Embracing the philosophy of faster, cheaper, and better distributed satellite electronics

We`ve all heard this one: in order to win the next big program opportunity, the customer needs the product in half the time, for half the cost, with twice as many features and functions. Faster, cheaper, better. At UTMC we accept the philosophy, but we are building a complex satellite and payload that must survive a high-vibration launch and last in space for five years longer than the state-of-the-art 3-D video game you bought last Christmas. So how do we create value for our customer and compa

Jul 1st, 1999
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By Anthony Jordan

We`ve all heard this one: in order to win the next big program opportunity, the customer needs the product in half the time, for half the cost, with twice as many features and functions. Faster, cheaper, better. At UTMC we accept the philosophy, but we are building a complex satellite and payload that must survive a high-vibration launch and last in space for five years longer than the state-of-the-art 3-D video game you bought last Christmas. So how do we create value for our customer and company while successfully managing the program`s technical risk?

The production schedule is shorter than the industry standard of 18 months. The budget requires the development team to wear several different hats; the payload is a big unknown that will surely add risk to meeting the development schedule. Still, we must use faster, cheaper, better as a philosophical framework to identify schedule problems and time constraints associated with satellite design, integration, and test.

One such problem that this philosophy identifies is "time," specifically, the reduction of time. Satellite development requires software development, subsystem design, mechanical construction, and satellite integration that can absorb large amounts of labor hours to transition a satellite from concept to orbit. This is especially problematic if designers allocate a large amount of time to developing satellite core electronics.

We can circumvent these time constraints by using the faster, cheaper, better philosophy to concentrate on reducing the time we spend developing and integrating the core requirements of the system, thus freeing up more time for the mission. This is what we mean by "faster."

Finding a method to meet mission requirements without adversely affecting the compressed satellite systems design and production schedule gives us the leverage we need to bid competitively on programs. Once we can achieve good system performance in a short time, we can produce a satellite that complies with the mission requirements. This reduces the cost of satellite development. This is what we mean by "cheaper."

The list of satellite development issues does not stop there. Not only must we develop a satellite in a faster, cheaper way than we have in the past. We also must provide a better product for our customer. This is more difficult than it sounds. Trying to increase system performance also increases development time, which tends to drive up the cost of the satellite and adversely affect our attempts at decreasing the development schedule. Again, we find ourselves in a vicious circle of trying to cut schedule, increase performance, and obtain a secure technical foothold that will allow us to competitively bid on programs. If we can find a way to break this cycle, we can win programs by guaranteeing to meet all mission requirements in a shorter time at a lower price than any other competitor. This is what we mean by "better."

Solutions

Having identified the three major problems associated with system design, debug, software integration, and test, we must turn to finding their solutions.

The best way to carry out the faster, cheaper, better philosophy for satellite development involves the use of off-the-shelf components and sub-assemblies. This approach will provide the features and functions we need while reducing development time. Using standard building block sub-assemblies and reusing our designs as often as possible can dramatically reduce the development and integration time of core hardware and software, provide a better product, and reduce program costs.

To help enhance the value of a program, experts at UTMC have developed an integrated embedded controller card (ECC) for distributed satellite applications.

The UT131 ECC includes a powerful suite of peripheral functionality, coupled with commercially available development tools. It provides the satellite system integrator with a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solution that is radiation hardened for space and offers highly reliable subsystem interface and control functionality. Using the UT131 ECC helps the designer minimize the system-development and integration cycle. This enables the system integrator to focus on meeting mission requirements while reducing development cost and schedule.

The UT131 ECC provides the system integrator with an integrated, general-purpose, subsystem building block. Because UTMC sells it as a COTS-type product, we certify the UT131 ECC for space applications. Designers can easily embed the card into the satellite system architecture, and it requires little or no custom configuration. The UT131 ECC frees the satellite integrator from spending time developing the satellite`s core electronics and instead, lets him focus on integrating the subsystems and developing applications software.

With a rich suite of peripheral functionality, the UT131 ECC is for mission-critical applications ranging from command and data handling to subsystem control and telemetry collection. Typical applications for the UT131 ECC include power system control and monitoring, sensor data collection, and position-control systems.

The UT131 ECC combines a wide-bandwidth multiplexed data-acquisition system with a 1-megabit-per-second low power serial bus with RS-485 or MIL-STD-1553 transceivers for distributed data processing applications. An on-board 16-bit microcontroller manages all data acquisition and bus interface functions. The microcontroller includes an extensive suite of on-board control periphery to implement real-time control and maintenance functions with little CPU overhead.

Furthermore, the microcontroller has 15 interrupt sources, pulse-width modulators, and real-time controlled outputs. Additional on-board system peripherals include a bank of serial ports and user-defined discrete outputs. The embedded controller card also comes with C-driver executives to interface with all system peripherals, and an optional RS-232 serial port connects the data acquisition card to a terminal to assist in system debug.

To accelerate low-level satellite system integration, the UT131 ECC is available as a non-flight development board. The development board includes all the same functionality available with the flight-grade ECC, but offers real-time software development capability and customized hardware prototyping area. Additionally, the UT131 ECC development board connects to all satellite subsystems exactly like the flight version of the ECC. This allows the system developer to connect all satellite subsystems to the UT131 ECC development board and perform real-time debug on all subsystem interface and control functions.

With the UT131 ECC, satellite developers and system integrators can focus on meeting mission requirements from a systems level instead of from the ground up. They can approach the need to develop all the core electronics, subsystem control, and data acquisition from a software perspective. This can reduce not only the satellite-development schedule, but also the development costs because they will need to dedicate fewer labor hours to developing the core hardware. The system integrator will be able to provide a better product, at a lower price, in a shorter amount of time. Faster, cheaper, better.

Anthony Jordan is standard product line manager at UTMC Microelectronic Systems Inc., an Aeroflex company in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has been at UTMC for more than 11 years where he has held various applications engineering and marketing positions. He serves on various space-related industry committees. His background in the semiconductor industry includes positions with Eastman-Kodak for five years in design and test engineering roles. Jordan received his BSEE degree from Bradley University and MSEE from Rochester Institute of Technology

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The UT131 embedded controller card from UTMC represents a lesson in faster, cheaper, better design for spacecraft electronics.

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