neither -- and they're both. At the end of the day it's hardly worth quibbling about.

I thought of this a week or so ago when I visited the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, R.I., where scientists and engineers develop and evaluate unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for military use (see feature on page XX for more on UUV technology).

Now you wouldn't think there would be a lot of COTS technology involved in such an esoteric field as UUVs, but that would be wrong. Actually there's quite a lot, but it's technology -- like in many other applications -- that has its feet in both camps, military and commercial. More interesting than that, however, is the technology that seems to flow freely back and forth between military and commercial.

NUWC engineers have developed a UUV they call MARV, which is short for midsize autonomous reconfigurable vehicle. MARV looks like a small torpedo -- 16 1/2 feet long and about a foot in diameter -- for testing different UUV technologies and payloads. One of the things they're using MARV for is to refine ways of remotely operating the UUV for precise and delicate tasks like docking with surface ships or with other UUVs.

"We want to be able to 'fly' the UUVs manually, occasionally for docking and similar tasks," says Christopher Egan, UUV customer advocate at NUWC. "We want to be able to manipulate the UUVs to guide them back onto submarines" and other vessels, he says.

To do that, they needed a joystick-type of interface, similar to those used in today's computer games. Why? Because most of the recruits going into the Navy these days already are experts at using joysticks in computer games. "The 'X-Box' skills the kids today have are right in the skill set we need," Egan says. "10 years ago, asking a sailor to do something like that would have been unthinkable."

NUWC experts have designed a special joystick for manipulating MARV and other UUVs, which is based on commercially available technology but is altered for a military-specific application. This joystick relies not only on commercial technology, but also on human skills developed as a result of widespread commercial technology.

Is this joystick military or commercial? The way I look at it, the device works, it doesn't cost too much, and the Navy was able to develop it quickly. Who cares if it's commercial or military?

Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account.


The Innovation That Matters™ Quiz

Innovation is one of the key drivers in the Defense industry. View this short video of Leon Woo, VP of Engineering at Mercury Systems, on the role of innovation. Then, answer 3 simple questions correctly to be entered into a drawing to win an Eddie Bauer fleece jacket!

CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR TWO MOST RECENT WINNERS. "Nick from SPARWAR" and "Bridget from AOC."


Military & Aerospace Photos

Related Products

API DC Link Power Film Capacitors

High reliability DC link capacitors for power inverter applications which require superior life e...

VPX3-453 3U VPX Virtex-6/8640D Digital Signal Processor

The Curtiss-Wright VPX3-453 is a high performance 3U VPX DSP and FPGA processor card that combine...

PC/104 SBC and Peripherals

Kontron PC/104 Standalone Single Board Computers (SBCs) serve in every format, even with consiste...

Related Companies

API Technologies Corp

Who We Are API Technologies is a dominant technology provider of RF/microwave, microelectronics, and security technol...

Extreme Engineering Solutions Inc (X-ES)

 Extreme Engineering Solutions, Inc. (X-ES) is a leader in the design, manufacture, and support of standard and ...

Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions

About Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions (CWCDS) is a long establish...
Wire News provided by   

Most Popular Articles

Webcasts

Digital signal processing for signals intelligence and electronic warfare

Military & Aerospace Electronics presents an expert Webcast on the latest hardware and software trends for high-performance embedded computing (HPEC) applications in demanding military signals intelligen...
Sponsored by:

Advantages of Intel Architecture Products and Wind River Solutions in Military & Aerospace Applications

This webinar explains the individual advantages of the Intel Architecture hardware, available for long-life supply, and the WRS software portfolio.  There are extraordinary advantages of combining such ...
Sponsored by:

Engineering the VPX high-speed data path for physical and signal integrity

Join Arrow Electronics and TE Connectivity, for an overview webinar of the standards, technologies and trends involving VITA and TE.

social activity

All Access Sponsors


Mil & Aero Magazine

February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
file

Download Our Apps



iPhone

iPad

Android

Follow Us On...



Newsletters

Military & Aerospace Electronics

Weekly newsletter covering technical content, breaking news and product information
SUBSCRIBE

Defense Executive

Monthly newsletter covering business news and strategic insights for executive managers
SUBSCRIBE

Embedded Computing Report

Monthly newsletter covering news on embedded computing in aerospace, defense and industrial-rugged applications
SUBSCRIBE

Unmanned Vehicles

Monthly newsletter covering news updates for designers of unmanned vehicles
SUBSCRIBE