Rugged computers required

The need for increased information and processing in the field is driving the demand for enhanced computer systems and components able to withstand extreme environments.

By Courtney E. Howard

The advent of a network-centric battlefield-on which all platforms are interconnected nodes to deliver mission-critical information to authorized personnel when and where it is needed-is driving the need for innovative, rugged computer systems on the battlefield. Rugged electronics, whether handheld and laptop computers or embedded computing solutions, are integral to mission success and, in many cases, survival.

"High-performance embedded computing solutions that serve the current warfighter have never been in higher demand," says Michael Humphrey, manager of military and aerospace strategic accounts at Kontron in Poway, Calif. "The multiplicity of platforms being deployed, together with the applications in play, is creating an extremely diverse set of capabilities, stretching the requirements for rugged mobile computers."

Rugged computing is more relevant than ever before, says Shan Morgan, senior vice president of Elma Electronic Inc. in Fremont, Calif., and general manager of Optima EPS, an Elma Company in Lawrenceville, Ga. "It used to be Elma provided a lot of the central ring and there were relatively few nodes out there. We would put together computers that sat back in a protected environment and would be used internally to run SatCom (satellite communications).

"Now they are pushing that compute power right out to soldiers in the field," Morgan continues. "Computers are going into harsh environments much more often than they used to." Because of that, the problems of protecting the hardware-from shock and vibration, altitude and thin air, heat, and other environmental hazards-are multiplied, he admits. "They need to put a computer in the battlefield or in a shelter, and Elma addresses how to make sure those electronics are protected and work in that environment."

Today's UAVs range widely in size, weight, and function, with a number of embedded computing technologies enabling a new breed of small UAVs.

Elma Electronic's engineers certainly are not alone. Various mil-aero technology firms are upgrading rugged computers and components to meet greater environmental demands.

"In response to a request from a number of our military customers, General Dynamics Itronix adapted the fully rugged GD8000 to withstand contact with fluids like solvents, antifreeze, and grease, as well as making it resistant to extreme acoustic noise like the sound of a jet engine," explains Patrick White, vice president of strategic marketing for General Dynamics Itronix in Sunrise, Fla. "It means that users on flight lines and in maintenance operations don't have to worry as much about keeping the computer protected as they do their work."

Military maintenance

Panasonic rugged computing technology is embedded in flight line maintenance in the U.S. Air force and U.S. Navy, says Fed deGastyne, federal business development manager at Panasonic Solutions Company, headquartered in Secaucus, N.J. The company's Toughbook H1 Field rugged tablet PC has been used on flight lines and in depots. "One of the problems you encounter with maintaining and refurbishing aircraft is some of the work is done in the depot and then you have to walk out into the bright sunshine on the flight line," he says. "You need a device that can safely go back and forth between those two environments, and that is safe around explosive vapors."

Engineers designed the Toughbook H1 Field around depot and flight line maintenance requirements, delivering hot-swappable twin batteries, sunlight viewability, a solid-state drive, and an optional, insertable common access card (CAC). Military end users "don't like proximity CAC cards; they want fully insertable cards in their device," deGastyne says. "When we developed the H1 Field 10.4-inch, ergonomic, handheld device for the military, we designed it in such a way that the CAC totally inserts inside the device and seals. You could literally drop it in a mud puddle, spill liquid on it, or wipe it with antibiotic treatment and it will not affect the device."

Crystal Group's lead mechanical designer, pilot line technician, and technical director assemble a rugged computer enclosure for LLNL.

Aircraft systems designers at Alenia Aeronautica in Rome needed a rugged tablet computer to host a portable maintenance unit for the Alenia C-27J twin-engine military cargo turboprop aircraft. They opted to use the ARMOR X10gx mil-spec tablet PC from DRS Tactical Systems Inc. in Melbourne, Fla., as a portable maintenance unit to test the C-27J's onboard systems, to load aircraft software, and to support ground maintenance and training.

DRS customized the handheld ARMOR X10gx rugged tablet computer to capture and display technical documents, provide interactive training, display 3D models, analyze flight data, search for damage, load onboard software, and record electrical and digital measurements in harsh operational conditions.

The portable maintenance unit is similar in size to an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper and weighs roughly 4.5 pounds with a sunlight-readable display. Certified to MIL-STD-810G and IP67, the unit is considered extremely rugged, sealed from water and sand, and capable of surviving drops and vibration, extreme hot and cold temperatures, and high humidity.

Alenia Aeronautica is offering the ARMOR X10gx-based portable maintenance unit on some C-27J airplanes for logistics support. It serves as a replacement for the previous Portable Maintenance Aid system, which was heavier and provided less capability. DRS Tactical Systems and Alenia Aeronautica are owned by Finmeccanica SpA in Rome.

Getting testy

In addition to upgrading rugged computing product lines, technology firms are enhancing in-house, product testing methodologies.

Elma approaches testing from four different directions, Elma's Morgan notes. "We start with proven design concepts: shielding to meet MIL-STD-461, gasketing and sealing, thermal dissipation and cooling, shock and vibration to meet MIL-STD-810, and environmental considerations like salt, fog, altitude, and corrosion." The company runs an in-house test and verification lab to ensure components and systems withstand electromagnetic interference (EMI), shock and vibration, and extreme temperature variation. Engineers also perform computer simulations, outputting extensive computer-generated results related to computational fluid dynamics (CFD) for thermals and finite element analysis (FEA) for structural analysis. Lastly, products are shuttled to a third-party lab for military standards and environmental testing.

Military users should ask how tests, especially for MIL-STD-810G, were conducted, says deGastyne. "We take one Toughbook computer through the entire suite of mil-standard tests, and that one will pass all 26 tests. Other manufacturers may use five units to get through the test suite." Panasonic staff also tests beyond MIL-STD-810G for temperature and altitude, he says.

"We drop-test all fully rugged computers six feet, beyond the four-foot military standard," deGastyne explains. "We pride ourselves on going beyond. Our tolerances and quality are untouchable: less than a four percent first-year failure rate versus 20-plus percent from competitors. What is the cost of mission failure? What happens if your computer dies because of dust? War-fighters understand that their lives depend upon it in many cases."

Warfighter wish list

Warfighters know what they need, deGastyne notes. One key thing they require is a sunlight-viewable screen. "Sunlight viewability is different from daylight viewability. Daylight viewable means I can walk outside and read the device on a sunny day; sunlight viewable means I can comfortably use that product with sunlight shining directly on the screen."

Performance, capability, and functionality are also key. "The end-users of rugged, mobile subsystems are demanding higher levels of graphics output, video capture (e.g., high-definition optical sources), and man-machine interface (MMI) performance along with off-the-shelf I/O (input/output) elements that provide real-world interfaces with a minimum of non-recurring engineering (NRE) and with tight control of recurring costs," explains Doug Patterson, vice president of business development at Aitech Defense Systems in Chatsworth, Calif.

"The technology that can change the game is GPGPU technology-general-purpose computing on graphics processing units-and especially the CUDA programming language from Nvidia," says Jay Swenson, director of marketing and business development at GE Intelligent Platforms in Albuquerque, N.M. Multi-core processors open up new opportunities and today's GPUs represent the state of the art in that respect.

"Take the GT240 GPU that's at the heart of a number of our recently announced products," Swenson continues. "It's a 96-core device, capable of incredible levels of parallelism-and parallelism is something that's commonly found in mil-aero applications, such as signal processing and signals intelligence, sensor processing, and radar. Obviously, it also has no equal in image processing and video processing applications. One of our customers achieved a 15x improvement in performance in a radar application using GPGPU technology."

General Micro Systems unveiled its Nano series of rugged, ultra-small, ultra-low-power Intel Atom CPU single-board computers.

The company's NPN240 6U Open-VPX dual GPGPU (general-purpose graphics processing unit) commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) board for mil-aero applications features two GT240s and can deliver 750 gigaflops of performance from a single board. GE has supplied General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) with processors and graphics boards for the U.S. Army's M1A2 Abrams tank. "We have supplied hundreds of equipment sets," Swenson says.

SWaP specifics

Size and weight are always a concern, Elma's Morgan mentions. "The soldier is going to have to carry it or it will be put in a Humvee. More so than ever, rugged computers are going forward to the field and all the issues we've always dealt with are becoming paramount."

"How do we meet the reduced computer hardware size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements, while also meeting the demanding processing and communication needs of military computing systems used in constrained environments?," asks Jim Renehan, director of marketing at Trenton Technology Inc. in Gainesville, Ga. It is a formidable challenge engineers face.

On vehicles, in particular, "the importance to reduce SWaP requirements continues to gain momentum-especially in the environment of tightening defense budgets," says Bill Guyan, vice president of programs and strategy for rugged computer maker DRS Tactical Systems in Melbourne, Fla. "For years now, land forces could no longer afford to give up SWaP to accommodate stovepipe, single-application hardware. Today, there is increasing competition for SWaP allocations combined with new budget realities that cannot afford acquisition of a single box for a single application."

Technology firms are meeting the SWaP challenge head-on, replacing several different systems with one flexible computer system capable of a multitude of tasks and requiring reduced space, power, and cost. Trenton Technology's TRC5003 system, for example, incorporates four single-board computers in one enclosure.

"Four systems in a single chassis enable the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and end user to consolidate systems," Renehan describes. "The major benefit of this system approach is that it enables significant space savings and weight reductions in space- and weight-sensitive embedded computing applications on ships, submarines, ground vehicles, and aircraft."

The systems can be set up such that each single-board computer operates independently or as part of a computer cluster. The flexibility of the system design enables the same basic hardware platform to be deployed in a wide variety of mission control stations on a surveillance aircraft, Renehan adds. Trenton equipment is employed in airborne and ship-based systems for such applications as airborne surveillance; further, many of its board hardware platforms have been adapted for vehicle-mounted mobile applications by system integrator and OEM customers.

Engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md., developed the company's TacFleet 8 rugged- ized tablet computer for tactical vehicles to enable real-world, tactical situational awareness exchanges for brigade-and-below forces on the move. It meets ultra-rugged-ized military standards for harsh environments in combat and civil operations, as well as all Joint Battle Command-Platform and FBCB2 requirements. The tablet is mounted into a lightweight and compact dock, and is compatible with current U.S. Army Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) systems.

TacFleet 8 enables users to exchange messages with other terrestrial and airborne units, employ sophisticated mapping tools, and wirelessly control and stream imagery from ground vehicles and fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft sensors. Lockheed Martin engineers demonstrated this capability in the company's Tactical Situational Awareness Demonstration Center using the Gyrocam 15 TS sensor system, which is fielded on more than 700 mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles.

Mobile military

"The need for high-performance computing in mobile military platforms is a growing trend," says Reg Beer, associate program leader for radio-frequency (RF) applications at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. "We see applications for advanced signal processing in IED detection, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and other areas supporting the warfighter." These markets will eventually demand supercomputer performance extended to tactical military vehicles, predicts Jim Shaw, vice president of engineering at Crystal Group in Hiawatha, Iowa.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) selected Crystal Group to supply an advanced, ruggedized signal processing computer system capable of mounting outside the protected cabin with supercomputer performance for battlefield applications. Crystal Group and LLNL engineers collaborated, with the help of U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) funding, to develop and ruggedize the computing system for multiple tactical vehicle platforms to support sensor system development programs underway at LLNL.

Lockheed Martin developed its TacFleet 8 ruggedized tablet computer for use in tactical vehicles.

"Crystal Group provided a supercomputer capable of processing 3D sensor data in real time. The system utilizes power-intensive, dual hex-core Westmere 5600 series processors in a dual socket motherboard and an Nvidia Tesla card functioning as a GPGPU," Beer says. The system needed to use military power and support ground mobile, composite wheeled vehicle vibration in a 55 degree Celsius sand and dust environment.

"We are bringing processing to the field. It is going to be operating in the combat ground mobile environment and so it needed to be ruggedized for high heat, sand, and humidity-the typical harsh environment in which the U.S. military is operating," Beer describes. "We went with a custom solution; we had some specialized computing needs. The collaboration with Crystal Group has gone very well, and we are looking for other application areas where these servers can be used."

Crystal Group provided a sealed system with two rugged Crystal servers, a Crystal-designed power distribution unit, a Crystal ruggedized switch, and self-contained, water-cooled cards and processors.

Mercury Computer Systems in Chelmsford, Mass., offers its Intel-based Ensemble HS6600 high-density server for rugged, deployed ISR systems. "The new HDS6600 is not only a huge SWaP performance gain compared to previous signal and image processing solutions, but it enables an entire new class of Smart Processing to be added to deployed sensor electronics that were once reserved for processing on the ground," says Steve Patterson, vice president of defense product management at Mercury.

Compute power

No question, the intense focus is on SWaP, Swenson says. "It has many implications, but mostly, it means putting the greatest possible processing capability in the smallest, lightest weight possible space-and ensuring that the resulting solution consumes as little power as possible, and dissipates a minimal amount of heat. And, of course, it has to be rugged-capable of withstanding the rigors of deployment in constricted spaces that are subject to shock and vibration and to the harsh environment of the battlefield. That's an area where GE has real leadership.

"If you look at recent GE announcements, you'll see a consistent theme: a continuing emphasis on multicore processors to get the most performance from a board, and ever-improving performance per watt," Swenson continues. The new GE PPC10A single-board computer, for example, features Freescale's P4080 8-core QorIQ processor. "It delivers a significant increase in performance compared with its dual-core predecessor, but without expanding the heat envelope."

Panasonic's H1 Field handheld, rugged tablet PC is employed in military flight maintenance applications.

Significant development work is going on in unmanned vehicles, especially in increasing their autonomy, Swenson adds. "That will usually mean an onboard video capability, transmitting intelligence back to base. The bandwidth of the link back to base will always be inherently limited, which means putting as much processing power as possible into the video capture device such that it captures only areas of interest and discards clutter and extraneous images. Then, that information needs to be transmitted using high-quality codecs that retain the greatest possible image quality while minimizing bandwidth use."

Thermal considerations

SWaP requirements and increased processing demands exacerbate thermal management challenges in mil-aero system designs. "Overall, the cooling challenges and need for conduction-cooled solutions in military system applications have multiplied due to increased processing performance, smaller package and system footprints, and the requirement to operate in more rugged environments," says Kontron's Humphrey. "The need for versatile and sophisticated thermal management solutions is becoming even more of a priority for designers of embedded computing systems for the military."

Kontron is responding with scalable, integrated system solutions based on specific application requirements (i.e., from a very low-power Intel Atom processor-based implementation to a powerful Intel Core2 Duo processor system) and advanced thermal design options.

"Dual processors and even more power-hungry boards that have additional field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are a challenge for any layout designer, even in 6U," Humphrey admits. "Redistributing that amount of power dissipation into a 3U card with a mezzanine card or module means the design may have redistributed the volume somewhat; however, the devices on the 3U card will be radiating directly onto the mezzanine card."

Kontron engineers modeled a conduction-cooled combination, which demonstrated that a 3U/ PrXMC design requires a 40 degree Celsius cold wall to support two 2.53-gigahertz processors. In the 6U configuration with no mezzanine, the same amount of processing power could be supported by a 75 degree C cold wall.

"Compute density matters and optimal thermal design can dictate the more appropriate VPX form factor for the most favorable SWaP metric," Humphrey notes. "The choice between 3U or 6U VPX as a target form factor has recently been given a new variable because of the growing number of dual-processor, single-board computers and their accompanying thermal challenges." For non-backplane solutions, Kontron is expanding the range of extended-temperature modules due to demand from its military customer base.

GE Intelligent Platforms scientists at the company's Global Research Center facilities around the world are researching materials that can more effectively cool electronics in confined space. "This would allow us to offer even greater thermal efficiencies and take SWaP performance to a new level," Swenson predicts.

Raw computing

SWaP and cooling continue to be of growing importance as designs focus more on the needs of a variety of unmanned vehicle programs, which is contributing to the growing popularity of small form factor modules, such as COMExpress, Humphrey explains. "Many new platforms for the military are using 3U as a viable option, and thus designers are turning to VPX to address the SWaP challenge with higher-speed interconnects, multiple signal planes, more power per slot, and the inherent ability to leverage multicore processors." These characteristics are driving the adoption of VPX-based systems for C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), electronic warfare, radar, unmanned systems, ground vehicles, and avionics.

Kontron's investment in the COBALT (Computer Brick Alternative) small-form-factor system is paying off with program evaluation and adoption. GE's rugged solutions are also being deployed across a range of mobile applications, including the U.S. Army's Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM) program. "It requires fast, reliable data interchange between computing subsystems on a range of vehicles, including unmanned air and ground vehicles," Swenson describes. GE also delivered rugged 3U Ethernet switches to General Dynamics for that subsystem.

"Military developers will see a further shift away from the concept of standard packaging as the location of systems within deployed platforms becomes more weight and size critical," Humphrey predicts. "The increasing number of small and mid-size robotic vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) illustrates the difficulties of employing traditional packaging standards. Further, environmental and I/O (sensor) requirements will become increasingly significant factors in overall system design, equally important as the raw computing requirement.

Getac's B300 rugged, mobile computer is certified to MIL-STD 810G and IP65 and sports a magnesium alloy case, a shock-protected hard disk drive, vibration and shock resistance, and sealed I/O caps and doors to prevent damage from solid particles and moisture.

"Working with prime contractors on a number of unmanned vehicle programs, survivability must remain a core design objective for any mobile electronics system used in military applications," Humphrey continues. "If the system is not able to operate continuously and reliably within the target environment, no amount of sophisticated features will be of any practical benefit for the mission. SWaP is also a consistent concern, and has now expanded to include effective thermal management as part of the equation driving designers today."

Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems engineers are working on a next-generation, rugged, flight control computer for a UAV application. The company's G4V Viper next-generation control processor incorporates a PowerQUICC III processor design for increased performance in a lower-cost, lower-power solution that can be incorporated into a spare slot in an existing avionics chassis without the need to increase the power supply capacity or additional thermal analysis.

"Emerging requirements for aerospace and defense companies need to address the safety and security requirements of mission-critical applications, as well as the portability and reusability requirements of noncritical applications," explains Curtis Reichenfeld, chief technical officer at Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems in Santa Clarita, Calif. "Next-generation UAVs will require a 'sense and avoid' capability to autonomously navigate in the National Air Space (NAS) without threats to commercial and civil aviation, and to avoid collisions in crowded battlefield situations." The G4V Viper uses Wind River's 653 safety-critical operating system to deliver this UAV "sense and avoid" capability.

Man-packable and handheld

SWaP is the key concern when it comes to man-portable rugged computers. "These devices must be small and light enough for a soldier to carry on his back, and be low enough power to run for up to six hours on batteries," notes Steve Edwards, chief technology officer at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing (CWCEC) in Ashburn, Va.

"The design of warfighter solutions requires determined effort to minimize SWaP, because it can directly impact combat effectiveness, and our soldiers and Marines already carry too much weight," says DRS Tactical's Guyan. "The cost of any man-worn/carried solution is also important. It's a simple matter of the numbers involved. Fielding anything to tens of thousands of soldiers can be a very expensive proposition. Industry has to design solutions that are affordable given desired fielding densities."

Several branches of U.S. military forces are using the Military Rugged Tablet (MRT) from DRS Technologies, primarily for situational awareness and command and control. "We have just delivered our 25,000th MRT to the U.S. Army's Movement Tracking System (MTS) program," Guyan observes. "These Joint Platform Tablets (JPTs) will support current MTS asset tracking requirements and the MTS program's planned migration to Joint Battle Command Platform-Logistics (JBCP-Log)."

The U.S. Marine Corps has adopted the MRT as part of the Target Location Designation Handoff Systems (TLDHS) program, designed to simplify the Forward Air Controller's (FAC's) task in directing ordnance of all types onto targets in the close fight, Guyan describes. Other applications include serving as the man-machine interface to control remote sensors and minefield munitions, and the display of fire control data. "The common theme in all these applications is that the system provides mission-critical computing for the military, meaning that these computers must operate in any environment, in every operational problem set, across the spectrum of conflict."

Engineers at DRS are working to design and develop the next generation of handheld, dismountable devices with the appropriate level of ruggedization and security. The company funds research in the areas of power management; sunlight-readable display solutions; emerging display technologies, such as OLED displays, LED backlights, and optical bonding; advanced battery technology; wireless communication; information assurance; advanced computers and image processing; touch-screen technologies; and advanced packaging solutions.

General Micro Systems (GMS) in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has unveiled its Nano series of rugged, ultra-small, ultra-low-power single-board computers featuring Intel Atom processors and the smallest form factor currently produced by the company. Its compact footprint measures 2.5 x 3.3 x 0.5 inches, and it weighs in at less than three-tenths of a pound. The Nano is intended to "satisfy the intense demand for an ultra-small computer with full-size processing power," reveals a representative. The full-featured rugged computer accommodates 64 gigabytes of storage via an onboard solid-state disk, delivers high-performance graphics with 3D acceleration, and includes five USB 2.0 ports and support for two Express Mini Cards for Wi-Fi, CanBus, or other I/O.

"Designed from the ground up for the defense industry to MIL-STD-810F, Nano is the perfect SBC for handheld or body-mounted applications where minimizing weight and heat are primary considerations," says Ben Sharfi, president of GMS.

The Nano XPC40x is designed to operate at -40 degrees C to +85 degrees C, with a maximum thermal gain of 5 degrees C above ambient. Its heat tolerance ensures it is well suited for applications in which ambient temperature is high, such as a controller located in an engine compartment or for small robots and UAVs working in extreme temperatures. Its low power consumption and dissipation (3 watts average, 10 watts peak) imposes little to no impact on the user, eliminating many inherent problems with wearable computers, says the representative. "An additional benefit of its small size is security: In situations where storage needs to be removed for security reasons, now personnel can remove the whole computer."

GMS is not alone; various companies are endeavoring to reduce the SWaP required by rugged computers for mil-aero environments. "War-fighters have to carry more and more these days. Their packs are getting heavier with all the gear they are carrying, so our devices are becoming thinner, lighter, and more ergonomic," deGastyne points out. "The U1 five-inch rugged handheld is definitely a warfighter's computer because it does everything a PC does but in a very small, covert, rugged package."

High density

The mil-aero end user is looking to gain the most performance in the smallest package with full rugged capabilities and environmental certifications like MIL-STD-461F and UL1604, while still being very price conscious, describes John Lamb, director of marketing at Getac Inc. in Irvine, Calif. Rugged, small-form-factor computers are increasingly finding a home throughout the flight line and around hazardous materials, such as jet fuel. "There appears to be very clearly defined areas of focus, all with content-rich information as the centerpiece and different form factors to meet location-specific environments-from ultra-portable platforms which reside on the soldier to ensure 'every soldier is a node of the network' and vehicle-mounted solutions keying on display size and in-transit visibility (ITV), to extremely high-performance TRICARE operations center (TOC) or command post systems where digital mapping/ rendering and situational awareness are the main applications."

The Kontron COBALT is a fanless, enclosed design for efficient thermal management in a small form factor that meets the military's SWaP requirements and features a no-backplane design.

Getac is the rugged platform standard for the U.S. Air Force, Lamb explains. The Air National Guard (ANG) purchased 400 units of the company's V100 convertible tablet in 2009 for in-flight use. ANG officials have since decided to refresh all existing units in the organization with Getac's B300 standard rugged notebook, with 6,500 units to be deployed this quarter as part of the Air Force's Quantum Enterprise Buy (QEB) program.

The Getac B300 rugged notebook is powered by a 2.0-gigahertz Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost Technology up to 2.8 gigahertz. Quality, performance, and compatibility with the Air Force's strict security requirements, along with price performance, factored into the selection of Getac products for the program.

"Government users seem to be heading in the same direction: content availability," Lamb says. "Providing hardware platforms that enable access to content anywhere the soldier/user is located is vital to operation success." Google Android devices, handhelds, wearable computers, small tablets, and pocket-sized devices with a screen large enough to view detailed information will become more prevalent, he predicts. The challenge is making these devices rugged, powerful enough, and with enough battery life to sustain a full day's operations, securely and at a reasonable cost.

Extreme avionics

Two major classes of applications-traditional, high-end C4ISR applications and mobile applications, such as man-wearable systems-are driving increased demand for rugged computing solutions. "Not surprisingly, both classes of applications are SWaP constrained," admits Ben Klam, vice president of engineering at Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) in Middleton, Wis. "While both classes of applications have to process large amounts of streaming data, the difference is that the amount of data associated with a single soldier is far less than a traditional C4ISR application in an aircraft or ground vehicle. Because of the capabilities of the embedded computing solutions available today, it is possible to provide direct interaction between a soldier on the ground and ISR systems and provide scaled down versions of traditional C4ISR systems directly to a soldier."

X-ES engineers developed the Avionics Development Platform (ADP) in response to an anticipated need for a 3U VPX avionics application development platform. "The ADP is unique in several aspects," Klam says. First, the payload modules used in the ADP are the same conduction-cooled modules that will go into the customer's deployed ATR chassis, ensuring that software developed on the ADP will run on the deployed system. Second, X-ES has integrated not only its own payload modules, but also third-party PMC I/O modules (e.g., MIL-STD-1553, ARINC 429, and ATDS), including driver integration and rear transition module development for I/O. "Our ADP customers have been able to reduce their overall development schedule and risk by getting a quick start on their software development and by being able to develop their deployed system hardware in parallel with software development."

GE also delivers rugged computing components and systems for avionics applications, especially in the areas of 1553 and ARINC, says Swenson. GE has supplied systems to Northrop Grumman, headquartered in Los Angeles, for deployment on Bell Helicopter's UH-1Y and AH-1Z, upon which rugged computers must withstand significant shock and vibration, as well as extreme environmental conditions.

GE Intelligent Platform's MAGIC1 Rugged Display Computer delivers Nvidia graphics and Intel Core2 Duo processing power in a rugged chassis for mil-aero applications.

An integral, yet often overlooked issue in using rugged computers aboard aircraft involves mounting the devices. Panasonic engineers work closely with partners Havis- Shields in Warminster, Pa., and Gamber-Johnson in Stevens Point, Wis., on Toughbook-certified mounting hardware. "We work to make sure those mounts in aircraft do what they need to do; they undergo severe testing, to ensure the ability to withstand a crash with a force of 6G," he says. "Just think about a large rugged computer sitting in a mount, that aircraft crashing, and it not leaving that mount."

COTS in space

Designing and developing rugged computing components and systems suitable to withstand the rigors of space travel and environments are no mean feats. In the case of computers aboard satellites and spacecraft, failure is not an option, and on-site maintenance and repair are expensive propositions.

Staff at Aitech Defense Systems-an independent manufacturer of open architecture electronic boards and subsystem-level products for harsh, environmentally demanding defense, aerospace, and space applications-supply products for space-qualified embedded computers and subsystems for various space programs, such as the Space Shuttle, MIR Space Station, and International Space Station, as well as next-generation U.S. Air Force, NASA, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) micro-satellite programs. Customers are seeking higher capacity, higher performance, smaller size, greater power densities, and lower costs driven by volume from use and commonality of COTS/OTS boards and subsystems, Patterson describes.

"Aitech provides VME, CompactPCI, and VPX boards and integrated subsystems to manned and unmanned aircraft, above and below surface vessels, ground vehicles, and manned and unmanned space craft," Patterson explains. "These applications were solved with COTS, modified COTS, or custom program hardware and software to meet the program-specific needs of operation in a space vacuum, high temperature and altitude, etc."

Aitech provided a low-power, radiation-tolerant 3U CompactPCI conduction-cooled bus avionics card set for ATK Space Systems' Responsive Space Modular Bus (RSMB) used on the Tactical Satellite-3 (TacSat-3). Aitech's avionics solution for RSMB included its heritage S950 single-board computer, non-volatile Flash mass memory, customized digital I/O cards providing various serial and spacecraft bus interfaces, and a communications PCI mezzanine card (PMC) for the remaining serial interfaces required to communicate with the onboard sensors and payloads.

"ATK's RSMB is the core platform of the TacSat-3 space vehicle, and was versatile enough to support AFRL's three mission payloads," says Brendan Regan, vice president of space mission systems at ATK Space Systems, headquartered in Minneapolis. "Aitech's low-power, space-proven card set facilitates data collection and transmission to ensure optimal mission operation."

"Military operations are increasingly relying on real-time data obtained from space and transmitted directly to our men and women in service, while trying to stay within ever-tightening budget constraints and fast delivery schedules," explains Anthony Lai, chief operating officer, Aitech Space Systems Business Group. "These attributes demand affordable, flexible equipment that will perform for long periods under harsh conditions and enable cost-effective upgrades to systems and components to meet the needs of future responsive space missions."

Aitech has provided two key embedded processing components for the Ares I Launch Vehicle's Instrument Unit Avionics (IUA) Flight Computer (FC) and Command Telemetry Computer (CTC) systems under a contract with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. Aitech's S950 single-board computer and S750 Gigabit Ethernet PMC are used in a triple-redundant configuration to provide flight control redundancy in the IUA FC function, including the high-speed relay of imaging data to the crew exploration vehicle's solid-state recorder and ground support system.

"Using Aitech's components has allowed the program to advance several notches up the technology scale and will save significant amounts of development costs. These are two very important aspects of space-related programs," says Randall Coffey, Ball Aerospace ARES IAU program manager.

Future functionality

"With the continued increase in processing power, communication bandwidth, and wireless communi- cation capabilities, we will see the military continue moving processing out to the edge and away from a centralized scheme," Klam predicts. "This will continue the trend for smaller, lighter, and more power-efficient systems. We will see the need to manage power in systems the way laptop computers do, being able to shut down components that are not being used and dynamically power them up as needed."

"We don't see our customers' current focus on size, weight, and power getting any less," Swenson says. "They want even more performance in even smaller, lighter packages that consume less power. Today, that effort is directed largely at manned and unmanned vehicles, especially unmanned autonomous vehicles, but it's possible to foresee it leading to unbelievably high-performance, man-wearable systems."

Rugged computing is a vital part of the mil-aero marketplace, both present and future, says Bill Ripley, director of business development, mission and payload systems at Themis Computer, headquartered in Fremont, Calif. Company engineers are focusing on 3U and smaller formats, and shrinking systems while increasing relative performance.

"For small-form-factor and mobile applications, space, weight, power, and performance are the key characteristics required for the modern warfighter," Ripley says. "Customers are trying to get as much performance, in as little space, at the lowest power possible. This is driving us toward more highly integrated CPU solutions, use of GPUs for traditional computing augmentation, innovative packaging, and more efficient heat dissipation designs."

Big investments in small sizes

Industry firms and organizations are investing time and resources in standardizing and advancing small form factors, which are of direct benefit to mil-aero applications, end users, and missions. The Small Form Factor Special Interest Group (SFF-SIG) in Santa Clara, Calif.; OpenVPX Industry Working Group in Chelmsford, Mass.; and VITA in Fountain Hills, Ariz. are among those to watch.

"Themis has spearheaded a new proposed standard called VITA-74," Ripley enthuses. "This VITA specification takes the best of several VITA and PCMIG specifications, along with some new and innovative packaging, thermal dissipative, and kinetic management technologies and applies it to systems that can be scaled from individual man-wearable modules to small ATR-like systems for unmanned vehicles, ground vehicles, helicopters, and aircraft where extreme ruggedization, small footprint, and high computing performance per volume is required." Systems in development range from a soldier-mounted situational awareness computer to an airborne network attached storage unit, to a signal intelligence receiver for a UAV.

"CWCEC is leading the effort to create a rugged small form factor in VITA 75," Edwards says. "This will serve in many applications where more commercial standards (ComExpress or PC/104) are not suitable."

Armed with the latest rugged computing innovations, today's warfighter is now receiving and using more information at higher resolutions than ever before, and making fast, well-informed decisions, now and for the foreseeable future.

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Mil & Aero Magazine

February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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