Driving demand for rugged mobile computers

Jan. 1, 2017

Wide-ranging military and aerospace applications demand the use of rugged mobile computers that meet a host of requirements.

Aerospace and defense missions, today and for the foreseeable future, rely on the availability of robust and reliable computers - a growing proportion of which must be mobile. Most systems also must be rugged, to withstand the rigors of transport, field use, and exposure to any of a variety of environmental conditions. It isn't enough to be mobile and rugged, however; modern aerospace and defense applications are driving the demand for ever smaller, more robust, and flexible system designs.

Capable, compact computers

Rugged, mobile computers, like virtually all other military and aerospace electronics, must meet demanding size, weight, power consumption, and cost (SWaP-C) specifications - while adhering to a host of other requirements. The pressure is on, now more than ever, to produce computers that are more robust, more capable, and more portable than anything deployed to date in aerospace and defense.

"For several years now, the rugged market has been experiencing demand for smaller-footprint platforms for mobile computing that still need to meet performance and cooling requirements," says Shan Morgan, president of Elma Electronic Inc. in Fremont, Calif. Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) programs, for example, "have significantly augmented demand for high-performance central processing units (CPUs) and general-purpose graphics processing units (GPGPUs) in these small systems, further challenging SWaP packaging solutions," Morgan says.

"Efforts to embrace open architectures and expanded networked computing increase the need for computers everywhere," Morgan adds. "The market has moved beyond the design phase and into deployed systems across multiple defense disciplines." In fact, a defense customer called on Elma Electronic engineers to deliver a powerful, flexible computing platform compact enough to fit in a suitcase.

One of Elma's customers needed "a lightweight, yet very rugged, computer housed in a one-person transportable suitcase," Morgan describes. The computer, serving as a portable security device for facial- and other visual-recognition tasks, needed to scale up to five Ethernet ports with the ability to attach up to four cameras; and most importantly, it had to have a special input/output (I/O) panel with connections for specific locations. "Elma's solution resulted in a unique platform that met all the requirements: a rugged, fanless embedded system with a high-performance [Intel] Haswell-class CPU, Ethernet port scalability, and a flexible I/O panel with customer-specified connections - all housed in a SWaP-compliant, small-form-factor (SFF) enclosure.

"Just like the push in industrial and consumer markets, there will continue to be pressure on defense applications to make computers ubiquitous and ever smaller," Morgan predicts. "Invest in a strong infrastructure and in people with proven expertise in their field, who are knowledgeable and flexible enough to provide low-risk, quality solutions at a fair cost."

SWAP-C is a certainty

"SWaP-C remains in the highest demand today and represents the longest lasting trend I've seen in many years, as evidenced in the more compact and highly functional board-level, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) single-board computers (SBCs) and GPGPU-based subsystems being developed," says Doug Patterson, vice president of marketing and business development at Aitech Defense Systems Inc. in Chatsworth, Calif.

"In regards to GPGPU, packing one gigaflop (GFLOP) of processing performance for C4ISR applications into a five-inch by five-inch, stand-alone enclosure represents the height of SWaP-C today," Patterson says of Aitech's A176 Cyclone, introduced last September.

"The self-contained, military-grade A176 Cyclone redefines SFF power density by delivering 60 gigaflops per watt (GFLOPs/W) in a compact, low-power, high-performance embedded computer (HPEC)," officials describe. The fanless, rugged GPGPU supercomputer packs 1 teraflop (TFLOP) or parallel processing in a 20 cubic-inch footprint by combining the Nvidia Maxwell architecture, 256 CUDA cores with 4 GB of LPDDR4 RAM, the Quad-core ARM Cortex A57 CPU providing an operating frequency to 1.9 GHz per core, with an overall maximum power consumption of 17 watts.

"GPUs unburden the CPU from heavy computation, enabling better and faster processing of the overall system, a principle taken from the graphics-intensive gaming industry. A compact, rugged system that delivers these levels of processing truly redefines what an embedded designer can do with an HPEC," adds Aitech GPGPU Product Manager Dan Mor.

AiTech introduces its A176 Cyclone small-form-factor, high-performance embedded computer.

The new rugged mobile computer, weighing roughly two pounds and measuring 4.3 by 4.3 by 1.18 inches, is well suited to embedded deep learning, computer vision, graphics, and GPU computing applications in harsh environments, including C4ISR, intelligent video analytics, image capture and processing, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), and signal processing and persistent video surveillance applications.

"The main applications for our military and aerospace products are in C4ISR and command and data handling (C&DH) subsystems, where simple platform control is combined with multiple channels of high-speed situational awareness video data, which is all processed at increasingly higher bandwidths and transmitted to ground stations or also stored in locally-accessible Flash storage," Patterson says. The current trend toward "smaller, faster, and lighter with a focus on cost vs. performance benefits" will continue, he predicts, adding that "the defense and aerospace markets may be poised toward a possible market expansion."

SFF on the rise

"Small-form-factor box products are finally growing in demand," says Russell Nieves, director of embedded solutions at Acromag in Wixom, Mich. Military and aerospace organizations use Acromag ARCX SFF mission computers as data-recording devices and display controllers, as well as for weapons fire control.

"MIL-STD-810-level shock-and-vibration survival is critical, as well as full operation in [extreme] temperatures," Nieves says. In fact, he says, "many Marine Corps-based inquires come from the fact that we offer IP67 [dust and water] protection (submersible) in our ARCX" SFF mission computer.

Nieves and his colleagues at Acromag anticipate "continued growth in the market for applications-specific solutions that can live in harsh, extreme environments. Many companies want COTS as part of that offering; although some applications can be simple enough to be done with a COTS solution, most have to be a combination of various technologies, necessitating a custom solution in the end." As such, he recommends involving technology partners early on in the project.

"Understand your application both from a hardware and software standpoint, and involve suppliers up front so they can assist in providing the best solution," Nieves says. For example, "thermal dynamics can be a little confusing to understand so working with the solution supplier will ensure this can be addressed properly in the beginning stages of the project."

General Micro Systems' RuggedView smart displays include robust embedded computers.

COTS and capabilities focus

Like SWaP, another significant rugged mobile computing trend "is not new at all," explains Chris Ciufo, chief technology officer at General Micro Systems (GMS) in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. "It's what drives the entire civilian industry and it directly affects the defense industry's insatiable appetite for technology. It's doing more - much more - with a whole lot less."

Add to it the complementary trend that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) "wants the same technology capabilities that they know are available in the civilian world," Ciufo says. "Think of the connected home, more capabilities in your iPhone or new automobile, and the falling price of consumer tech with each successive generation.

"Put these two together on new programs and what you see is the need for the next system upgrade to add much more performance or capability, along with the consolidation of several systems into one system or one box - all with a smaller overall footprint and at the same or less cost," Ciufo continues.

An example Ciufo gives is combining a weapons system computer with the mission planning console such that the operator's control console displays targets and friendly forces on a moving map. That same computer also calculates the fire control solution and/or aims a weapons array or computes the most efficient travel route while sending all that data up or down the chain of command on a secured, tactical local area network (LAN) or satellite communications (SATCOM), he says.

General Micro Systems engineers married the latest COTS technology with the DOD's expectation for smaller, better, faster, and cheaper for the U.S. Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) program. "WIN-T is the Army's tactical Internet, and the Increment 2 upgrade provides data-on-the-move capability," Ciufo explains. "That is, the processing and SATCOM modems and line-of-sight, radio-frequency (RF) networks no longer force the connected vehicles and assets to stop to transmit/receive.

The "Green Series" GMS rugged embedded computer harnesses an Intel Atom processor.

"This on-the-move capability is a huge upgrade that required lots more processing performance. You'd expect that this would also require more equipment or bigger equipment," Ciufo adds. "Yet, the Army and General Dynamics, the prime contractor for WIN-T, came to GMS and we leaped over 'incremental COTS upgrades' and instead recommended Intel's new Xeon D 12-core server CPU. Collectively, we created the SB2002-SW 'Blackhawk' Xeon D virtual machine processor/network switch that replaced up to five separate boxes in a WIN-T installation."

The project leveraged GMS and other technologies "to provide the warfighter with 'much more' at a price and size that was actually less than previous systems," Ciufo says. "The resulting improvement was a boon to the Army, and General Dynamics was praised for removing equipment from Increment 1 (predecessor) vehicles while lowering cost. In the Army's Stryker vehicle, for example, two crew seats could be re-installed as extra space was freed up with fewer and smaller GMS boxes."

Military programs, such as WIN-T, that were slowed down due to budget cuts will see renewed funding, Ciufo predicts. With more powerful processors from ARM, Qualcomm (NXP/Freescale), and Intel, he also expects "more emphasis on sensor fusion, machine vision, and processing at the tip of the spear; i.e., more digital signal processing (DSP) and image processing on the actual platform instead of recording data, returning to base, and processing that data using rack-mount servers."

At the same time, Ciufo explains, Intel is adding (Altera) field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to its Xeon server processors and potentially some of its higher-end Core i7 CPUs, which promises to bring even more performance in smaller packages. "This bodes extremely well for GMS as our whole value proposition is loads of performance and I/O in the smallest, lightest package possible."

FPGAs and multi-core computing

The use of high-powered FPGAs in RF rugged systems is a growing mil-aero trend, as is high-core-count processing using virtual machines (VM), says Jason Shields, product manager of 3U VPX solutions at Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions in San Diego. "These are typically 'headless' systems that have no video output and are used as embedded servers or as a general-purpose processing box."

Curtiss-Wright's CHAMP-XDx family of DSP processor modules, based on the Intel Xeon D, addresses these applications, Shields says. "When integrated with one of our MPMC system enclosures, we are able to satisfy the demand for more processing capability with significant SWaP reduction."

Multi-core processors will continue to replace several slots of boards used today, Shields predicts. He also forecasts: a need to include high-speed interfaces, such as 10G-SR and eventually 40G Ethernet, to the outside of the box; a need for more and more FPGA resources and performance, considering it is a flexible method of controlling I/O and internal data flow; and the increased use of GPGPUs as a main DSP engine.

General Micro Systems' RuggedView high-bright, NVIS smart displays with full-featured embedded computers are well suited to avionics applications.

Performance per watt

Mil-aero customers continue to push for technologies that provide the greatest amount of performance with the least power consumption, says Mike Southworth, product manager of Parvus system products at Curtiss-Wright.

"Customers want the most FLOPS or MIPS (million instructions per second) per watt possible from the latest Intel, Nvidia, ARM, and other multi-core system on chip (SoC) devices that offer CPU and GPU co-processors to eliminate the need for multiple separate processor boxes and reduce system SWaP," Southworth explains.

Defense integrators use rugged COTS solutions, such as Curtiss- Wright's DuraCOR ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) mission processor and DuraNET networking subsystems, to miniaturize line-replaceable unit (LRU) technology with advanced processing and networking architectures, Southworth says. The company's rugged computer systems are used in various mil-aero applications - including armored ground vehicles, ground stations, and unmanned aircraft systems - by Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sikorsky, and others.

"Engaging with a partner as early in the process as possible, to help support the front-end architecture and requirements, can ultimately save your program several million dollars," Southworth adds.

Tablets taking off

The aerospace and defense sector places the most extreme demands on rugged tablets of any industry, admits Mark Holleran, president and chief operating officer (COO) at Xplore Technologies Corp. in Austin, Texas. In fact, Xplore engineers designed the company's XC6 ultra-rugged tablet PC - with IP67 water protection and MIL-STD-461F certification for RF interference and radiation protection - for use in the harshest military conditions. Demand is growing for flexible mobile solutions within multiple segments of aerospace and defense, not just extreme field conditions, he says.

Aerospace and defense professionals "are recognizing that off-the-shelf devices such as those manufactured by Samsung and Apple are just not well-suited for their operational environments for one reason or another," Holleran says. "Unlike iPads and Galaxy Notes, rugged tablets provide the proper safeguards against exposure to vibrations, shock, fluid contaminants, humidity, and even salt fog - which can corrode electronics used in maritime operations. And, unlike rugged tablets, commercial-grade devices aren't built to last three to five years. Any device with a frequent rip-and-replace requirement complicates technology management efforts in an already highly complex tech environment.

"Today's off-the-shelf devices are also lacking the ports, security, and physical resilience that come standard with many rugged tablets. That's why the total cost of ownership is lower for rugged tablets than any non-rugged form factor; they last longer and inherently provide overall technology platform stability," Holleran continues. "Given the complexity of global aerospace and defense technology systems and the intense security mandates they must satisfy, there's a growing interest in fully rugged tablet computers (IP65) that offer built-in encryption, smart card/common access card (CAC) readers, biometric scanners, trusted platform module (TPM) 2.0, and multi-factor authentication solutions."

Xplore rugged tablets have been used throughout aerospace and defense over the past decade, by U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines and several international forces to control unmanned vehicles on land, sea, and air, as well as underwater. Engineers at Strategic Robotic Systems (SRS) in Redmond, Wash., exclusively selected the Xplore XSLATE D10 rugged tablet to serve as the core of the intuitive human machine interface (HMI) used to control SRS's new FUSION hybrid underwater vehicle. FUSION, which will be available to the mass market in April 2017, combines an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and DIVER navigation/propulsion into one system.

The high-performance graphics system from Aitech and CoreAVI uses Aitech's M596 graphics/video XMC and C112 single-slot 6U VPX SBC.

The Intel-powered Xplore D10 Android tablet will provide FUSION operators with a single user interface to drive all three vehicle modes during mine countermeasure (MCM), explosive ordinance disposal (EOD), and other military inspection tasks, as well as search and rescue or body recovery operations. The Xplore rugged tablet will also facilitate the exchange of data between the FUSION vehicle's sensors, the HMI, and servers accessible by all mission participants, whether they're working from the field or the office.

"The Xplore XSLATE D10 tablet PC provided SRS with the perfect integrated solution to our FUSION topside control system," SRS Fusion President Jesse Rodocker explains. "Although our original plan was to repackage an off-the-shelf Android platform for our HMI, we quickly ran into a number of issues during development and testing. This is when I discovered the Xplore ruggedized Android tablet and realized that it answered all our specialized requirements, including the increased reliability and intuitiveness that had led us to favor an Android versus Windows solution at the outset. Since we've been able to perfect the HMI, we've been able to deliver much improved and long demanded underwater technology capabilities to those responsible for critical defense and search-and-rescue operations."

The biggest future trend for military will undoubtedly be increased usage of unmanned technology, Holleran predicts. "We'll see rugged tablets become the PC form factor of choice for more C4ISR-type defense projects, such as those involving unmanned vehicles, in the near future given how critical rugged tablets are for the control of such technology by field personnel. This trend is also contributing to the increased testing and deployment of Xplore fully rugged and ultra-rugged tablets by the military sector."

Don't compromise, advises Holleran. "There's a reason why you're considering rugged computers in the first place: You need a PC solution that is highly secure, highly flexible, and most importantly highly reliable. But not all rugged computers are created equal - and being 'rugged' is not enough to satisfy the uniquely specialized computing requirements of most aerospace and defense sub-sectors.

"Look beyond the rugged ratings - MIL-STD-810G, ingress protection (IP), etc. - and confirm that your PC selection can support every one of your current and anticipated work flow requirements without issue," Holleran recommends. "Ensure you're considering security, safety requirements (if using in hazardous locations), wired and wireless connectivity capabilities as well as I/O requirements, outdoor viewability, ease of data entry when the user has gloves on or is on the move, and the longevity of the battery. Confirm failure rates for every device, as well. You might be surprised to learn that even some rugged tablets can fail fast; not because they aren't physically durable enough, but because they're lacking the processing power, memory, or storage capacity necessary for the data-intense applications you need to run."

Detachable laptops in demand

The 2-in-1 detachable laptop is one of the hottest trends in the rugged mobile computing space, says James Poole, federal sales director at Panasonic Systems Communication Co. in Washington. "With ergonomics playing a crucial role in the day-to-day activities carried out in the field, this new type of multifaceted device is among the most popular in the industry as it provides the best and most desired features of both a laptop and a tablet. The laptop includes a full-size detachable keyboard that is ideal for data entry and reporting, while the tablet detaches from the keyboard providing the lightweight portability that users need in the field." Hybrid and multi-use devices will be prevalent in the future as they offer more flexibility for users, Poole predicts.

Another trend, which will only continue to grow, is the need for application-driven solutions, Poole adds. "With more data available than ever before, military officials understand the important role that optimized software applications and wireless connectivity play in carrying out day-to-day duties. Specialized software applications that can effectively organize, list, and track inventory or assign resources help officials more effectively manage a response effort in real-time when every second counts."

While many companies look at sticker price to determine which product to deploy within their agency, Poole recommends taking into account the amount of testing specifically geared toward military customers and use cases that have taken place. "While it may seem that consumer devices enclosed in a 'rugged' case are good enough and offer a lower initial investment, the cost and performance over the life of the device can be significantly higher than a purpose-built rugged device designed specifically for your agency's needs."

U.S. Air Force officials learned this lesson the hard way; in fact, they needed tactical, easily transportable meteorological systems to support airmen and to replace consumer-grade mobile computers experiencing numerous failures in the U.S. Air Combat Command's (ACC's) Tactical Meteorological Observing System (TMOS) or AN/TMQ-53. It was critical that they find a reliable, rugged device to support the weather systems in combat zones and other locales.

"When TMOS was first engineered, it was designed using standard, off-the-shelf consumer notebooks. While these consumer-grade notebooks had a lower sticker price, they quickly proved unreliable in the Air Force's challenging environment, ultimately costing more money in the end," says AN/TMQ-53 Program Manager Barbara Moore. "TMOS weather systems are deployed around the world, transported in boxes loaded into the back of a Humvee to deployment out of a helicopter. It is critical that all their technology components can function correctly during all types of deployments."

TMOS now uses fully rugged Panasonic Toughbook 30 mobile computers to operate their weather systems in all types of environments around the world to capture critical information on weather conditions. Decreased failure rates have reduced maintenance costs and repair times and extended the life cycle of the weather systems, officials say.

"Our airmen are now more combat-ready because they know when they test their Toughbook computers at the shop before they get on a plane to deploy, that the computer is also going to work in the deployed location," Moore says.

"The Toughbook laptops reduced the amount of inventory we had to keep on hand and decreased our shipping costs," says Alli Bey, a contractor who helped to prepare the TMOS deployable weather systems. "We are no longer shipping computers all around the world because they are constantly failing. We went from a failure rate of about 25 percent of the entire fleet to down to less than 2 percent; that reduced our shipping costs by thousands. We were shipping an average of 50 computers a year, just to support computers that had failed and now we ship an average of two per year. Panasonic's rugged laptops have made us more efficient and combat-ready, ensuring our airmen get the critical data they need when they need it."

Sensors and server-class computing

"Mobile computing is becoming challenged because it is no longer capable of processing at the capabilities necessary. What you really need is a rugged workstation, server, etc. to grow to needs of computational and SWaP requirements," says Scott Kongable, president of Crystal Group Inc. in Hiawatha, Iowa.

The widespread use of sensors, answering the call for real-time actionable information and installed on ever more compact platforms, is helping drive the need for rugged mobile systems capable of delivering robust compute power and high-speed and high-capacity data storage in a small footprint.

Demand, Kongable explains, is increasing for Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe), a scalable host controller interface - designed to capitalize on the low latency and internal parallelism of flash-based storage devices, mirroring the parallelism of contemporary CPUs, platforms, and applications - from NVM Express Inc. in Wakefield, Mass. "The move to NVMe is driven by the ever-increasing amount of sensor data being gathered, and the need for faster data capture and processing."

Boeing engineers retrofitting P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for the U.S. Navy called on Crystal Group for a modern system to store collected digital data, including digital video.

Boeing selected Crystal Group to provide Video And Data Storage System (VADSS) hardware to retrofit 24 low-rate initial production aircraft that Boeing delivered to the U.S. Navy. VADSS includes Crystal Group's rugged, lightweight computer servers and storage devices that capture and process video data gathered from surveillance sensors onboard the aircraft.

"Sensors are becoming so small and inexpensive, more can be put on a vehicle resulting in more data to be processed in a shorter amount of time," Kongable says. As a result, demand is growing for "higher capacities in smaller devices, more mobility and integration in a smaller SWaP form factor, minimizing power consumption, and using the Internet of Things (IoT) for the collection of sensory input and processing thereof." The future is likely to hold more of the same: systems that are "smarter, faster, smaller, draw less power, and fuse and process higher volumes of data for real-time and predictive use.

"Find an experienced partner you can trust - one that understands unique, advanced requirements, the technology available, and how to engineer new capabilities," Kongable advises. Life-cycle management, total cost of ownership, trust, reliability, mission success, and actual testing vs. built to requirements are among the things to consider, he says. "Budget isn't everything."

About the Author

Courtney Howard | Executive Editor

Courtney, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at [email protected], @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!