Robots in combat missions: using COM Express to save lives on the battlefield

BY Lorraine Orcino

Robots are playing an increasingly important role in military missions. These electronic systems offer immunity to human weaknesses, such as fatigue, lack of visibility, sleep deprivation, delayed reaction, or other performance hindrances. Today’s military is using robots whenever possible, whether for monotonous tasks that could trigger complacency or dangerous tasks, such as detecting roadside bombs or radiation.

As combat robots become a vital component in national security, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is investing heavily in the development of robotic systems. These robots, especially ones involved in logistics and warfighter protection, are being developed with varying degrees of autonomy and power to increase their use. Through investments in the research, development, and testing of unmanned robots, the military is hoping to maintain a competitive edge and save lives in the battlefield.

When designing robots for combat assignments, manufacturers face several challenges. Systems need to pack as much computing power as possible into an extremely small and durable form factor. The growing complexity of robot missions further drives the need to incorporate the latest processor, I/O, and memory technologies. Finally, these systems need to be ruggedized to withstand extreme temperatures and battlefield environments. To solve these challenges, systems developers are increasingly turning to COM Express modules to meet processing demands and develop battlefield-ready solutions. And with advancements being made in processing power, durability, and reliability, COM Express is a viable solution for a variety of mil-aero robotic systems.

COTS components

The DOD has mandated the use of open standards that enable interoperability, such as COM Express, VPX, and PC/104, because of the cost savings they deliver. Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components also allow manufacturers to improve time-to-market, getting new technologies deployed in the field faster. Open-standard COTS components offer even greater advantages, with their modularity allowing designers to develop more advanced systems without increased project risk.

For those looking to use COTS components with the latest features and high performance, a computer-on-module is a solution. COM Express, a standard hosted by PICMG, is an integrated form factor balancing performance, size, I/O, and thermals. The COM Express platform comprises a computer-on-module (processor, chipset, and memory) and a carrier board that can be customized according to specific application requirements. The high-efficiency factor can meet stringent standards for power and heat dissipation, enabling ruggedized modules built to withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain, whereas modularity helps meet the unique enclosure needs of military robots.

The Procelerant CEQM57XT COM Express module from RadiSys combines next-generation performance with extended temperature and vibration specifications.

Saving development time

With technology evolving rapidly, robot equipment manufacturers are facing a barrage of aggressive timelines for new products. Using a select set of computing platforms across a wide range of equipment allows manufacturers to reduce design cycles, while streamlining development initiatives. COM Express offers a standardized, predictable, and field-proven platform on which to design products.

Manufacturers can design an entire line of products and then use different modules to deliver differing levels of performance and capacity. By using the same hardware components in various robots, manufacturers can reduce development, validation, and certification effort. COM Express offers the flexibility for designers to specialize their designs for unique applications—an approach that can reduce the time it takes to field-deploy systems.

As robots are used for increasingly complex missions, designers must incorporate ever-greater performance. This includes delivering the latest in processing capabilities, while providing enough I/O for next-generation communication and imaging capabilities. At the same time, robot designs are getting smaller, offering less space for processors and memory components.

As an integrated form factor, COM Express can support the communication, imaging, and processing applications required by today’s combat robots. COM Express allows for maximum I/O flexibility without sacrificing performance. As a two-board solution, the standard delivers processing and I/O bandwidth in smaller enclosures than alternative stackable architectures, such as PC/104.

COM Express modules are available with a range of performance, I/O, and bandwidth capabilities. Alternatively, designers can use their own platform base, including specialty I/Os, to adapt the module to fit their specific application needs without designing an entire proprietary solution. Easy upgrade insertions allow developers to upgrade from previous module generations as needed, without a product redesign churn.

Delivering extreme reliability

Today’s military robots are being deployed in the most extreme environments. The embedded components need to be reliable, while withstanding the harshest environmental factors, including temperature, vibration, shock, and G-force. COM Express modules are available in ruggedized form factors. When designing for these conditions, however, it is important to select from vendors that have thoroughly tested their products throughout the design and manufacturing stages in order to guarantee that their system will hold up once deployed.

The long-established HALT/HASS processes help component designers create a reliable and ruggedized, field-ready solution. HALT (Highly Accelerated Life Testing) uses a stepped thermal and vibration stress process during the design phase to determine and maximize full limits of a product design. Failure modes are corrected as they are discovered, either through design or component enhancement. After rigorous testing has established the product capability for extended-temperature operation, Highly Accelerated Stress Screening (HASS) provides ongoing monitoring to verifying that margins are maintainable.

The HALT/HASS methods are designed to augment standard testing processes, such as design verification and manufacturing testing. The result is a higher-capability COM Express system guaranteed to withstand any environmental factors it may face once deployed in the field. For robot manufacturers, this can save months of development time that would otherwise be spent verifying extended temperature or vibration specifications for application-specific demands.

Total system cost

For military robot developers, cost is a serious consideration that must be taken into account throughout the design process. A COM Express solution can reduce overall development and system cost, as well as the cost of future upgrades and maintenance. As a modular system, it helps speed R&D and product planning schedules. Using standards-based components enables broader reuse and reduced development expenses. Because COM Express is a COTS component, developers don’t have to spend time creating a proprietary solution. The increased time-to-market helps avoid product obsolescence, while reducing time-to-revenue.

COM Express deployments have reduced maintenance and upkeep costs. COM Express modules are interoperable, enabling newer, more advanced computing technology to be easily inserted into the system, whereas custom designs may require redesign. Overall, COM Express can significantly reduce the cost of deployment for military robots.

Lorraine Orcino is senior product line manager for COM Express at RadiSys Corp. in Hillsboro, Ore.

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August 2015
Volume 26, Issue 8

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