Despite COTS, custom electronics are still vital on the battlefield

Military designers recognize that commercial-off-the-shelf electronics are more widely available and less expensive than custom-designed and mil-spec components,yet mission-critical and electronic warfare systems still need the extras that can only come from custom designs Custom hardware and software no longer have the kind of lead role in military systems that they had in years past.

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By John McHale

Military designers recognize that commercial-off-the-shelf electronics are more widely available and less expensive than custom-designed and mil-spec components,yet mission-critical and electronic warfare systems still need the extras that can only come from custom designs

The Sanders F-22 Electronic Warfare team designed the Block 3S software for electronic warfare functions on the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter.
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Custom hardware and software no longer have the kind of lead role in military systems that they had in years past. The modern military, no longer the driver in electronics technology and facing ever-tighter budget constraints, must follow the commercial market and use commercial-off-the-shelf parts wherever and whenever possible.

Prime contractors are finding that they must be politically conscious and develop roadmaps and long-term strategies that focus on increasing their use of COTS, so they can curry favor with the U.S. Department of Defense and Congress. They know that the American people will not accept any more $400 hammers.

The advantages to using COTS equipment are many — superior processing performance, user-friendly software, a plethora of industry-accepted standards, quick time to market, and affordability.

Despite these advantages, however, the average person still cannot walk into CompUSA and buy an electronic warfare (EW) suite for his Jeep Cherokee. Nor would the government want that, because such wide availability of mission-critical components would enable friends and enemies alike to buy them and figure out a way to counter them.

Often, therefore, defense engineers custom-design mission-critical systems with custom components. The equipment simply must work, and COTS does not always do the trick despite protective packaging.

A custom product can be anything the government pays a company to develop from the ground up. This is distinct from a semi-custom or value-added COTS approach, where designers choose a product off-the-shelf, but tweak it especially for certain applications.

"We still have a lot of request for full-custom designs," says Rick Eddins, marketing manager at Lambda Novatronics in Pompano Beach, Fla. The more flight- and mission-critical the application the more the customer still wants custom electronics, he adds.

About 60 percent of the power supply modules that Lambda engineers produce today are custom designs; the rest are COTS, Eddins says. Lambda engineers currently offer a MIL-VME-28 270 volts custom power supply for mission-critical military applications.

For one missile application, Lambda supplied two modules — one custom and one COTS, Eddins says. Their customer used them in different parts of the missile, he continues. The COTS device is in a relativity benign environment, while the custom module is where the temperatures get extremely hot, Eddins explains. An off-the-shelf device would not last in that type of extreme heat, he points out.

There will always be a place for custom designs because of the unique nature of military systems, says Glenn Benninger, senior engineer, DSP technologist, commercial technology support branch of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division in Crane, Ind. If a systems integrator needs a sonar system for torpedo detection, "you won't find it at the same place you buy your bass boat," Benninger quips.

However, custom electronics will never have the stature they once held because of the growth of commercial standards and superior commercial technology, Benninger explains. Crane experts are finding that many of the standards for signal processing in commercial applications like the medical field work for the military as well, he explains.

The military still requests custom designs but wants contractors to produce a system using primarily COTS components, says Phil Hamilton, vice president of marketing at Lau Defense Systems in Littleton, Mass. Usually the customization that has to be done is ruggedizing the equipment so it can survive in harsh environments, he explains. The components are screened and checked for temperature ranges, Hamilton adds.

Hamilton likes to call this rugged-off-the-shelf or ROTS, but it could also fall under a term called value-added COTS — where a designer picks a board or power supply out of a company's catalog, but then tweaks it slightly to fit his specific needs.

For example Lau engineers might use an off-the-shelf PowerPC single-board computer for a system, but then custom design a PCMCIA card for a function they have never performed before, he explains.

Engineers at Computing Devices Canada (CDC) in Nepean, Ontario, only design custom boards when nothing else is available to meet a customer's needs — which is rare — says Wade Cuthbertson, director of business development for ground tactical systems at CDC. Company engineers usually do not design a custom board unless the orders are around 1,000, he explains.

About 10 years ago practically every board CDC used was custom designed right down to the chip, Cuthbertson says. Today company engineers have a much wider selection of boards. Customers can purchase the same form factor from several different vendors because of the adherence to common standards, Cuthbertson adds.

Most of the products CDC sells are off-the-shelf, yet company engineers do some minor tailoring to enable the devices to operate in harsh environments, Cuthbertson says. CDC has some custom electronics on board the M1A2 tank from General Dynamics Land Systems in Sterling Heights, Mich.

"We still design custom products," says Richard Copra, vice president of sales and marketing at Vista Controls in Santa Clarita, Calif. One big advantage to custom designs is getting paid up front, he adds.

"However, we no-bid about as much as we bid" custom jobs because company leaders do not want to tie up their resources developing custom special orders when they could develop the next generation of Vista's current products, Copra explains.

Some of the custom tweaking that Vista engineers do on their boards includes radiation hardening for space or customizing a mezzanine card for harsh environments, Copra says. Vista engineers also once designed a board that was somewhere between a 3U and a 6U Eurocard board form factor because of the customer's unique space considerations, he says.

Vista's air transport racks (ATRs), which fly on applications such as the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle from Northrop Grumman/Ryan Aeronautical Center in San Diego, have a custom-designed special function card to deal with the different configurations in each of the racks, Copra says.

Engineers at Litton Data systems in San Diego used mostly COTS equipment in their design of the Applique+ V4 computer for the U.S. Army's Force-21 Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) program. Still, they found they needed some custom-designed components for the digital battlefield computer, says Jay Bass FBCB2 program manager at Litton.

The Applique+ V4 computer from Litton Data Systems uses a custom-designed power supply and keyboard.
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The power supply was custom designed by Mil Power in Israel and the keyboard is a custom product from Alphanumeric in England, Bass explains. The shock isolators in the Applique's rugged enclosure were also custom designed, he adds. The enclosure protects among other components a single-board computer from VMIC in Huntsville, Ala., with an Intel Pentium II processor running at 333 MHz, Bass notes.

Designers of most new military systems will use primarily COTS components packaged in rugged enclosures that meet demanding shock and vibration standards, Bass says. Still, there will always a few components that engineers need to make because of the rigid requirements and unique specifications of military systems, Bass says.

Experts at the Harris Corp. Government Communications System Division in Palm Bay, Fla., find they also have to balance the low cost of COTS parts and military reliability requirements.

"Harris Corp.'s government and prime customers typically require 'assured' communications solutions and information processing systems capable of performing to the .9999999 in reliability," says Sleighton Meyer, marketing communications manager at Harris. "Where COTS equipment can help meet or exceed these standards in reliability and ruggedness, Harris does, and will, incorporate them as part of the overall system solution."

Harris customers want low cost as well as "a higher degree of reliability in the equipment we manufacture as lives and national security are at stake," Meyer explains. "Harris uses combination of design, advanced manufacturing techniques, and COTS infusion to provide the best overall solution."

In harsh environments some COTS equipment does not provide the necessary reliability, Meyer says.

Many of Lambda's customers find that they have serious obsolescence problems with COTS, Lambda's Eddins says. In one instance a supplier obsoleted a product 30 days after the customer ordered it, he adds.

When the military contracts a company to custom design a system and components, the contract will require support for the lifetime of the product, Eddins says.

A big problem in the military market is "trying to find a company that backs mil-spec parts," Lau's Hamilton says. "When Intel walked away a lot of companies said 'hey they're right, why are we doing this,'" Hamilton says. Low production volumes no longer are enough to keep companies interested, he adds.

"Twenty years ago the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency was responsible for about 30 to 35 percent of research and development in the electronics industry; now games and cell phones dominate the R&D dollars," Hamilton says.

Despite the high praises given to COTS equipment, Eddins remains confident. The market for custom designs has not gone away, he says; there are just fewer players. "We don't see new competitors doing what we're doing," he continues. "The volume isn't enough to attract new business."


Industry experts also find that custom software designs continue to have a large place in the military market despite the plethora of standard real-time operating systems and COTS compilers. Software architectures are becoming progressively more complicated and costs are continuing to rise, while hardware becomes a commodity and goes down in price. Companies are spending more money on software and software engineers than ever before.

The labor costs for software are increasing as computer capacity continues grow exponentially, Lau's Hamilton says. The more complicated and powerful the system, the more manufacturers need to hire software engineers.

In the long run, systems designers find it cheaper to spend money tweaking software to get around a hardware malfunction than replacing a whole board or system, Crane's Benninger says.

Government officials would like to avoid the high cost of custom designs if at all possible, Benninger says. The initial design of a board may cost $300,000 alone, he explains. It makes more sense to customize software because it is cheaper to fix, he adds.

Every customer uses a different type of software for his applications, Hamilton says. They may even use common operating environments like VxWorks or Windows, but Lau engineers still have to tweak their software to work with the customer's, he explains. Software has to be tweaked no matter what the application.

The typical electronic warfare system is complicated and needs high-level software to run it, says Dave Bieberle, software manager for F-22 for Electronic Warfare at Sanders, a Lockheed Martin Company in Nashua, N.H. Sanders engineers designed the software for the electronic warfare suites for the U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor jet fighter.

The Sanders F-22 Electronic Warfare team delivered the block qualification tested (BQT) version of the Block 3S software — a component of the 3.0 software — to the F-22 Avionics Integration Lab (AIL) in Seattle earlier this year. The software will undergo further testing in the AIL and on the Boeing Flying Test Bed, as well as on F-22 aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

"This delivery completes a major milestone on the program and permits the F-22 team to proceed with certification of the integrated avionics software," says Robert Gosselin, F-22 program director at Sanders.

The Block 3S software performs various electronic warfare functions on the F-22 including the critical Narrow Beam Interleaved Search and Track capability for the EW system currently operating at the AIL. Sanders engineers will continue to add EW functionality to the Block 3.0 software and is scheduled to deliver the next prototype version this summer.

The Sanders EW software experts used COTS compilers for their code generation on the F-22 software, but the closer they come to critical functions such as the electronic warfare suite, the more complicated and customized the software became, Bieberle says.

Sanders engineers also find that they share a common problem with hardware designers — obsolescence. Sanders designers used the no-longer-supported Digital VAX VMS operating system to develop the F-22 software, Bieberle says. More superior tools such as UNIX host development environments are now the norm, but Sanders is locked into VMS, he explains. Therefore Sanders has to spend the extra cash to maintain the software themselves, Bieberle adds.

Among the software-engineering tools that Sanders engineers used for the F-22 software was an Ada run-time environment kernel, Gosselin says. Ada is also starting to fade away and most new designs are programmed in C or C++ because they are easier to program and most every software engineer knows the languages, he explains.

Companies need to plan more of a COTS-based approach to manage the obsolescence costs in today's market he says.

Bieberle notes that the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) team in Fort Worth, Texas, is focusing attention of software portability with a new open-systems architecture concept based on commercial standards in hardware and software to solve the obsolescence problem. The Lockheed Martin JSF team is applying this approach across the entire air vehicle.

Sanders delivers IDECM software

Experts at Sanders, a Lockheed Martin Co. in Nashua, N.H., designed the core software for the U.S. Navy and Air Force tests of the Integrated Defensive Electronics Countermeasures Radio Frequency Countermeasures (IDECM RFCM) system.

They provided the computer code, known as Block 4 software, to the Boeing St. Louis F/A-18E/F integration laboratory, to the Sanders B-1B Defensive Systems Upgrade program integration laboratory, and to the Naval Air Weapon Center-Weapons Division Laboratory at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Calif.

The new software further expands IDECM's capability to counter a wide range of radar-guided missiles, Sanders officials say.

Block 4 uses significant additional functionality — such as Receiver Gain Control and Linearization — which provides the system's Fiber Optic towed decoy with enhanced ability to defeat RF threats, says Joe Mancini, Sanders' integrated product team lead.

IDECM RFCM is undergoing development flight testing at the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, Calif. Early tests demonstrated effectiveness of the IDECM RFCM suite and the Fiber Optic Towed Decoy. The Block 4 version of software provides the foundation for the final software delivery integrating additional enhancements later this summer, which will be used during the operational evaluation test phase, Sanders officials say.

IDECM RFCM integrates avionics, including the on-board receiver and processing system from the ITT Industries Avionics division in Clifton, N.J., and the off-board countermeasures, which include the high-power Fiber Optic Towed Decoy, developed at Sanders. The combination of high sensitivity receivers and off-board countermeasures will provide electronic warfare defense for U.S. military aircraft against current and future RF missile threats.

The F/A-18E/F will be the first aircraft to receive IDECM RFCM, followed by the B1-B bomber. The engineering and manufacturing development phase will continue through this year, with a low rate initial production decision scheduled for November. — J.M.

Custom FPGAs surpass ASICs in price and performance

Custom-designed field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are passing application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) as the integrated circuit (IC) of choice among military designers, according to industry experts.

The recent increase in the density of FPGAs makes them competitive with ASICs, says Jon Ewald, military marketing manager for QuickLogic in Sunnyvale, Calif. They are also much less expensive to design, he adds.

FPGAs "broke through the ASIC barrier in density" because of the improved process technology — going from .25 microns down to .08 microns, explains Rick Padovani, director of aerospace/defense products at Xilinx Inc. in San Jose, Calif. Xilinx has even reached one million gates on an FPGA, Padovani claims.

Xilinx officials recently discontinued much of their ASICs business because there is not much use for it anymore, Padovani says.

Custom FPGA designs can come in two different forms — one-time programmable or reprogrammable, Ewald says.

One-time programmable devices tend to be higher performance than reprogrammable devices, Ewald continues. They operate at faster speeds and lower power, he adds. QuickLogic's QL24X32B one-time programmable custom FPGA is flying on the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter, Ewald says. QuickLogic engineers also offer the QL5232M, which is half-embedded PCI core, and half-reconfigurable field programmable gate array, he says.

Padovani says that in less complicated applications that might be true, but for very complicated systems, reprogrammable FPGAs with a million gates are much more desirable. Xilinx XC4000 custom FPGAs are currently on the U.S. Navy Tomahawk missile, Padovani adds. Xilinx engineers also offer their Virtex FPGA family to the military.

Another reason for the growth of custom FPGAs is the shrinking number of foundries, Padovani says. Traditionally these old ASIC producers mainly had the military as customer — a customer that only buys a small quantity, making it tough to stay in business, Padovani says.

Actel in Sunnyvale, Calif., also offers a one-time programmable custom FPGA, says Don Davis, public relations manager for Actel.

Actel's advantage is in their Antifuse technology, which provides a high radiation tolerance for single event upsets, and enables the FPGA to be live at power-up, Davis claims. When a 747 is airborne and one of its systems needs to reboot, the device must start up immediately, he says. Antifuse has that capability unlike SRAM-based FPGAs, Davis adds.

The Antifuse technology's one-time programmability also provides security because it is nearly impossible to reengineer, Davis claims. — J.M.

General Dynamics to develop sensors for naval aircraft engines

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Engineers at General Dynamics Advanced Technology Systems are designing an Eddy Current Sensor (ECS) system for naval aircraft gas turbine engines.

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The ECS, patented in 1999,is a one-half inch diameter device that uses high-frequency magnetic flux to sense metal blade tip position during engine operation. The sensors will provide the Navy with diagnostic data about engine condition - similar to what an angiogram shows about the heart - and improve engine maintenance procedures, Advanced Technology Systems officials say. The company will design and demonstrate a prototype ECS system for the Propulsion and Power Engineering Division (AIR 4.4) of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md.

The devices will be tailored for individual engine models, accounting for engine size, blade geometry, and operating conditions and locations. Advanced Technology Systems engineers will initially perform a ground demonstration on the Rolls Royce F405 engine used in T-45A Goshawk. If additional funds are approved, the ECS system will be certified for airworthiness and flight-tested, company officials say.

Congress appropriated funds to develop ECSs for naval aircraft gas turbine engines in 1998 and tasked AIR 4.4 to implement the program. AIR 4.4 is the U.S. Navy's competency center responsible for research, testing, development, evaluation, safety and maintenance of Navy aircraft propulsion and power systems, and related subsystems.

For more information on the ECS and General Dynamics Advanced Technology Systems contact the company by phone at 336-698-8141 or on the World Wide Web at — J.M.

New Mentor Graphics design tool speeds up custom IC design

WILSONVILLE, Ore. — Mentor Graphics Corp. engineers have released DesignArchitect-IC, a design -capture tool that creates design blocks for system-on-a-chip applications.

Design Architect-IC helps to significantly increase productivity while creating design blocks for system-on-chip applications and other complex designs. Users are now able to enter large amounts of repetitive circuitry in a few pages of schematics and easily analyze or debug leaves of this circuitry from its top-level representation.

Design Architect-IC provides a front end to the Mentor Graphics automated custom IC design solution, ICgraph SDL. It employs a common database used to drive simulation and physical layout, reducing data conversion and improving the designer's productivity, Mentor Graphics officials say.

"We're seeing customer design teams accelerate their design process by 10x using our schematic driven layout solution," claims Ernie Koeroghlian, business unit director of the Custom IC Design division at Mentor Graphics. "With our integrated custom IC design environment, we are continuing our commitment to deliver solutions to our customers that improve design productivity."

The new tool enables designers and engineers to work with Mentor's advanced IC design tools to conceptualize, develop, simulate, verify, and produce custom digital, analog, and mixed-signal IC designs. It deploys Mentor's new functionality, entitled Function Blocks, which will enhance designers' productivity by enabling them to rapidly create hierarchy and repeat subcircuits and to allow users to view the details of the subcircuits in their schematics, Mentor Graphics officials say.

"The Function Blocks method found in Design Architect-IC is a key feature for [Advanced Micro Devices] in our schematic design methodology. It allows us to repeat circuitry in an efficient manner and quickly view and analyze the functionality of a schematic," says Bruce Gieseke, senior fellow, circuit design group of Advanced Micro Devices California Microprocessors Division. "Through this method we are able to condense a 30-page schematic down to one page."

Design Architect-IC is part of the IC Station IC design solutions which interface with Mentor Graphics' Calibre physical verification and manufacturability tool suite, as well as the Mentor Graphics Analog Circuit Simulator Eldo. The tool is now on Solaris and HP-UX platforms, and will be available for the Linux operating system on x86 PC-class computers, which support the Linux (Red Hat 6.0) operating system, Mentor Graphics officials say.

For more information on Design Architect-IC and Mentor Graphics contact Teresa Girod by phone at 503-685-1475, by mail at 8005 S.W. Boeckman Road, Wilsonville, Ore. 97070-7777, by email at, or on the World Wide Web at — J.M.

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