High-value vetronics & robotics

Defense technology firms are delivering innovative, rugged electronics systems and components to meet the needs of vetronics end users and engineers challenged by strict size, weight, and power specifications.

BY Courtney E. Howard

Today’s defense systems architects and systems integrators are modernizing existing armored combat vehicles and outfitting new platforms with an ever-increasing amount of electronics. Although warfighters and military missions benefit from greater functionality and capabilities, packing more electronics in compact, finite spaces is not without its challenges.

“Military vehicles are being asked increasingly to be more than just trucks or personnel transports,” explains Mike Henderson, director of military and aerospace products at TDI Power in Hackettstown, N.J. “They need to be true fighting vehicles with peripheral equipment (i.e., vetronics), such as sensors, jammers, communication gear, etc., becoming standard fare. All this will stress the already precarious size, weight, and power (SWaP) condition.”

 
Lockheed Martin engineers developed a rugged, military version of the HULC exoskeleton, designed to enhance soldier mobility and endurance. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)

SWaP specifics

SWaP is increasingly the single most critical requirement for new deployed mil-aero solutions, says Ram Rajan, vice president of engineering at Elma Electronic Inc. in Fremont, Calif. Similarly, Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems in Santa Clarita, Calif., is receiving increased requests for systems with ultra-low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C), describes Curtis Reichenfeld, P.E. chief technical officer, at Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems.

“Available power generation and battery capacity is limited in existing mil-aero vehicles,” Reichenfeld continues. “New capabilities and systems with increased performance need to be added to these vehicles using existing space claims and without causing costly upgrades to existing power and environmental control systems.”

Lockheed Martin officials sought a compact, rugged embedded computing platform for the company’s Symphony Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED) Defeat System. “Optimizing SWaP was a critical focus of this project because of the mobile nature of the application,” Rajan notes. “In addition, the extremely harsh environment (shock and vibration, dust, heat, etc.) required selling the electronics in a conduction/liquid-cooled enclosure.”

Elma engineers worked with Lockheed Martin officials to determine appropriate field requirements, such as surviving rough transportation in High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs), better known as Humvees. Elma personnel then designed a rugged, hybrid platform mounted in a transportable field case to meet their tough environmental standards.

Elma’s offerings have been employed on military vehicles in gun/turret controls and communications devices, in addition to the RCIED. “The Lockheed Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment (MULE) program and Stryker program are good examples,” Rajan says. “An example of a typical platform we supply to programs such as these is our liquid-cooled ATR chassis, designed not only to protect the electronics from harsh environments these vehicles are subject to, but also to keep them cool and operational in extreme heat.”

Certainly, SWaP is a key driver for our systems, says Allen Priest, senior engineering manager at Daylight Solutions Inc. in San Diego. Increased demand for compact and lightweight mil-aero platforms “leaves little room for electronics, requiring that we design very dense printed circuit boards (PCBs) to fit into small spaces,” he says. “The greatest challenge in development of electronics for these systems is in the area of power management.”

 
Dual 10.4-inch MSMV Series II video monitors from Digital Systems Engineering display multiple image feeds from various sensors. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.)

Portable power

Just as existing and upcoming military ground vehicles offer limited space, they also deliver a finite amount of energy to power myriad vetronics, or vehicle-based electronics. Every new electronic system put onto a vehicle taxes the vehicle’s limited electrical power system, explains Henderson, who has witnessed “huge increases in DC power for onboard systems and AC power for off-vehicle systems.”

In 1985, the HMMVW was fielded with a 60-amp alternator; today, the alternator on an MRAP is increasing to 600 amps. “That’s a 10X increase in 25 years,” Henderson acknowledges. “There is simply not enough power to run all the vetronics equipment at low vehicle idle speeds, which makes up roughly 75 percent of a vehicle’s run profile, unless we have more efficient energy generation, conversion, and storage.”

TDI Power engineers have been developing more capable electrical power conversion solutions for next-generation vehicles, such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). The company’s LiquaCore power modules can be used in parallel as an onboard DC power system or to export AC power off the vehicle at power levels of 30kW or higher. The modules have been qualified to meet mil-aero DC/DC and DC/AC requirements at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

The quality of the power must also be considered. “Most electrical power generated on a vehicle is considered ‘dirty’ power, conforming to MIL-STD-217,” Henderson affirms. “Sensitive electronics like digital radios cannot handle the voltage transients associated with this generated power.” TDI Power’s power-conversion equipment will convert the generated power to “clean” power conforming to standards, such as MIL-STD-704.

In many cases, TDI Power engineers configure systems to feed power to another TDI device to provide point-of-load power supplies for various command, control, communications, and computer (C4) systems on the vehicle. “This secondary conversion stage turns the main electrical power bus, typically 28 volts DC (VDC), into specialized DC voltages so that the vetronics systems can operate at maximum efficiency,” Henderson says.

Communications conundrum

The move to a network-centric battlefield, in which the right information is delivered to the right people and platforms at the right time, is driving the need for more, and more capable, vetronics in the field. Ground combat vehicles are, as a result, employing myriad communications, command and control, and display systems to provide warfighters with friend vs. foe, situational-awareness, and other mission-critical data.

Possibly the biggest change on the battlefield is the evolution of situational awareness, Henderson admits. “Communication systems tying together satellites, vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and soldiers are providing real-time information never before seen—but all this data does not come without a price. Today’s soldier is weighed down with an increasing array of weapons, electronics, batteries to power the electronics, and armor. We have no choice but to push as much of this weight as possible onto vehicles or other support platforms (robotics, UAVs, etc.) that are capable of being forward deployed.”

Harris Corp., a communications and information technology company in Melbourne, Fla., won a $17.8 million U.S. Army order to supply Falcon II AN/VRC-104(V)(3) radio systems for use in multiple variants of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

The AN/VRC-104 integrated communications system, which includes the Falcon II AN/PRC-150(C) high-frequency tactical radio, is employed to fill the critical need for beyond-line-of-sight, Type-1 terrestrial communications, enabling forces to stay connected and share mission-critical information, even in extreme terrain. The system provides continuous high-frequency communications, while using 150 watts of power in vehicular configurations.

“The AN/VRC-104 has contributed to the success of MRAP missions by providing secure, long-distance communications, particularly in terrain obstructed by mountains or other geographical features,” says Brendan O’Connell, president of U.S. Department of Defense business at Harris RF Communications in Rochester, N.Y.

Warfighters also increasingly rely on electronics housed in mobile, vehicle-mounted shelters on today’s digital battlefield. AAR in Wood Dale, Ill., won a five-year contract worth as much as $14 million to provide the U.S. Army with lightweight, multipurpose shelters (LMSs) to house command and control equipment for situational awareness and tactical support in various theaters of operation. Engineers at AAR’s Mobility Systems manufacturing and integration facility in Cadillac, Mich., are manufacturing shelters—designed to be mounted on Humvees for applications ranging from communications to controlling unmanned aircraft—with integrated electromagnetic shielding to protect and isolate sophisticated battlefield systems.

 
IEE Inc.’s Hand Held Control Display Unit serves as the primary human-machine interface for the Force Protection Counter-IED (C-IED) system.

Data display

Digital data is not easily conveyed without the use of reliable display systems and, in the battlefield, rugged displays are required. Rugged displays from Digital Systems Engineering Inc. (DSE) in Scottsdale, Ariz., are being used in the Stryker, MRAP, Medium Mine Protected Vehicle (MMPV), Buffalo, and Husky platforms. “Our most recent developments are in the design phase for applications within the Abrams Tank and the B1-B Bomber,” Richard Ridley, DSE president, notes.

“As the defense industry attempts to push the concept of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), the challenge for our industry is to design products that meet the basic environmental and emissions requirements (MIL-STD-810G and MIL-STD- 461F),” Ridley explains. “These basic requirements still need to be met, while incorporating extremely flexible architectures that allow for rapid and cost-effective reconfigurations to meet a wide range of application-specific demands.”

The growing use of full-motion video (FMV), such as that acquired by sensors aboard various platforms, including UAVs, further amplifies system demands. For example, DSE engineers not only account for every possible video input protocol, but also incorporate the ability to process that video to enhance the image, display multiple images simultaneously, create and display various graphic overlays, and support all types of programmable user-interface buttons, switches, and touch-screen capability. “In addition to the whole concept of the ‘Smart Display,’” Ridley adds, “we see digital video recording and the push toward fielding true HD systems as the driving forces for new product development in our field.”

DSE has introduced advanced vetronics monitors for enhanced situational awareness to ensure the delivery of accurate, reliable data to tactical vehicle commanders and crew during rugged vehicle surveillance operations. Company engineers upgraded DSE’s MSMV series of TFT LCD MIL-SPEC video monitors with advanced video processing options. Its MSMV Series II sports four video inputs to enable the simultaneous on-screen display of four composite video feeds from exterior vehicle sensors.

Warfighters also gain access to various viewing options: picture-over-picture, picture-by-picture, picture-in-picture, quad-view, horizontal image mirroring for rear-view sensors, and integrated electronic zoom. “These features give drivers and crew access to real-time forward-view, rear-view, peripheral, and panoramic imagery, allowing vision around the vehicle in daylight, darkness, and all-weather conditions on a single display,” adds Doug Hladek, DSE’s business development manager.

Force Protection Counter-IED (C-IED) system engineers selected the Hand Held Control Display Unit (HH-CDU) from IEE Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., as the primary human-machine interface (HMI). IEE engineers delivered more than 25,000 HH-CDU units in 30 months for C-IED devices, under a contract with delivery rates dependent on platform deployment schedules.

IEE’s MIL-qualified units are designed with lightweight, molded composite construction to meet the reduced SWaP requirements for adding the system onto existing ground vehicles, according to a representative. Further, the HH-CDU’s rugged design and enhanced sealing/packaging enables reliable operation throughout deployment in the severe environments experienced on military ground vehicles, such as HMMWVs and MRAPs.

 
The upgraded Raytheon Sarcos XOS 2 is designed to be lighter, faster, stronger, and more low-power than its predecessor. (Image courtesy Raytheon Company.)

Robotic and bionic

Industry players, such as Raytheon Co. in Waltham, Mass., and Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md., are also taking SWaP into consideration in the design, development, and upgrade of robotic exoskeletons designed to aid military personnel both on and off the battlefield.

“Exoskeletons and bionics are extremely sensitive to size, weight, power utilization, and thermal dissipation for soldier systems,” Rajan says. “New battery technologies and power-management functions are providing increased capability in these mobile systems, but the overall system weight and heat generated are limiting the amount of capability each of our soldiers can carry.”

Raytheon engieers in Tewksbury, Mass., upgraded the company’s second-generation XOS 2 robotic suit to be lighter, faster, and stronger than its predecessor, while using 50 percent less power and offering more resistance to the environment. “With XOS 2, we targeted power consumption and looked for ways to use the hydraulic energy more efficiently. That has resulted in us being able to add capabilities while significantly reducing power consumption,” explained Dr. Fraser M. Smith, vice president of operations for Raytheon Sarcos, during its unveiling last year. “Getting exoskeletons deployed is inevitable in my view. They are desperately needed, and I believe the military looks at them as viable solutions to a number of current issues they are trying to address.”

Raytheon engineers designed the XOS 2 such that one operator in an exoskeleton suit can do the work of two to three soldiers, enabling the reassignment of military personnel to more strategic tasks. The exoskeleton, developed for the U.S. Army, is powered by high-pressure hydraulics and combines structures, sensors, actuators, and controllers.

U.S. Army researchers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., last month completed seven weeks of testing Lockheed Martin’s Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control engineers in Orlando, Fla., produced a ruggedized, military HULC version under an exclusive licensing agreement with HULC developer Berkeley Bionics in Berkeley, Calif. Recent test results—including input from infantry soldiers on how much energy the soldiers use, how quickly they get used to wearing the exoskeleton, and the overall effects on soldiers’ bodies—will help shape future military requirements for the HULC. Required testing, according to a $1.1 million Army contract Lockheed Martin won last year, also includes field tests to evaluate the HULC system in simulated operational settings.

The HULC exoskeleton moves by way of a compact, onboard micro- computer and the wearer’s own movement. The exoskeleton is designed to sense what users want to do and where they want to go, and to augment their ability, strength, and endurance. It’s modular, power-saving system design enables users to swap out major components in the field, as well as perform extended missions while operating on battery power. The system’s load-carrying ability functions without power.

Lockheed Martin officials select- ed Protonex Technology Corp. in Southborough, Mass., to develop power-supply concepts to enable the HULC robotic exoskeleton to support missions spanning 72 hours or more. Protonex staff is evaluating fuel cell-based solutions to power the exoskeleton and other mission equipment during extended dismounted operations.

“Integrating state-of-the-art power technology on the HULC is a whole system approach to meeting the needs of dismounted warfighters and Special Operations forces,” says Rich Russell, director of sensors, data links, and advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Orlando, Fla. “With proper power management systems, the HULC can be used to recharge critical equipment while carrying heavy combat loads on an extended mission.”

 
A Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle used for route clearing missions in theater is pictured with a Husky Mounted Detection System, armed with ground-penetrating radar capable of detecting buried IED and antitank land mines. (Image courtesy U.S. Army Brigade Combat Team.)

NASA Robonaut

Officials from NASA, General Motors, and Oceaneering Space Systems in Houston unveiled the second generation of NASA’s Robonaut (R2), a dexterous humanoid robot designed to execute simple, repetitive, or dangerous tasks alongside humans, on Earth or onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The latest version, which includes a head and a torso with two arms and two hands, boast several technological improvements over the original R1.

R2 gains improved sensors, including two Prosilica GC2450 color cameras from Allied Vision Technologies (AVT) in Newburyport, Mass., and an Infra-Red Time-of-Flight camera. R2 features 350 sensors for tactile, force, position, rangefinding, and vision sensing, as well as 38 Power PC processors for performing various functions, such as object recognition and manipulation. R2 can also react to its surroundings and operate semi-autonomously.

R2’s helmet incorporates vision equipment that uses color, pixel intensity, and texture-based segmentation and advanced pattern recognition techniques via Halcon 9.0 software from MVtec, an AVT software partner located in Cambridge, Mass. “Built-in classification techniques within the software are used to perform 3D and pattern-recognition functions in real time to allow R2 to compute feasible trajectories and decide where to place its hands to execute a set of pre-determined tasks, such as opening boxes auton- omously,” says a NASA spokesperson.

 
Officials from NASA, General Motors, and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston developed NASA’s Robonaut (R2), which works alongside astronauts on board the International Space Station.

R2 underwent a series of rigorous tests, after which it launched on space shuttle Discovery in February. NASA officials anticipate R2, initially hard-mounted and stationed in the Destiny laboratory on board the ISS, will become mobile to perform station maintenance tasks, such as vacuuming or cleaning filters, and eventually achieve the ultimate goal of performing dangerous extra-vehicular activity outside the ISS.

TDI Power’s Henderson predicts the trend of making military vehicles more capable in battle conditions to continue into the foreseeable future. “Tactical vehicles will be pushed beyond forward operating bases, and that means a continuance of the somewhat conflicting characteristics of more electronics, limited electrical power, and worsening environments,” he says. For example, Army officials have stated that “after 2013, they may only be able to run all the vetronics on a Stryker while at full throttle (600 amps). What happens when the vehicle is at idle (200–300 amps), which makes up roughly 75 percent of the vehicle’s operating profile? Will we have to ask the warfighter to choose what systems are ‘non-essential’ so they can be shut down? The alternative currently is to keep your foot on the gas until you run out of fuel, which will happen very quickly at engine efficiencies of 5 miles per gallon.”

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Mil & Aero Magazine

February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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