Rugged computers become everyday battlefield equipment

Jan. 1, 2004
Designers build customized rugged computers to match every job, and are carefully balancing the needs for toughness and reliability with the imperative to get the most for the user's money.

Designers build customized rugged computers to match every job, and are carefully balancing the needs for toughness and reliability with the imperative to get the most for the user's money.

Manufacturers of ruggedized computers are enjoying strong support from military systems designers. Still, competition for that business is tougher than ever, so manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the fast evolution of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, while customizing their computers to match specific demands for cost, weight, power, and ruggedness.

Army surveyors need a specific solution to help soldiers on a new battlefield quickly map the terrain to give commanders and bombers accurate coordinates. Surveyors need a huge amount of computer memory to draft a precision topographical chart; until recently they had to do this by packing an entire High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) with powerful equipment.

Today, however, experts at the Army Topological Engineering Center (TEC) at Fort Belvoir, Va., have shrunk the operation into one suitcase, called the TeraTac. The unit's tactical branch is now using it in Iraq to make maps of each battlefield in real time.

"This is a classic case of using modern digital technology and rugged packaging to significantly downsize a tactical system," says Joe Chernof, federal account manager at rugged computer maker Getac Inc. in Lake Forest, Calif.

Getac officials supply their company's A770 full-rugged workstation for the job, using a 60-gigabyte hard drive, 1 gigabyte of RAM, Intel Centrino microprocessor, and high-capacity video link to handle the heavy data input from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other sensor platforms.

Prime contractor Lockheed Martin Mission Systems of Manassas, Va., also picked a ruggedized mass-storage device from Network Appliance in Sunnyvale, Calif. The 0.5-terabyte RAID (redundant array of independent disks) system sits in a ruggedized 4-by-10-by-10-inch box under the A770, connected by Ethernet cable. Diversified Technology of Sterling, Va., ruggedized the array.

The whole package would have been impossible to construct without recent advances in ruggedized computing, Chernof says.

Industry changes

In fact, the entire industry has been changing fast. Rugged computer manufacturing is still dominated by large players like DRS Technologies of Parsippany, N.J., Miltope Corp. of Hope Hull, Ala., Panasonic of Secaucus, N.J., Itronix of Spokane, Wash., and Getac, he says. But in 2003 the field shifted through mergers such as the DRS' acquisition of Paravant, and Golden Gate Capital's acquisition of Itronix.

The Orion Universal Display System (UDP) from Z Microsystems lets users rotate any kind of ruggedized display into a system, as easily as replacing razor blades. This model is a 21-inch flat-panel display.
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Some suppliers are scrambling to make their products even more rugged. In recent years, industry suppliers and the U.S. Department of Defense have begun to choose less expensive, less rugged options, Chernof says. But lately they have watched those products fail in the harsh environments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Additional feedback from Iraq revolves around the need for more bandwidth among the military users of ruggedized computers.

"They have information sources from satellites and drones, providing all sorts of real-time data. But the flow of information exceeds the capacity of the equipment that's supposed to process it and print it out," Chernof says. "Bandwidth is like money; everybody wants more."

Perhaps the biggest theme in ruggedized computer design is flexibility. Getac does much of its business building customized products for unique specifications. Many of those users demand flexibility, so they can configure their computers for various tasks in the field.

Getac designers build notebook computers with expansion ports for extra cards, modules, drives, and batteries. That open design enables engineers to swap new components in for broken or outdated ones, a crucial ability for designers who need to keep up with rapidly evolving COTS components.

For example, an optional two-bay expansion chassis in the Getac A series could hold two ISA (industry standard architecture) or PCI (peripheral component interconnect) cards, while the CD ROM/floppy-drive plug-in feature in a one-spindle notebook lets users turn it into a three-spindle unit without adding much weight.

Fast processors

Designers of rugged computers are also following the upgrade path for fast processors, such as Intel's replacement of the Pentium 3 with the Pentium 4. In the world of sealed electronics, however, a more powerful chip can generate too much heat. In turn, that can force designers to use fans or heat sinks, which add weight and drain power. Many rugged computer designers find a solution in Intel's Centrino processor, which generates less heat and lower power drain than the Pentium 4.

In peripherals, users increasingly demand larger screens on their ruggedized computers. As modern warfighters depend on data to defeat their enemies, they need improving resolution large screens to read maps and photographs downloaded from satellites or UAVs, Chernof says.

Until recently, a 10.4-inch screen was the industry standard, yet tactical users now need 12.1, 13.3, and 14.1-inch screens, he says. Military users are buying the largest screens as fast as Getac can build them, but screen manufacturers can't keep up with demand.

Finally, users could begin to adopt tablet computers for ruggedized applications, but that new hardware form factor has not yet won full trust from military users who hesitate to try new tools in wartime, Chernof says. Getac engineers build the CA25 tablet computer with a 700 MHz processor and 12.1-inch screen.

Getac's computers now fly on the U.S. Air Force's C-17 transport jet, which carries a dozen A760s on each plane. Air Force workers still use Getac's original N-Series laptop on the McDonnell Douglas F-15 jet fighter.

Getac engineers also support the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft with their portable electronic data device (PED), a maintenance computer based on the A760. Workers use a similar computer for pre-flight checkout of TRW's Hunter UAV.

Keeping up with COTS

One of the main challenges of designing rugged computers is the great expense of testing and qualifying them to meet military standards. That is part of the reason that orders typically take five to seven years to complete.

That time span makes it difficult for manufacturers to upgrade computer gear to keep up with rapidly evolving COTS components. And yet users still demand gear that is fast, small, and light, says Vladymir Rogov, vice president of marketing and design at Z Microsystems Inc. in San Diego.

"COTS equipment turns over so fast in commercial technology world that it reaches end of life every six months," he says. "Yet the military takes a much longer time to set contracts in motion. And once something is qualified, they never want to change it until it's a total antique."

So the company has launched a solution to this conundrum — the Z-Microsystems Z MPU multiprocessor computer.

Users get a computer that is fast and rugged, by combining two or four computers that share a chassis and peripheral set. The combined unit takes up less space, weight, and power than a comparable stack of four independent computers.

The user can mix and match operating systems, hard drives, motherboards, and disk modules to build the best platform for each mission, company officials say. Each computer is an Intel or Sun system, encased in its own, rugged, sealed, hot-swappable case.

That is crucial because so many military users depend on proprietary or relatively old computing systems. These flexible systems let them use the old equipment, yet still stay up to date on rapidly changing COTS components. The company will soon release a version with six computers.

"In the past, users just stacked up four computers together, so four times 4U is 16U high. Or they'd use VME cards, which lag behind curve of technology because takes so much time and money to qualify for military use," Rogov says.

That flexibility is also important for new applications such as homeland security or the Pentagon's most recent large-scale rugged computer procurements.

Among these procurements, the common Hardware/Software III (CHS-3) is a 10-year U.S. Army contract to provide next-generation commercial and ruggedized workstations, plus associated hardware and software for users throughout the federal government, including the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. See for more information.

General Dynamics C4 Systems won the potentially $2 billion contract and built a team including Sun Microsystems of McLean, Va.; Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif.; and DRS Technologies of Gaithersburg, Md. General Dynamics was also prime contractor for the precursor program, the 10-year, $888 million, CHS-2 contract, which is set to expire in 2005.

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Also in the spirit of building flexible, ruggedized computers, Z-Microsystems has released the Orion UDP (universal display system), a flat-panel display designed for configuration management.

"LCD displays are COTS and reach end of life very soon," Rogov says. "But this will use any LCD you want, like a disposable razor blade; Samsung, Toshiba, Philips, NEC, Sharp, or whatever. Our controller makes them all look the same."

That open-architecture design lets rugged-computer makers keep up with COTS. And the system lets users stack or daisy-chain the displays, so they can place up to eight separate displays in one panel or show the output from eight computers on a single display.

The U.S. Air Force is using Orion displays on the RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft to reduce the number of displays that must fit inside each plane.

How rugged is it?

The Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) is a secure information conduit spanning 800,000 civilians, sailors, and Marines among 300 bases. Some of the NMCI infrastructure is permanently located on bases or ships, while other terminals are mobile to enable their users to stay in touch while they fly, sail, or drive.

Prime contractor EDS (Electronic Data Systems Corp.) in Plano, Texas, chose Dell of Round Rock, Texas, to supply computers for the NMCI fixed nodes and Dolch Computer Systems of Fremont, Calif. to build NMCI mobile nodes, says Dolch President Jim Ciardella. Dolch makes two products for the job — the FlexPAC and the NotePAC.

The FlexPAC is a luggable, lunchbox-style computer designed to act as a desktop replacement that the user can carry to a new office by hoisting the 18-to-20-pound computer with one handle. The NotePAC is a sealed laptop in a magnesium case, strengthened to withstand a 3-foot drop onto a concrete floor.

As soldiers wage computerized combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have learned quickly that the desert environment demands new levels of ruggedized equipment. The simple issue of sand grains falling into a keyboard can stop an expensive machine. Some soldiers resort to sheathing their laptops in plastic bags while they type, but the safest solution is to use a ruggedized computer, Ciardella contends.

A ruggedized Dolch computer can cost two or three times as much as a Dell or Compaq, but for mission-critical applications, performance is more important than cost, he says.

Applications have split in recent years between products that optimize price, and those that optimize performance. "Marketing people are now talking about two terms — rugged computers and fully rugged computers," Ciardella says.

In the early 1990s, big companies such as IBM, Toshiba, and Compaq began to exit the industry because it was such a small niche market. The collapse of the telecommunications industry forced even more companies out. Now the remaining manufacturers of ruggedized computers are facing competition from Asian firms; certain Taiwanese companies, in fact, have been building laptop clones and calling them rugged, even though they do not meet the military specs, Ciardella says.

Another challenge in designing ruggedized computers is finding a way to support open architecture. Users of the NMCI gear need an expansion pack in each computer so they can use specific PCI or ISA cards in different machines, but it is difficult to ruggedize an open port.

A third design challenge is keeping up with the fast turnover of COTS equipment. Designers need time and money to test their ruggedized equipment, but electronics components change so quickly they can be outdated before the computer is released. So Dolch officials guarantee their product configuration and promise not only to tell customers about modifications before delivery, but also to ensure the new platform is backwards compatible.

Finally, the market continues to change. Customers always ask for smaller, faster, and lighter computers. And that is particularly true for users in the homeland security industry who need to carry their computers to every job.

Designed to be mounted in battlefield vehicles, the Plug-N-Run System-On-Module from PFU Systems will stand up to heavy shock and vibration.
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Dolch officials are meeting that demand with their PDI, a 3-pound portable display interface. In an age when every businessman carries a hand-held computer, that sounds like an easy project to create, yet merely building a metal enclosure around a Compaq Ipaq will not protect the computer from vibration and shock, Ciardella says.

The other challenge with mobile rugged computers is handling the heat in such a small enclosure. "As the size goes down, it's tough to dissipate the heat in a sealed unit," he says. "It's like rolling the windows up in your car on a sunny day. It gets pretty hot in there, and that's what happens in our computers."

Strong and light

All users say minimal weight is crucial for ruggedized computers in mobile applications, yet weight gets even more important when users are special operations troops using wearable computers.

"Guys say the last thing they need is another 100 pounds of lightweight gear," says Bill Silhan, president and chief technical officer of Tactronics in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

Tactronics engineers build wearable and vehicle-mounted computers and act as systems integrators to field tactical LAN (local area network) systems and other products. Like designers at Z-Microsystems and Dolch, one of Tactronics's greatest challenges is to balance ruggedized design with the flexibility to refresh hardware with the latest COTS components.

At the same time, packing powerful microprocessors into a sealed compartment raises other challenges.

"Most systems are teetering on the edge of thermal failure," Silhan says. Tactronics engineers handle some of that heat by using the 4-by-6-by-2-inch aluminum chassis as a built-in heat sink. That works for Tactronics's 3.4-pound CROW series (compact, rugged, operational, wearable) and 6.4-pound CROC series (compact, rugged, operational computer).

Another method is making the machine fault-tolerant. The computers are certified to work in temperatures as hot as 85 degrees Celsius, but a sealed box in direct sunlight can roast even hotter than that. Instead of shutting down, or showing the "blue screen of death," a Tactronics machine keeps running by underclocking its processor.

"We'll run a 700-MHz chip at 400 MHz, so even though it's out of spec, it's still available so you can complete the mission," he says.

The EZ-Tool from Kontron Mobile Computing boasts COTS components like an Intel Pentium M Processor and Windows 2000 or XP operating system, as well as ruggedized features like a removable hard drive.
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The designers also build each machine to handle a variable power source. Automotive voltage, for example, is notorious for spiking voltage up and down as the engine load changes. Some Tactronics machines will run on variable voltage, from nine to 36 volts DC. That range includes native 12- or 24-volt environments on vehicles, as well as native 28 volts on airframes.

One variable that designers cannot control is the rapid development of COTS components. To solve this problem, they build these computers with open architectures so they can easily swap in new gear as it becomes available.

The recent generation of Tactronics computers used 500-MHz microprocessors when they were released, and new designs are using 700-MHz units today. Company engineers are ready to continue the trend with Intel's Centrino and with a 1.6-GHz chip the company has promised to deliver within five years.

The flip side of flexible design is the ability of soldiers who are forced to flee a battlefield to "declassify" a computer quickly by removing its hard drive; doing this keeps valuable data away from the enemy.

Future generations of mobile rugged computers will probably not be much smaller in size than they are today, but will certainly offer great improvements in connectivity, Silhan says. Troops in the field need better ways to communicate with headquarters or among each other's units. They manage it today with radio frequency (RF) links through tactical secure radios, but the next generation must rely on emerging technologies in wireless networking.

Keep it rugged and cool

Any ruggedized computer depends on a sealed box to protect it from dust, rain, and temperature extremes.

"We have a lot of technologies to keep the heat out of the box or keep it inside," says Mike DiBiase, director of the commercial hardware systems division of General Dynamics, in Taunton, Mass.

That challenge, however, is tougher in some locations than others. Troops using computers in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, are having trouble with the blowing sand.

"We're finding the dust over there is like talcum powder, and can get into every nook and cranny. If you have a fan blowing air through a box, you need a good filter," DiBiase explains.

Top Army leaders want to put solutions out now, so computer designers are focusing on putting products in the field immediately, instead of waiting for future technologies.

In designing a rugged computer for the battlefield, they first ask soldiers how they'll use them, DiBiase says. For instance, in building a ruggedized PDA (personal digital assistant) they consider the human factors first. General Dynamics designers built the product to connect easily to a secure radio with just one cable so soldiers can send data quickly over a modem.

"We're also looking at doing some work with wireless LANs, which would be an embedded feature for shorter range communications. That way you wouldn't tie up the radio frequencies, but you could transmit graphic images or maps, and tell your buddy where you are, or where the target is," DiBiase says.

Another demand from the troops is to ruggedize the power supply, so General Dynamics engineers built a versatile computer unit, or VCU. If a user suddenly loses his electricity, the unit's uninterruptible power supply (called a UPS) will kick in to preserve the data for as long as 30 minutes. That way the user can save it or send a last message.

Another challenge is to ruggedize the repair shop. Support staff in the field can swap spares for broken computers, or fix some equipment on site, but both approaches add to the weight that must be moved in the supply chain. "We need better training for how to do preventive maintenance," DiBiase says. "Soldiers have always had to maintain their trucks, so why should their computers be any different?"

Building customized computers

Some designers of rugged computers say COTS components are a panacea — able to fix all problems — but that is not really true, says Frank Willis, vice president of government business development at SBS Technologies in Albuquerque, N.M.

True, computer manufacturers can buy new products more quickly than they can military components to start developing new products, but they must struggle to beat obsolescence. COTS products often expire faster than a company can field new products, and that is why manufacturers must use technology-refresh and technology-insertion plans to ensure their computers stay competitive.

Likewise, government contracts used to call for development cycles as long as 24, 42, or even 48 months, but many recent jobs demand completed products within 12 months — sometimes even faster.

At the same time, customers are requesting a greater variety of hardware than ever before. One customer may request 120 channels of digital I/O, with each channel programmed to a different level. Another may specify a system with 32 channels of analog I/O, Willis says.

Users can configure or upgrade their computers quickly with Z Microsystems' Z MPU. The system stacks two to six rugged computers that share peripherals and processors.
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To keep up with those pressures, SBS engineers are using more DSPs (digital signal processors) and FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) at the front end of their cards so they can reconfigure each product quickly instead of building a new single-board computer (SBC) from scratch for each job. SBS planners even acquired an FPGA company in 2003 to boost that expertise — Avvida Systems Inc., a privately held company in Waterloo, Ontario.

In a continuing trend, users of rugged computers are still looking for higher-density I/O (input/output). That has even led some user to question the venerable VME bus.

"VME has been in military for a long time, and will continue to be. But in the last two years, we've been seeing more use of Compact PCI in those same applications," Willis says. Other customers have been inquiring about PCI Express as an alternative.

The embedded computing module (ECM) from Kontrol Mobile Computing is designed to be both small enough to incorporate into wearable systems and rugged enough to stand up to military environments.
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Those design changes helped SBS engineers not only achieve faster time to market, but also let them quickly reconfigure products for different levels of ruggedness, Willis says. Military users will specify precise levels of ruggedness that depend not only on whether an airborne computer will fly in an F-15 or F-18 jet fighter, but also depend on where it is located within the airframe.

The up side to these challenging requests is market growth. The amount of money being spent on defense electronics is higher now than it has been for a decade or two, Willis says, adding that SBS captures even more business by building integrated solutions, instead of trying to compete among simple SBCs, which are practically a commodity at the level of 7455 or 7457 processors.

Stable platforms

Engineers at Kontron Mobile Computing in Eden Prairie, Minn., specialize in creating flexible designs to enable their customers to build customized products. From video teleconferencing, to aircraft maintenance, to vehicle-mounted situational awareness, their products can serve nearly any purpose, company officials say.

While consumer designers can keep pace with changing COTS components, however, military users cannot react so quickly. In response, Kontron leaders have committed to use their new Quicksilver platform for the next five years.

"Military customers want longevity instead of a new product every month," points out Greg Ackerman, program solutions manager at Kontron. "Of course, they also say they want computers faster, smaller, cheaper." Products in the Quicksilver form factor include Kontron computers like the 8000 series and 2000 series.

The 8000 series features a luggable notebook for data acquisition, flight maintenance, and telecommunications. Troops now are using one version in Iraq for battlefield video teleconferencing to help soldiers communicate without making a dangerous commute past snipers and mines. Another model is the Revolution, a laptop that converts to a tablet format for applications like vehicle maintenance. Still other 8000 models are seeing use among Air Force planners as sniffers for chemical and biological weapons.

Technicians will upgrade the company's 2000 series computers this year to the Quicksilver platform. This model is a mobile three-piece set, with the keyboard and display typically mounted in the cab of a HMMWV, and server in the trunk. Troops often use it for situational awareness as part of FBCB2 (force 21 battle command, brigade-and-below), the initiative to integrate command and control in the digital battlespace at the smallest tactical levels.

Kontron engineers are also designing computers with greater data storage than today's computers, as soldiers use computers to handle a flood of electronic data in battle, including data-hogging graphics.

"Area maps take up a lot of memory," Ackerman says. "So we've gone from 4 or 6 gigabytes to 40-gigabyte hard drives standard, and we've gone from 64 to 256 megabytes of memory."

Servers into laptops

Pentagon planners require troops to shrink their computer equipment for mobility and to save on freight and shipping. For instance, the Air Force's Theater Battle Management Core Systems (TBMCS) must be flexible and deployable so users can handle large- or small-scale operations for C4I (command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence) systems.

Just eight to twelve months ago, mobile laptops could not provide the memory or screen size to handle such operations, so users had to transport pallets of servers aboard cargo planes to handle the job. Today, American soldiers in Iraq can carry the necessary equipment in a briefcase, says Barbara Payne, vice president of the public sector group for Tadpole Computer Inc. in Cupertino, Calif.

Of course, soldiers have used ruggedized laptops in the past, but they could not find any products with 4 gigabytes of memory, or two 80-gigabyte hard drives. Just 18 months ago, they had to carry a 60-pound server for that much power, or use the big enterprise servers back at their command-and-control stations.

A solider today can carry a 10-pound server in his backpack, with flexible PCI slots for secure wireless communications links, and a 15-inch display to handle the heavy graphics load of images and maps for C4ISR (C4I, surveillance and reconnaissance), she says.

Engineers at Tadpole have been able to work so quickly because a group of managers bought the hardware business from their British parent company in December 2002. Then they began pumping more money into research and development to launch new products.

Tadpole supplies computers to General Dynamics for the CHS-2 contract for fire control and mission-critical jobs for integrators such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, Payne says. The company's VoyagerIIi, for example, is a portable UNIX workstation for fliers on the U.S. Navy P-3 patrol aircraft project to reprogram Standoff Land Attack Missiles (SLAMs) in flight, Payne says.

Other new products include the Viper and Comet. The Viper is a laptop running on a powerful Ultrasparc 3I processor. The Comet is an ultrathin client notebook that acts as a disposable server. A removable smart card provides wireless access to data from a central server, so troops can abandon the computer in a battlefield without handing their database to the enemy.

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