Industry uncertainty dominates small-form-factor embedded computing for UAVs and military vehicles



PRODUCT INTELLIGENCE, 7 Oct. 2011. Everyone involved in the embedded computing business for aerospace and defense applications knows what is job-one: components must become smaller, lighter in weight, and must consume less power. This size, weight, and power (SWaP) issue governs the industry; no one argues with that. Modern unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs, as well as sophisticated electronics that fit inside light military combat vehicles are driving the SWaP imperative.

The solution increasingly involves small form factors, which until recently has referred to relatively small computer circuit boards such as 3U VPX, 3U CompactPCI, and even 3U VME, but is evolving to even smaller computer boards such as PICMG COM Express, nanoETXexpress, Mini-ITX, Nano-ITX, and emerging standards that are part of the VITA-73, VITA-74, and VITA-75 programs.


Job-one also mandates the use of open-systems standards to achieve SWaP goals. Systems buyers in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and other government agencies are sick of proprietary designs that lock them into to specific vendors -- no matter how capable or revolutionary the technology might be. SWaP and standards: these are the knowns.

The big question is how do designers achieve the kind of SWaP that customers demand? Existing generations of small embedded computing standards, such as 3U VPX and 3U CompactPCI, simply may not be small enough any longer, as systems integrators scour the industry for single-board computers that are the size of credit cards, and even smaller.

Just how industry gets to a standard new generation of the smallest single-board computers ever is where the knowns start to disappear, and the unknowns gather like dark clouds. At the source of the confusion lies a question: does industry need another computer board standard form factor to meet future demands for smaller, lighter, and more efficient embedded computing, or are existing standards good enough?

Little industry consensus exists, and this question frames the current debate on small-form-factor embedded computing. "There is a fairly big debate in the industry right now. There is uncertainty as to what hardware they can use to solve their applications in this small-form-factor space," says Steven Edwards, chief technology officer at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Ashburn, Va.

Related stories

-- Small form-factor XMC mezzanine card for situational awareness introduced by Curtiss-Wright;

-- Rugged small-form-factor USB expansion embedded boards with SUMMIT interface introduced by VersaLogic; and

-- Freescale QorIQ processor-based small-form-factor single-board computers introduced by Emerson for aeronautics and security applications.

One approach involves coming up with a new industry standard, which would be under the Aegis of the VITA Open Standards, Open Markets embedded computing trade association in Fountain Hills, Ariz. VITA is sponsoring three separate initiatives to formulate a new small-form-factor industry standard, known as VITA-73, VITA-74, and VITA-75.

The idea is to create three new small-form-factor standards, and then let the market sort out which of these standards would become the most popular and dominant. Companies involved in proposing VITA-73, VITA-74, and VITA-75 standards, respectively, are PCI-Systems Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif.; Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif.; and Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Ashburn, Va.

Of these three companies, Themis is perhaps the farthest along in development, and is offering boards the size of credit cards, computer systems the size of a deck of playing cares, and full embedded computer systems the size of a Rubik's Cube, explains Bill Ripley, director of business development for mission and payload systems at Themis.

Designers at Themis are trying to use existing standards as much as possible in formulating their VITA-74 proposals. "We do that to lower the risk in building this new standard by adopting pieces from other standards," Ripley explains. "We took the bus topology from 3U VPX, the FMC connector from VITA 57, and allowed the use of the nanoETXexpress form factor on carrier boards." The nanoETXexpress specification is a variation of the Com Express standard of the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) in Wakefield, Mass.

The Themis VITA-74 design secures circuit cards inside the chassis without the use of wedge locks. Instead, each module fits into spring-loaded heat plates in the chassis such that the cards contact the heat plates on three sides, fitting snugly in the Rubik's Cube-sized chassis.

Curtiss-Wright designers are re-evaluating their approach to a VITA-75 design, and are trying to determine what is a "good-enough" approach that would satisfy industry and government requirements at a reasonable cost, Edwards says. "We are still firmly behind VITA-75, but we are even having to go back to this push for good enough, and what that means for our plan," Edwards says. "I don't have any definitive plans now." PCI Systems, meanwhile, did not respond to inquiries for this story.

The quest for "good enough" when it comes to small-form-factor embedded computing not only is contributing to industry uncertainty, but also is driving systems designers in different directions.

"Customers are driving down their costs to us to get things done cheaper," says Jeff porter, senior system engineer at Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) Inc. in Middleton, Wis. "We are really trying to push off-the-shelf, previously defined standards."

Among the standards X-ES experts use for small-form-factor embedded computing is PICMG COM Express, on which the company's XPand6000 natural convection-cooled or conduction-cooled rugged ATR chassis is based. "This is inherently intended for use in the commercial market, but there is a drive in the industry to use it for industrial and military requirements by ruggedizing COM Express for high- and low-temperature environments," Porter says.

As far as the VITA effort to formulate small-form-factor standards is concerned, Porter says there is no compelling need for a new standard -- at least not yet. "We don't think the industry is large enough for new-form-factor standards," Porter says. "PMC and XMC standards have commercial applications, and they are known entities. The hardware is already there, and the market will support it."

Likewise, Kontron in Poway, Calif., is banking on PICMG COM Express standards to meet their customers' small-form-factor embedded computing needs. Kontron's COM Express Mini product is based on nanoETXexpress. Kontron also offers Mini-ITX and Nano-ITX products, and is developing a new product called the Kontron Machine-to-Machine (KM2M), which uses a COM Express Mini module on the inside, and a small carrier card about the size of an Altoids mint box, says Christine Van de Graaf, product manager of the embedded products business unit at Kontron.

"It is a very small system based on a small-form-factor carrier card and a peripheral card to serve the machine-to-machine space," primarily for communications, Van De Graaf says.

Company information

Access I/O Products
San Diego
858-550-9559
www.accesio.com

Acromag Inc.
Wixom, Mich.
248-295-0310
www.acromag.com

ADLINK Technology Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
408-360-0200
www.adlinktech.com

Advantech Co. Ltd.
Milpitas, Calif.
408-519-3898
www.advantech.com

Altera
San Jose, Calif.
408-544-7000
www.altera.com

AMD
Sunnyvale, Calif.
408-749-4000
www.amd.com

BittWare
Concord, N.H.
603-226-0404
www.bittware.com

Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing
Ashburn, Va.
703-779-7800
www.cwcembedded.com

Diversified Technology Inc.
Ridgeland, Miss.
800-443-2667
www.dtims.com

DMP Electronics Inc.
Taipei, Taiwan
+ 886-2-22980770
www.dmp.com

Elma Electronic
Fremont, Calif.
510-656-3400
www.elma.com

Emerson Network Power, Embedded Computing
Tempe, Ariz.
602 438 5720
www.emersonnetworkpower.com

Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES)
Middleton, Wis.
608-833-1155
www.xes-inc.com

Freescale Semiconductor
Austin, Texas
800 521 6274
www.freescale.com

GE Intelligent Platforms
Charlottesville, Va.
434-978-5000
www.ge-ip.com

Intel Corp.
Chandler, Ariz.
480-554-8080
www.intel.com

JumpGen Systems
Carlsbad, Calif.
760- 931-7800
www.jumpgen.com

Kontron
Poway, Calif.
888-294-4558
www.kontron.com

LiPPERT
Mannheim, Germany
+ 49 621 4 32 14 - 0
www.lippertembedded.com

MEN Mikro Elektronik GmbH
Nürnberg, Germany
+ 49-911-99 33 5-0
www.men.de

Mercury Computer
Chelmsford, Mass.
978-967-1401
www.mc.com

Nvidia
Santa Clara, Calif.
408-486-2000
www.nvidia.com

PCI Systems Inc.
Sunnyvale, Calif.
408-625-1090
www.pcisystems.com

PFU Systems Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
408-451-2900
www.pfusystems.com

PICMG
Wakefield, Mass.
781-246-9318
www.picmg.org

Performance Technologies Inc. (PT)
Rochester, N.Y..
585-256-0200
www.pt.com

RadiSys Corp.
Hillsboro, Ore.
503-615-1100
www.radisys.com

Samtec Inc.
New Albany, Ind.
800-726-8329
www.samtec.com

SANBlaze Technology Inc.
Maynard, Mass.
978-897-1888
www.sanblaze.com

Small Form Factor Special Interest Group
Santa Clara, Calif.
650-961-2473
www.sffsig.org

Stealth.com Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
408-907-9151
www.stealth.com

Swissbit
Bronschhofen, Switzerland
+ 41.71.913.03.03
www.swissbit.com

TE Connectivity
Berwyn, Pa.
610-893-9800
www.te.com

Themis Computer
Fremont, Calif.
510-252-0870
www.themis.com

Trenton Technology Inc.
Gainesville, Ga.
770-287-3100
www.trentontechnology.com

VersaLogic Corp.
Eugene, Ore.
541-485-8575
www.versalogic.com

Virtium Technology Inc.
Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
888-847-8486
www.virtium.com

VITA
Fountain Hills, Ariz.
480-837-7486
www.vita.com

WinSystems
WinSystems
Arlington, Texas
817-274-7553
www.winsystems.com

 

 4DSP LLC
Reno, Nev.
800-816-1751
www.4dsp.com




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