Small-form-factor embedded computing aims at cost and size constraints

Designers who demand the smallest embedded computing architectures are interested in capability, but they need it at an affordable price to accommodate next-generation applications in unmanned vehicles, soldier systems, and other tiny electronics.

From the system designer's standpoint, it's still the Wild West out there in the world of small-form-factor embedded computing. The market is fragmented, to say the least. Moreover, designers considering small-form-factor embedded computing are looking for low costs and technology that is just good enough for their applications to keep costs low. This is incentive for integrators to choose the least-expensive solution they can find, and purveyors of small-form-factor embedded computing to cut corners wherever they can.

There are plenty of established and emerging small-form-factor embedded computing standards-and that's perhaps the central problem. Vying for the system designer's eye are COM Express; PCI Mezzanine Card (PMC); Qseven; PC/104; MicroTCA; VITA 73, 74, and 75; Smart Form Factor; and 3U VPX, to name a few.

In such a fragmented market, the value of an industry standard is dubious. Systems designers are looking for a bargain wherever they can find it in this era of shrinking defense budgets, which is putting even more pressure on suppliers. "Right now no one has money," points out Claus Gross, president of small-form-factor specialist PCI Systems Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

It is encouraging systems designers to consider custom designs for small-form-factor embedded computing products, as well as standard products adjusted for low prices. There is little industry consensus on small-form-factor embedded computing industry standards, which leaves suppliers operating largely on their own in an increasingly difficult market.

Today "the small-form-factor market looks like an Arkansas trailer park after a tornado; it's scattered all over the place, and these people are wandering around in the debris," says Ray Alderman, executive director of the VITA Open Standards, Open Markets embedded computing trade association in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

Small-form-factor embedded computing like this architecture from PCI Systems aims at price- and size-sensitive applications like unmanned vehicles and soldier systems.
Small-form-factor embedded computing like this architecture from PCI Systems aims at price- and size-sensitive applications like unmanned vehicles and soldier systems.

What is small form factor?

With such a plethora of small-form-factor embedded computing standards in existence today, even the definition of the term is hazy. Small-form-factor embedded computing modules range from the sizes of a small paperback book, to a standard deck of playing cards, to a credit card. In essence, however, most agree that small form factor includes anything smaller than 3U VPX or Compact PCI. Some even insist that 3U computer boards should be considered small form factor.

More than what small form factor means, however, is what this breed of tiny embedded computing products offer in capability for aerospace and defense applications.

Unmanned vehicles-those operating in the air, on the ground, and in and under the water-seem to offer the most recognizable cachet when it comes to small-form-factor embedded computing. These systems have a pressing and growing need for small, lightweight, and powerful computing capability that consumes low amounts of power for sensor processing.

Unmanned vehicles are getting smaller, and so must the embedded computing that provides the digital signal processing (DSP) capability for their growing arrays of sensors, which include visible-light cameras, infrared sensors, video, and even radar and sonar.

Yet small-form-factor embedded computing is not limited to unman-ned vehicles. Systems designers are considering this new breed of small embedded computers for armored combat vehicles, soldier-worn electronics, and even for computers in public schools in areas where vandalism is a problem.

Tomorrow's small-form-factor embedded computing will offer computer boards the sizes of playing cards or credit cards.
Tomorrow's small-form-factor embedded computing will offer computer boards the sizes of playing cards or credit cards.


Relatively small size, weight, power consumption, and cost (SWaP-C) are the primary design considerations driving the adoption of small-form-factor embedded computing in aerospace and defense applications. "Applications keep getting more complicated as time moves on," says Bill Ripley, director of business development for tactical systems at Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif., one of the companies working on small-form-factor standards for VITA.

"The key thing is that it brings affordability in a very small form factor, and with high performance," Ripley says. "In vetronics, it can cut costs. Helicopter avionics, by definition, need small form factor because of payload constraints. We have seen a lot of interest from that community because of requirements for small size, weight, and power."

Themis is working on a small-form-factor embedded computing standard for VITA known as VITA 74, which of the three VITA small-form-factor standards is the farthest along in development. Themis designers are basing VITA 74 on the Nano ETX Express form factor, which came out of the COM Express standard and is about the size of a standard deck of playing cards, Ripley says.

The VITA 74 single-board computer can fit in a one-module enclosure that Themis calls the Nano Pack, which is being designed into smart displays and similar applications, as well as in several other formats.

There is demand for rugged small-form-factor embedded computing outside of aerospace and defense, as well, Ripley says. Examples include law enforcement, the oil and gas industry, and even public education.

Oil and gas companies are considering VITA 74-based small-form-factor embedded computing for oil rigs and industry vehicles "because of its inherent ruggedness, environmental specifications, and resistance to temperature extremes," Ripley says. Police forces also are considering VITA 74-based embedded computers for installation in law-enforcement vehicles. "It's a lot easier on a vehicle to find space for two small boxes than it is for one big box," he says.

Among the most surprising potential applications for small-form- factor embedded computing is public education. "Schools are looking for computers that are vandal-resistant, that are bolted on the bottom of a student's desk that is virtually indestructible, where there is a problem with theft," Ripley says.

Distributed networked architectures are opening up a multitude of potential applications for small-form-factor embedded computing that were not being considered only a few years ago. "You could have small-form-factor computers near the landing gear of an aircraft, and an Ethernet switch in the middle gathering information from the remote sensing units," Ripley says.

In perhaps its most appealing application-unmanned vehicles-small-form-factor embedded computing and distributed architectures can enable systems designers to place fairly powerful digital signal processing close to onboard sensors in size- and weight-sensitive platforms. "They can put small computers in out-of-the-way locations and do the processing near the sensor," Ripley adds.

Other companies are finding an enthusiastic market for small-form-factor embedded computing in unmanned vehicles. "Our customers have been saying that for small autonomous vehicles they want products that typically run on five watts or less, and are looking at putting multiple applications on hardware," says Chris Jobling, product manager for image processing at GE Intelligent Platforms in Bracknell, England.

"Rather than having dedicated hardware, some customers are asking for the ability to host their own algorithms, or combine multiple functions on a single product," Jobling says. Another considering driving small-form-factor embedded computing is a move to digital sensors on small platforms like unmanned vehicles, he says.

"Customers are moving to digital sensors to incorporate daylight and infrared sensors in the same pod," Jobling says. "Digital sensors have a lot more data to process, so you need faster logic processors and faster FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays]."

This can complicate already formidable challenges for the systems designer, however, because as the price of unmanned vehicles comes down, it puts downward pressure on small-form-factor computers, he says.

The ADEPT 3000 video tracker from GE Intelligent Platforms is one example of custom designs for extremely small embedded computing.
The ADEPT 3000 video tracker from GE Intelligent Platforms is one example of custom designs for extremely small embedded computing.

Dealing with cost

Designers of small-form-factor embedded computing not only must adapt to demands for some of the smallest computing systems around, but small-form-factor applications are among the most price-sensitive. This market is continually squeezed between technology and economics.

Software-defined radio module designer Pentek Inc. in Upper Saddle River, N.J., offers MicroTCA products for its customers who demand small-form-factor embedded computing, largely because of the relatively low cost of this technology, says Rodger Hosking, Pentek's vice president.

"Some of our customers say they want to use Micro- TCA instead of VPX because it is more affordable, and is more straightforward in a card-and-slot architecture, Hosking says. MicroTCA, he explains, was designed from the ground up for telecommunications applications, and offers relatively low telecom pricing, rather than the typically more expensive embedded computing designed for aerospace and defense applications, like VPX.

"MicroTCA can be 50 percent less expensive than VPX, but not much different in what it does," Hosking explains. Pentek also offers VPX products, but Hosking says designers of price-sensitive applications in which shock, vibration, and other rugged factors are not major issues are finding MicroTCA products to be the way to go.

"MicroTCA has a well-defined backplane architecture where the switch is part of it, and the microcontroller hub is part of it," Hosking says. "There are well-defined structures that are easy to do multi-vendor architectures, although there are not as many degrees of freedom as there is in 3U VPX."

Embedded computing specialist Kontron America in Poway, Calif., is offering the Smart Mobility Architecture (SMARC) to its customers who need small-form-factor embedded computing. the card measures 82 by 50 millimeters, or about the size of a credit card. It uses the MXM edge connector, is based on the ARM microprocessor architecture, and is for applications that demand small size, mobility, and low power, explains R.J. McLaren, portfolio manager for Kontron's commercial avionics and military products.

Primary applications for SMARC include display processing for rugged tablet computers, seat-back displays in commercial aircraft cabins, touchscreen displays in military vehicles, and displays in rugged industrial equipment.

Demand for affordable small-form-factor embedded computing also is making its way into emerging VITA standards, explains Gross of PCI Systems, whose company is working on the VITA 73 small-form-factor standard.

The PCI Systems design approach focuses on building embedded computing systems smaller than 3U VPX, but that fits into a small box with backplane, and also that includes mezzanine cards. The size of VITA 73 embedded computing modules will be roughly the size of a 2.5-inch hard drive, Gross says.

The U.S. Navy has shown interest in the VITA 73 work of PCI Systems, Gross says, in a beam-forming application for the Global Hawk large unmanned aerial vehicle for large-area maritime surveillance. Progress has been slow, however, because of the lack of funding for this project, Gross says.

The VITA 73 design has two connectors and innovative cooling in a design that can stand alone in a system design or in tandem with other cards in a backplane databus architecture. The VITA 73 backplane architectures accommodate from three to 14 computer boards, and can dissipate more than 240 watts of heat, Gross says.

While the VITA standards seek to fill a market niche occupied by applications with the most demanding environmental specifications, demand for low cost is encouraging PCI Systems engineers to make some changes to that philosophy.

"We are trying to put in a portion of VITA 73 that is air cooled," Gross says. "Everybody shies away from conduction-cooled because it is extremely expensive. It's not easy to convince people to use all that stuff immediately from the beginning.

"For conduction-cooled systems, the lack of funding is delaying the standards process," Gross continues. "A $400 chassis might be too expensive."

Gross says PCI Systems and small-form-factor embedded computing suppliers, in general, have two big challenges: to define architectures that accommodate third-party mezzanine cards easily, and to bring overall prices down.

PCI Systems is attempting to shrink the 3U VPX form factor to accommodate demand for high-performance computer boards at a fraction of the size.
PCI Systems is attempting to shrink the 3U VPX form factor to accommodate demand for high-performance computer boards at a fraction of the size.

Demand for standards

VITA is in the forefront of developing small-form-factor embedded computing standards formulated from the ground up for environmentally demanding applications in aerospace and defense. The three standards in development, VITA 73, VITA 74, and VITA 75 are being spearheaded, respectively, by PCI Systems, Themis Computer, and Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Ashburn, Va., with help from partner Mercury Computer Systems in Chelmsford, Mass. Curtiss-Wright and Mercury declined to be interviewed for this story.

Participants in all three standards are promoting different designs; and, although they may be designing solid technology, it unfortunately is adding to market fragmentation, says VITA's Alderman. The Curtiss-Wright and Mercury VITA 75 approach essentially is a smaller version of 3U VPX, he says. The approach is backplane-based, and is somewhere between half and three-quarters the size of 3U VPX, he adds.

Alderman says small-form-factor embedded computing is fundamentally different in design from other embedded computing standards like 6U and 3U VPX, which rely heavily on modularity to accommodate upgrades, maintenance, third-party participation, flexible capability, and other considerations.

Small form factor-with its considerations for low price as well as small size, weight, and power consumption-most likely will not have the same level of capability as its larger 6U and 3U VPX cousins, so probably will not have the need for the same level of flexibility.

"How much modularity needs to be done at the small-form-factor level? My opinion is: not much," Alderman says. "It's at the black-box level; you just swap out the black box. The military wants more horsepower, cheaper, and in a smaller box," he explains.

"Modularity costs money, and backplanes are expensive," Alderman continues. "There's a point at which you don't care anymore. You just need several boxes; you don't care what's in the box as long as you have standard processing, an appropriate amount of I/O, the ability to cool it, and appropriate connections for power. Having a one-size, fits-all connector is not necessary."

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April 2015
Volume 26, Issue 4

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