Relaxed AWACS temperature rules pave way for more COTS computers

HANSCOM AFB, Mass. - U.S. Air Force officials are loosening electronics temperature requirements aboard the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft so they can broaden their use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology as they upgrade the radar plane`s computers.

Mar 1st, 1998
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By John McHale

HANSCOM AFB, Mass. - U.S. Air Force officials are loosening electronics temperature requirements aboard the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft so they can broaden their use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology as they upgrade the radar plane`s computers.

Experts at the Air Force Electronic Systems Center (ESC) at Hanscom Air Force Base in Lexington, Mass., reduced the extreme temperature standards on the AWACS computers from -40 to 85 degrees Celsius to 0 to 50 C, says Maj. Michael K. Milligan, chief of mission computing upgrades at ESC.

Technicians determined that in 20 years of operation, the aircraft operated in extreme temperatures so rarely that the constraints were not necessary, Milligan explains.

If the interior of the aircraft ever gets colder than 0 C, pilots can warm it with heaters before operators activate the computers, he says.

The upgrade will replace the current processors with Motorola PowerPC-based VME single-board computers from Cetia Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.; new graphic processors from Radstone in Towcester, England; Fibre Channel network interface cards from Systran in Dayton, Ohio; a Fibre Channel switch from Ancor Communications in Minneapolis; power supplies from Brandt Electronics Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.; and cabinets from Zero Corp. in Los Angeles. These COTS computers will improve the AWACS target tracker and enhance its graphics capabilities.

The advantages in cost, performance, and supportability that COTS computers offer outweigh the risks of extreme temperatures, Milligan says.

"The use of COTS greatly reduces the cost of modernizing the system since most hardware and some software can be purchased from a variety of commercial vendors, without the expense of government-funded development," Milligan says.

The conversion of the AWACS computers from military-specific to commercial technology is part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between officials of ESC and the Boeing Co. in Seattle. The CRADA implementation is approximately 10 to 25 percent of the original cost of the AWACS computers, Milligan says.

"The CRDA enables Boeing to try various mission computing projects funded by their own research and development program by simply plugging the required hardware into the test aircraft and loading the associated software," Milligan explains.

The project first will convert AWACS workstation equipment from military-specific to commercial technology. Then Boeing experts will test a COTS phased array antenna, which they developed originally to provide passenger in-flight entertainment aboard commercial jetliners, to determine if they can adapt it for military use.

"We will completely re-vamp present and future versions of the system," says Col. Gary Connor, AWACS program director at ESC.

"We have been working to develop a system that would give a commander the ability to view and direct the air battle, even while airborne and enroute to the war zone," says Col. Richard Picanso, director of ESC`s Command and Control Unified Battlespace Environment, the Center`s high-tech integration and interoperability facility.

"Boeing was interested in the future military use of advanced antenna technologies that will allow airline passengers to view live television and connect to the internet so, through this CRDA, both the Air Force and Boeing are taking advantage of each other`s expertise and are developing systems form which both will ultimately benefit," Picanso says.

The AWACS computer upgrade will be in two steps, the first part of the hardware conversion in 1998 and the mission program computer upgrade in 2004. The displays on the workstations will also be replaced with flat panel displays.

The software architecture designed by Lockheed Martin Federal Systems in Owego, N.Y., is based on the CORBA and ODMG object based standards from the Object Management Group in Framingham, Mass.

The key to the software is its independence from the hardware, Milligan explains. It will be compatible with whatever hardware is installed, he says.

There are 66 AWACS aircraft deployed, most of which are Boeing 707s. Four additional Boeing 767 AWACS systems are being turned over to Japan later this year.

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The AWACS aircraft are receiving new COTS computers based on the PowerPC microprocessor and Fibre Channel data network.

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