Developing a badly needed standard for the use of COTS assemblies in avionics systems

Seven years after the former Defense Secretary William Perry initiated the latest round of acquisition reform; the avionics industry has made considerable progress toward incorporating commercial off the shelf (COTS) assemblies into systems.

By James A. Robles

Seven years after the former Defense Secretary William Perry initiated the latest round of acquisition reform; the avionics industry has made considerable progress toward incorporating commercial off the shelf (COTS) assemblies into systems. Despite the challenges involved, our experience has shown that using COTS for avionics has tremendous performance and cost benefits, as long as designers strive for affordability, performance, reliability, and availability.

To help government and industry develop and follow the appropriate practices, the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association (GEIA) Avionics Process Management Committee (APMC) is developing a "Standard for the Use of COTS Assemblies in Avionics Systems." The GEIA APMC is seeking the participation of interested parties to assure the development of an optimum standard. If you have interest in the development of this standard as a supplier of COTS assemblies, as the integrator of avionics systems, or as a user of avionics systems your participation will be welcome.

We have learned that COTS comes in many flavors and grades. Its flavors range from military non-developmental items (NDI), semi-custom development for avionics applications using commercial engineering and business practices, and catalogue items from vendors targeting the military/ruggedized market, to catalogue items form vendors targeting the commercial market. Grades of COTS range from military/premium and industrial, to commercial. Yet each combination of flavor and grade comes with its own set of issues and challenges.

The more "truly" commercial the assembly being considered the greater the challenges due to cultural differences between the vendor and integrator. As a result some of the greatest challenges occur in avionics applications where benign environments allow the use of more "truly" COTS products. Although COTS assemblies cost substantially less than customized avionics, the effort to integrate COTS assemblies is significantly greater.

It appears that the need for COTS assemblies in avionics will continue to increase. Hence, suppliers of COTS assemblies, the integrators of avionics systems, regulators, and the users of these systems must do better. They must improve communications and develop a common understanding of best practices before they can optimize the use of COTS assemblies in avionics systems.

Leaders of the GEIA APMC who are developing a "Standard for the Use of COTS Assemblies in Avionics Systems," define avionics systems as electronics used in commercial, civil, and military applications. The development of this GEIA APMC standard is intended to support twin goals of acquisition reform:

  • streamlining and simplifying the procurement process to reduce development and production cycle times as well as program costs; and
  • strengthening the technology and industrial base through increased government access to, and use of, commercial items incorporating advanced technologies.

This standard not only is to support industry, customer, and regulatory agency needs, but also is to make maximum use of proven industry standards.

The effort to develop the "Standard for the Use of COTS Assemblies in Avionics Systems" is the logical outgrowth of ongoing GEIA APMC efforts. This committee is the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to International Electrotechnical Commission Technical Committee 107 (IEC TC 107) "Process Management For Avionics".

IEC has published two documents for use by the suppliers of assemblies:

  • IEC/PAS 62239, Edition 1.0, 2001-04, Electronic Component Management Plans; and
  • IEC/PAS 62240, Edition 1.0, 2001-04, Use of Semiconductor Devices Outside Manufactures Specified Temperature Ranges.

These documents are "Publicly Available Standards" (PAS) and are to be published as International Standards within three years. These standards represent the current commercial aviation practices of the member countries of IEC TC 107, and also of the member companies of the APMC. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) participated in developing these documents and we believe that we have "agreement in principle" with the DOD that these documents are suitable for DOD programs.

These documents make it possible for avionics system suppliers to obtain "third party certification" similar to the process of ISO 9000. Members of the GEIA APMC also are addressing not only the effects of radiation on avionics such as single event upset (SEU) and single event latch-up (SEL), but also outsourcing of electronics manufacturing.

The effort to develop a "Standard for the Use of COTS Assemblies in Avionics Systems" began at the March 19 meeting of the APMC at the GEIA in Arlington, Va. We continued to refine our plans for this standard at a meeting of the APMC June 26th and 27th in Seattle. We expect that over time this effort will lead to the development of an International Standard in accordance with these guidelines:

  • defining lists of avionics assemblies that are always or never acceptable is unrealistic;
  • the process to assure an assembly's function, qualification, quality assurance, and reliability is the most important consideration in deciding whether or not to use the assembly in a given application;
  • the process for accepting avionics assemblies should be based on industry consensus, and should be flexible enough to be efficient for avionics integrators and effective for customers;
  • this process should be common for all programs and all customers, including aircraft integrators, regulatory agencies, and defense agencies to keep costs low and quality high; and
  • avionics designers who use this process should verify its correct use.

The standard is to establish engineering and business practices to assure that avionics assemblies are:

  • applied properly;
  • fully qualified for their intended applications;
  • compatible with the integration process;
  • following processes to collect, store, retrieve, analyze, and act on data not only that is related to the assembly itself, but also on relevant assembly data from avionics system design, integration, and assembly use in service;
  • selected, substituted, and managed systematically by the avionics integrator to maintain a traceable path to the qualified system through the operation of an effective configuration management system; and
  • well understood and managed in terms of availability, obsolescence, reliability, and impact on the application.

Avionics system suppliers will be able to use this standard to establish their baseline processes for COTS assembly management, and can have these processes validated through third-party assessment.

Supporters of this standard also are considering its use to help establish a system of standard environmental grades for COTS assemblies, which could improve communication between suppliers of COTS assemblies and avionics systems integrators and users. There are de-facto standard environmental grades for VME assemblies that provide a starting point for the establishment of such standards.

To participate in establishing this standard, or for more information, use e-mail to contact working group convener James A. Robles at james.a.robles@boeing.com, AMPC chairman Lloyd Condra at Lloyd.Condra@PSS.Boeing.com, or GEIA contact Cecilia Fleming at cfleming@eia.org.

James A. Robles is convener of the GEIA APMC "Standard for the Use of COTS Assemblies in Avionics Systems" working group. He is an engineer at the Boeing Co. in Seattle.

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