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Rugged connectors take the standards route

Rugged electronic connectors for aerospace and defense applications are taking the standards route as systems designers increasingly ask for connectors common in commercial applications that are designed for the demanding environment of the battlefield.

"Our customers like D-subminiature connectors, and everyone is familiar with them," says Jim Lieb, vice president of sales at CONEC Corp. in Garner, N.C. "They are simple to connect, and are simple to configure for what you want to use it for, such as power, signal, coax, and fiber."

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) connectors that follow commercial standards are among the most asked-for qualities of today's rugged military and aerospace connectors, followed closely by reduced weight, small size, increased bandwidth, and low power consumption, connector experts say.

"The trend to COTS is driving the trend to ruggedized standards," says Stephen Johnson, director of business development for Hypertronics Corp. in Hudson, Mass. To do so, Hypertronics designers are focusing on ruggedizing SATA data storage connectors, as well as paying attention to sealing and waterproofing connectors intended for aerospace and defense use.

"It's not rocket science; it boils down to smaller size, doing more with the sizes we have, reducing weight, and lowering power consumption," Johnson says.

Design innovation to reduce the size of connectors does not necessarily mean manufacturing miniature connectors, Johnson points out. It also can mean designing hybrid connectors that combine several interconnects into one connector. "We can use a hybrid modular connector to reduce the number of connectors in a design," he says. "Reducing connector count is one of the things we see in the market."

The ruggedized micro-D connector from Omnetics lends itself to standard interfaces.
The ruggedized micro-D connector from Omnetics lends itself to standard interfaces.

For some systems designers and connector manufacturers, however, miniaturization is the way to go. "UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] keep getting smaller and more sophisticated, as do soldier-worn devices and munitions-mounted sensors," says Greg Jones, North American sales manager for Omnetics Connector Corp. in Minneapolis.

"The payload size is really critical, and our customers are looking for lightweight, low-mass interconnects," Jones says. Omnetics specializes in tiny nano connectors that not only cut down on size and weight, but also inherently lend themselves to rugged designs.

"Nano connectors in shock and vibration environments can hold up better than the big stuff-especially if the UAVs come in hot or crash," Jones says.

The trend toward soldier-worn devices such as small displays, communications equipment, networking, and computer equipment also is driving trends in small connectors, Jones says. "The soldier-worn devices market has really blossomed for us for helmet sights, thermal and optical imaging systems, and communications."

Small rugged connectors for soldier-worn equipment also have their own challenges, such as break-away capability to help deployed soldiers avoid snagging cables and connectors on branches, vehicles, equipment, or other obstacles.

"We make a breakaway connector so all you need is to pull on it," Jones says. "The user doesn't have to unscrew anything." Quick-disconnect military connectors are increasing in importance for warfighters who routinely must work inside and out of combat vehicles.

Demand for rugged VPX connectors is increasing as the VPX high-speed switch fabric becomes popular.
Demand for rugged VPX connectors is increasing as the VPX high-speed switch fabric becomes popular.

Soldiers who must leave their vehicles often do not want to leave their displays and communications equipment behind when they dismount the vehicle, so quick-connect and -disconnect connectors can enable them to work inside and outside the vehicle with equal capability.

Broadening use of combat vehicles, such as Humvees and MRAPs, also is placing demands on rugged standardized connectors, explains CONEC's Lieb.

"We can put three or four standard rugged connectors on the communications box in a Humvee or MRAP to enable either several users at one time, or redundancy in the system, and at a much lower cost per connector than 38-999 standard military connectors," Lieb says.


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