From gum-stick to postage-stamp sizes, the era of small-form-factor embedded computing has arrived

Small-form-factor embedded computing is becoming one of the hottest areas in military embedded systems, and a growing list of companies is rolling out single-board computers in sizes smaller than traditional 3U and 6U form factors.

Standards organizations such as the VITA open standards, open markets organization in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) in Wakefield, Mass., are formulating open-systems standards for small-form-factor embedded computing, but widely accepted standards in this area remain elusive.

The Falcon small-form-factor embedded computing board from VersaLogic is roughly the size of a standard credit card.
The Falcon small-form-factor embedded computing board from VersaLogic is roughly the size of a standard credit card.

At the same time, however, demand for small-form-factor embedded computing continues to increase, driven by size- and weight-constrained aerospace and defense applications like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), wearable computing, and manned ground vehicles.

At work is an immediate need for small-form-factor embedded computing products that is considered to be much more important than perceived industry needs for small-form-factor open-systems standards. More to the point: Systems integrators apparently want small-form-factor embedded computing technology right now more than they need open-systems standards.

Concerning small-form-factor embedded computing, "standardization-wise, I don't see a lot of buy-in right now," explains Curtis Reichenfeld, chief technology officer for the Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions system solutions Group in Ashburn, Va. "People are still investing in 6U and 3U. No one has said this is the next VME or VPX."

Meanwhile, however, embedded computing companies continue to introduce small-form-factor products at a rapid pace. Curtiss-Wright most recently has introduced digital I/O cards in the Express Mezzanine Card (XMC) form factor, which is a VITA-standard small form factor.

One of the relative newcomers to small-form-factor embedded computing is VersaLogic Corp. in Eugene, Ore., which in late August introduced the Falcon small-form-factor rugged embedded computing board in the new Embedded Processing Unit (EPU) format.

The Falcon single-board computer is for military embedded systems and medical applications that require small, lightweight embedded systems. It measures roughly the size of a credit card and less than one inch thick. Its EPU form factor combines processor, memory, video, and system I/O, and features the Intel Atom E6x0T low-power processor.

The EPU form factor is designed to withstand extreme temperature, impact, and vibration. Specifically, the computer board operates in temperatures from -40 to 85 degrees Celsius, and meets MIL-STD-202G specifications to withstand high impact and vibration.

Field reliability for aerospace and defense systems designers is one of the chief forces driving the embedded computing industry in the direction of small form factor.

"The G forces exerted on an embedded system during shock and vibration directly relates to the height of the system," explains Gary Schultz, director of marketing at VersaLogic. "When a three- or four-board computer assembly is hard-mounted to the bottom of a chassis, the G forces create additional stress on the highest components in the assembly, making them prone to unexpected failure."

Under the forces of shock and vibration, relatively large circuit boards start to flex as the forces transfer to the width of the board with off-axis movements. "This too causes field failures," Schultz says. "We set out to exceed these historical challenges with Falcon."

The typical credit card today represents one of the most popular sizes for the latest generation of small-form-factor computer boards. Smaller sizes and lighter weights mean less room for flexing under shock and vibration, which can make these small boards far more immune to shock damage then their larger 3U and 6U cousins.

Still, the size of a credit card does not represent the limits of emerging small-form-factor embedded computing boards. Gumstix Inc. in Portola Valley, Calif., offers a computer module about the size of a stick of chewing gum.

On the horizon are small-form-factor embedded computing boards that will approach the size of a postage stamp.

Whether or not these new generations of small-form-factor embedded computers adhere to open-systems standards or remain proprietary form factors, the era of small-form-factor embedded computing has arrived.


AAEON Electronics Inc. Hazlet, N.J.
ACCES I/O Products Inc. San Diego
ADL Embedded Solutions Inc. San Diego
ADLINK Technology Inc. Taipei, Taiwan
Advantech Corp. Industrial Automation Group Cincinnati
American Portwell Technology Inc. Fremont, Calif.
BittWare Inc. Concord, N.H.
CONTEC Co. Ltd. Osaka, Japan
Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions Ashburn, Va.
Diversified Technology Inc. (DTI) Ridgeland, MS
Emerson Network Power Tempe, Ariz.
Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) Middleton, Wis.
GE Intelligent Platforms Huntsville, Ala.
Gumstix Inc. Portola Valley, Calif.
Kontron Poway, Calif.
Logic PD Inc. Minneapolis
Mercury Computer Systems Chelmsford, Mass.
PCI Systems Inc. Sunnyvale, Calif.
Themis Computer Fremont, Calif.
VectorNav Technologies LLC Richardson, Texas
VersaLogic Corp. Eugene, Ore.
WinSystems Inc. Arlington, Texas

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July 2015
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