Image processor uses COTS to span new

Nov. 1, 1998
BALTIMORE - A common imagery processor, or CIP, is evolving at the Sensors and Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Corp. in Baltimore.

Image processor uses COTS to span new

By John Rhea

BALTIMORE - A common imagery processor, or CIP, is evolving at the Sensors and Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Corp. in Baltimore.

The CIP, which can process real-time tactical information, is small and rugged enough to fit in tactical vehicles such as the Humvee. It can receive imagery from a variety of sources, including new constellation small, inexpensive satellites called "cheapsats" that Defense Department leaders plan to launch in 2003.

CIP is more an open system architecture than it is hardware, explains Clark Reddick, manager of tactical program development at Northrop Grumman. The system uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology throughout.

"This is total COTS," Reddick says. "We`re riding the technology surf." He estimates that the commercial producers of the COTS processors that Northrop Grumman engineers are using in their CIP have invested $2 billion to $3 billion of their own money to achieve the levels of performance necessary for this application.

The evolution began in 1995 with DOD`s Common SAR (synthetic aperture radar) Processor, which by 1997 had shrunk to one and a half 19-inch racks capable of delivering 6 billion floating point operations per second, or gigaflops. The processor also began adding other sensor data, such as electro-optical and infrared.

Now, Northrop Grumman has shrunk the package further to one-third of a rack, while retaining the 6-gigaflop performance. Reddick says the boards are only 60 percent populated.

Northrop Grumman designers use two Silicon Graphics Origin 2000 servers to perform image formation, but they could just as easily use similar UNIX-based units from Digital Equipment Corp. or Sun Microsystems as long as they are POSIX-compliant, Reddick says.

For recently completed tests by the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, N.C., the Silicon Graphics box used only six boards containing 12 central processing units. Designers can expand this to 12 boards with 24 central processors, Reddick says. In these tests, the CIP served as the core processor of the Enhanced Tactical Radar Correlator in the ground station for U-2 surveillance aircraft.

Northrop Grumman also buys two custom boards for the interface, notes William Irby, program manager for space systems and tactical information systems.

Northrop Grumman is just beginning production, and Reddick estimates that unit costs in volume will run $500,000 to $1 million. Handling procurement has been the U.S. Air Force`s Electronics Systems Center, soon to be transferred to the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Northrop Grumman has 10 on order. Officials from all the military services have expressed interest. Yet the only one to require any ruggedization beyond the COTS specifications is the U.S. Navy, which specifies MIL-STD 167-1, Type 1, for shock and vibration.

The basic idea is to take sensor data from a variety of sources, process them in real time and distribute the information simultaneously to several weapons platforms to achieve the level of information dominance the Defense Department is seeking.

In addition to the U-2, the imagery sources include the Global Hawk, DarkStar, and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, the F/A-18 and other tactical aircraft, and - if the program proceeds - the new satellite constellation.

Leaders of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency currently are circulating a draft request for proposals for their planned Discoverer 2 series of satellites. These are to be launched incrementally, 24 to a constellation and perhaps more than one constellation, beginning around 2003.

By that time, Northrop Grumman officials expect the CIP must grow considerably beyond the present 6 gigaflops to handle the sensor data, but they maintain that it is sufficiently scaleable.

Click here to enlarge image

The small, rugged common imagery processor from the sensors and system division of Northrop Gruman Corp. fits in tactical vehicles such as the Humvee.

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