Makers of radiation-hardened integrated circuits strive for smaller, lighter, less power

June 10, 2008
 Technology trends -- Rad-hard IC designers try to make use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) digital integrated circuit technology to build radiation-hardened microelectronics for space qualified applications like satellites and manned spacecraft.

By John McHale

Designers of radiation-hardened military and aerospace electronics and electro-optics systems are continually looking for ways to keep power down, cut the long development cycles, and still maintain performance.

"The development time for traditional rad-hard processors is still long and results in processors that have less performance than their commercial equivalents," says Larry Longden, senior director of marketing and technology at Maxwell Technologies in San Diego. "Systems required to withstand military nuclear weapons require this type of rad-hard design."

It takes time to screen all components to ensure survivability in extreme radiation environments.

"The latest method is an improvement of previous screening efforts based on 100 percent upscreening to meet NASA EEE specifications, such as EEE-INST-002 specification," says Doug Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Aitech in Chatsworth, Calif. "In our previous methodology, every batch of processor components in a single lot/date code required 100 percent upscreening in addition to the destructive qualification [including destructive parts analysis] of a fixed sample size of those components regardless of the lot size.

"In method, Aitech had found with actual qual test data that there are high variations of power consumption to the processor components including thermal run-away that could become an issue at high temperature operation in rugged and conduction-cooled environments," Patterson continues. "To mitigate with this new finding, Aitech has enhanced our upscreening method to screen out processor components with abnormally high power consumption."

It comes down to understanding how commercial parts will behave when radiation constantly bombard them; systems must not fail because they are mission- and life-critical.

"Today, commercial processors have good ionizing total-dose performance and because they are built using SOI [silicon on insulator] technology are single event latchup immune," Maxwell's Longden says. "Our job is then to characterize the commercial processor, understand its upset performance in a single event environment and then provide a system level architecture that mitigates upsets.

"Maxwell's product is based on commercial processors and memories," Longden continues. "This gives us the ability to capitalize on products developed by the commercial market and allows us to provide higher performance than traditional rad-hard designs."

Patterson says Aitech's S950 product "embodies and typifies the true nature of the use of COTS in space where our customers are leveraging the availability of existing, off-the-shelf products rather than re-inventing the wheel for every project and for every program, thus saving development funding and fielding systems sometimes years sooner than ever before."

Aitech's next-generation 100+-plus kilorad, rad-hard processor board, the S960, will be out in a few months. The S960 and S950 are pin-to-pin compatible so the S960 is a technology-insertion replacement of S950 when needed.

When it comes down to it rad-hard customers want what everyone else wants -- high-performance and low-power. Aitech's radiation-hardened COTS processor boards "have software features to allow the throttling of CPU clock frequency during operations to adjust the performance and power consumptions of the processor board dynamically in orbit, or in space."

Maxwell has implemented a strategy to enhance total-dose hardness, latch-up immunity, and mitigate upset errors. The SCS750 has one board upset every 3,000 years in geosynchronous or low Earth orbits.

Traditionally the market for rad-hard processors and boards was dominated by the Manassas, Va., operation of BAE Systems and the Honeywell in Plymouth Minn. Both companies provide a single-board computer, qualified for the most extreme radiation environments of space, also know as mega-rad environments. BAE Systems produces the 32-bit RAD 6000 and the 64-bit RAD750. Honeywell produces the radiation-hardened 1750A microprocessor. Companies such as Aitech and Maxwell have provided a cost-alternative.

"Mega-rad hardened devices have their place in mission-critical applications where continuous operation during long-duration space flights to the outer planets, comets, and other severe radiation environments is a requirement," Patterson says. In some cases, Aitech's SBCs are being used by our customers together with the BAE or Honeywell SBCs in a single system, where Aitech's SBCs are typically used in high-performance, short duration data processing, robotic arm control and complex, DSP (digital signal processor)-like computations."

Longden says that Maxwell's boards compete "very well" against the mega-rad boards due to business and performance factors.

"We compete on total value which includes performance, price, support, and future product path that will be compatible with current products. The most important drivers are performance and the design margin that the system designer achieves by using an SBC that provides more processing power than required as well as more memory than required."

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