Obsolescence in avionics, the headache that doesn't go away

Jan. 7, 2010
Designers of old and new avionics systems all share a common challenge – obsolescence management. As they take advantage of all the performance advantages of using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology they continue to be troubled by the dark side of COTS – that electronic components go obsolete sometimes even before an aircraft makes its first flight.

By John McHale

Designers of old and new avionics systems all share a common challenge – obsolescence management. As they take advantage of all the performance advantages of using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology they continue to be troubled by the dark side of COTS – that avionics components go obsolete sometimes even before an aircraft makes its first flight.

Obsolescence will never go away and companies and government programs and agencies need to be proactive about how they manage it or it will cost them millions upon millions of dollars, says Jeff Hanser, chief technology officer for Resource Analysis Corp. (www.mysmart-rac.com/rac/index.htm) in San Diego. Hanser's company produces a tool called SMART that manages obsolescence for Navy, Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs as well as for major prime contractors.

Many programs and companies just put out obsolescence fires as they happen rather than investing a bit of money up front then saving millions in the long-term, Hanser says.
"The F-22 is shutting down and the Air Force has no new birds," which forces military to keep relatively old aircraft flying even longer, Walker says.

"Obsolescence typically bites the oldest programs that have the least amount of money to fix it," Hanser says.

"Obsolescence management kills us," says Greg Walker, manager of military crew interface systems at Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix. On the avionics side the way to go is with an open systems architecture to swap out parts easily that are no longer being made, Walker says. One method to combat obsolescence is by making a lifetime buy of a component when a vendor announces that they making it obsolete, Walker says.

One problem with this method is the length of military development cycles, which anywhere from four to seven years. By the time the system is ready for deployment, its electronics components often are obsolete, which forces systems integrators to make costly redesigns.

Honeywell engineers are taking the open architecture approach on the avionics for the Navy's P-3A Poseidon anti-submarine warfare and long-range maritime patrol jet, which will replace the P-3 Orion turboprop sometime in the next decade, Walker says.

It is not just a military problem, says Ben Daniel, general manager at the Avionics group for GE Intelligent Platforms in Goleta, Calif. Components go obsolete just as fast in commercial avionics systems as they do in military platforms, he adds.

However, they still have systems and aircraft that will be around for decades such as the B-52 which may fly for 90 years, but needs to have its electronics consistently upgraded as new technology becomes available, Hanser says.

F-35 designers have found success with COTS technology mostly because they have been able to successfully manage the obsolescence headaches that accompany COTS, says Eric Branyan, vice president and deputy program manager for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. "We've been careful to develop the architecture so that if one part goes obsolete, we don't have to redesign the entire system to replace it," he adds.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter leverages COTS for avionics systems

There are different ways to approach obsolescence management such as life time buys of components that suppliers decide to obsolete, Branyan says.

He notes that the F-35 program does make lifetime buys when it is economical, but says the real key for the F-35 program is a Lockheed Martin-designed middleware that enables COTS hardware and software to be upgraded without having to "rectify or rewrite 8 million lines of code."

"We built the middleware to protect us so we can make changes without overhauling the software code," Branyan says.

The middleware enables key COTS components such as the Freescale PowerPC processors to be refreshed without any major changes to the avionics system, he continues. In the past certifying a refresh of multifunction displays would take three to four years, now with the isolated middleware the most recent refresh was completed in only six months, he adds.

"We have two major processor card lines -- one for general-purpose processing and one for dedicated display graphics generation," Walker says. "Each is upgraded every few years to stay ahead of the industry's obsolescence cycle. Both of these processor lines are sustained and upgraded by Honeywell to prevent cost to the customer for significant life-time-buy expenses."

Honeywell experts design their company's main processor boards in house, rather than buying them from someone like Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing or GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, Walker says.

"We do not sell these boards to anyone but ourselves," Walker says. "We make the boards and they run on Pentiums, PowerPCs, etc.," depending on the system
Fifteen years ago, obsolescence management and technology refreshment plans were never discussed when military contracts were put together, now they are a fact of life, Hanser says. The military no longer has the market share to drive technology like they used to, the commercial world does, he adds.

Another big cost factor in avionics development is managing software, Walker says. Whenever a piece of hardware changes, its software may have to be re-certified rewritten, which is costly. This is why many engineers always push for hardware to be independent of software in open architecture avionics systems, he says.

GE Intelligent Platforms, which designs MIL-STD 1553, ARINC 429, and ARINC 664 databus boards for commercial and defense avionics, has products dating back ten years that are still supported, but much older, Daniel says.

"We will support older boards" in form factors such as PMC, PMCIA, PCI, etc., but if they are past a certain time point such as eight to 10 years, "we will take them out of the catalogue," Daniel says.

GE uses internal software tools that track when different components on their boards will go obsolete and will let the customer know sometimes as long as two years ahead so that they can make a decision on whether or not to do a lifetime but of the components or moving to next-generation devices.

Often the newer solutions are much more cost-effective to maintain than the newer ones simply because of cost per gate on field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), etc. Daniel says. There is some initial expense when moving to a new solution, especially in software whether things have to be re-qualified and for flight sometimes recertified per FAA safety regulations, but in the long run it is more cost effective, he adds.

Unfortunately obsolescence problems will not go away, but if you stay on top of them they can be managed, Daniel says.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!