Armored vehicle designers turn their sights on vetronics for the next generation of battlefield combat systems

Aug. 12, 2010
Special report, 12 Aug. 2010 -- The combat vehicle electronics landscape in a post-Future Combat Systems world is encouraging industry leaders and military officials to forge ahead in the battle to install ever more innovative electronics in ground combat vehicles. Termination last year of the FCS manned ground vehicles program was met with tremendous concern, followed closely by considerable resolve. A determined industry partnered with the military to save money and deliver FCS-fostered vetronics innovations into the hands of eager warfighters. 

Editor's note: GE Intelligent Platforms changed its name to Abaco Systems on 23 Nov. 2015 as a result of the company's acquisition last September by New York-based private equity firm Veritas Capital.

Special report, 12 Aug. 2010 -- Termination last year of the Future Combat Systems (FCS) manned ground vehicles program by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was met with tremendous concern, followed closely by considerable resolve. A determined military and aerospace industry partnered with DOD officials to ensure billions of non-recurring engineering (NRE) dollars would not be wasted, and that vehicle electronics, or vetronics, innovations resulting from FCS would be delivered in the hands of awaiting warfighters in the field.

"We have learned from the Future Combat System (FCS) program -- over 40 technologies -- and we have incorporated that inside of a Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) construct,” explains Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA ALT). “FCS -- plus what we know today from eight years of war -- has resulted in the release of an RFP [request for proposal] for GCV. We could not have done this without industry; this is a partnership between our Army and industry to make sure we do the right things to make sure we put this capability in the hands of the warfighter."

Introducing GCV

"The new GCV represents an essential capability for [the U.S. Army’s] modernization strategy,” says Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army. “In fact, it represents one of the most important combat development and acquisition decisions we will make over the next seven years."

The GCV is to be a first-of-its-kind -- a versatile, nine-man squad infantry carrier that protects against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other threats, moves in urban and off-road terrain, and accommodates emerging technologies, such as new electronics, as they become available. The Army’s goal is to build competitive prototypes by 2015 and production vehicles by 2017.

Chiarelli describes the GCV as “one of the most versatile vehicles that the Army has ever designed.” The vehicle is being development in an incremental fashion such that it can quickly incorporate technological change and enhance the Army's ability to keep pace with changes anticipated on the battlefields of today and tomorrow.

“The GCV will address capability gaps we have identified from eight years of war -- such as mobility for our soldiers both inside and outside cities, improved information sharing for both mounted and dismounted soldiers while on-the-move," describes Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of Army Capabilities Integration Center in Fort Monroe, Va. “The GCV will be required to carry an entire infantry squad in one vehicle and protect it with sufficient space and electric power to accept network and other improvements as they occur.”

Following FCS

The drive to add more and more electronics to a ground combat vehicle continues. “The intent is to reduce the manpower necessary within the vehicle, such as moving from a three-man crew to a two-man crew, and to capitalize on electronics commonality,” explains Doug Patterson, vice president of worldwide marketing and sales at embedded computing specialist Aitech Defense Systems Inc. in Chatsworth, Calif. “In other words, instead of each individual subsystem being a little Picasso unto itself, the idea is to have some commonality across the processing platform so that you can use systems and subsystems again and again and over and over, without having to reinvent the wheel for each application.

“Inside these vehicles, there are probably thousands of processors and systems that are all running independently,” Patterson continues. “Within FCS, the application was to put a large centralized mission computer with dual-redundant buses inside the vehicle communicating to remote interface units (RIUs) that talk to individual sub-platforms within the vehicle, such as the turret, transmission, main gun, engine, stabilized machine gun sitting on the roof, and so on.”

Each RIU would take on a different application or different function based on where -- what location or track within the vehicle -- it was plugged in. “So you could have eight or nine different RUIs all taking on various functions within the vehicle, but it is the exact same unit,” Patterson adds. “If you could produce one RIU and it gets used in nine different places, but it picks up its application from where it is located in the vehicle, it makes maintaining the vehicle just that much easier. If you’re out in the field and one of the track units dies, but you don’t need a turret, you just need to get reverse going and get out of there, you take the RIU computing unit out of the turret and stick it in to replace the failed unit and you’re off. It reduces logistics and spares costs, and makes the vehicles more maintainable in the field -- which is the right thing to do.”

This approach also reduces the number of hangar queens -- combat vehicles that are stripped of their parts (or “cannibalized”) in an effort to keep vehicles in the field functioning. “You’ve basically got a hulk inside some rear echelon area that’s just gathering dust as you start pulling more and more electronics out of it to keep the other existing units running,” Patterson explains. “It’s expensive and it’s a waste of money.”

Aitech engineers, working with General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) in Sterling Heights, Mich., developed a modular RIU and associated remote interface control cards (RICCs) for the FCS program's manned ground vehicle (MGV). Aitech has since expanded its RIU offerings with the NightHawk rugged controller/data concentrator unit, which is employed in such mil-aero platforms as the M1128 Stryker mobile gun system. “Although a lot of work was done to create the RUI for FCS vehicles, it still has life in GCV and other applications,” Patterson says. “The concepts of FCS will go forward in the GCV and make it a better system overall.”

Acquisition reform

In addition to the end of the FCS MGV and the birth of the GCV, 2009 ushered in the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act, which modified the way Pentagon contracts and purchases major weapons systems. In an effort to cut military spending and reduce waste, the act pushes for demonstrations earlier in the program development phase, and for the desired technologies have higher technology readiness levels (TRS) than previously required or desired, describes Chris Wiltsey, vice president of intel SBC and embedded systems IPT at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Chatsworth, Calif.

“The transformation of the Army’s acquisition strategy means that instead of developing many new programs, the emphasis will be on upgrades, modifications, and evolutionary development -- and the selection will be done through technology demonstrations of mature solutions,” Wiltsey adds. “The new approach seeks more mature technologies sooner to build and support the technology demonstration phase.

“This trend is helping to make prepackaged and prequalified subsystems of greater interest to platform manufacturers, who now find themselves with less time and available DOD funding to develop a desired technology internally,” Wiltsey says. “Vetronics customers are showing increased interest in pre-configured subsystems from COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] vendors.”

In response, COTS vendors such as Curtiss-Wright Controls are evolving and enhancing their preconfigured subsystem product families. Vendors are “going beyond the traditional ‘universal machine’ approach of offering generic, interoperable, modular building blocks for the customer to adapt to its application, to instead provide fully capable Solution Sets,” Wiltsey notes. “The knowledge and experience obtained building universal Packaged COTS systems is enabling COTS vendors to optimize the packaging to offer specific solution sets for applications, such as mission computing, vehicle control, network-ready computing, or sensor processing, that meet the new need for fast turnaround and high Technology Readiness Levels (TRS).”

Although Wiltsey and his colleagues see an increased demand for prepackaged and prequalified subsystems based on COTS products going forward, unique product features still may be required to fulfill all the needs of vetronic systems. Curtiss-Wright Controls helps address such needs with its Modified COTS (MCOTS) design process and business model, which provide the ability to design and manufacture modules with COTS features in unique form factors, or to add unique features in COTS modules.

Mil-aero customers increasingly seek turnkey systems, built from a single vendor from the ground up, rather than a do-it-yourself solution encompassing parts from various manufacturers that weren’t specifically designed to work together cohesively.

“Customers want more highly integrated solutions, more out-of-the-box solutions, not bits and pieces they have to twiddle together and spending weeks, months, and years getting them to talk to each other,” Patterson observes. “They want a subsystem that works out of the box such that they simply layer on their application and it works. You’ve got all these different pieces designed to solve everything, until you plug them all together and they don’t work and I have to spend tens of hundreds of engineering hours integrating these bits and pieces together. The customer base is just saying ‘enough, give me stuff that works.’ The customer base has been screaming for it for years, and it’s where the NightHawk came from. It’s a rugged PC in a box; all you do is layer on the application (Windows or Linux) and it is running.”

Existing platforms

In the post-FCS military environment, attentions have turned to modernizing combat vehicles existing in the field. “With technology upgrades to extensive military vehicles, vetronics systems have to deal with stricter requirements in regards to size, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints, along with increased functionality demands.”

SWaP -- specifically smaller size, less weight, and less power -- is what everyone asking for, Patterson says. “The average [vetronics] customer has very specific spots where stuff can fit and it’s usually some odd nook and cranny. Just as an example: the latest electronics upgrade to the Cobra helicopter actually fit the computer into the pilot’s seat. What wraps around his head as part of his neck support is actually a computer system because they ran out of places to put stuff. That kind of thing is happening with Stryker [armored combat vehicle], which does not have an environmental control system. It doesn’t have air conditioning, making it tough to work in the middle of the desert. It wasn’t a basic requirement of the existing requirement, so that had to be put in as part of the Stryker modification program.”

Curtiss-Wright, to meet SWaP challenges, is incorporating the latest technologies available, such the company’s Intel single board computer product line. “By integrating the latest technology,” says Wiltsey, “we are able to provide twice the performance or half the size, every two or three years, delivering greater performance and reduced SWaP.”

Innovative system packaging is another solution to increased SWaP requirements. “Ensuring the proper electronic packaging implementation to address thermal, weight, fit, and structural issues is a key aspect of integrating a subsystem,” and a focus of Curtiss-Wright’s mechanical engineering group, Wiltsey says.

Digital Systems Engineering (DSE) engineers in Scottsdale, Ariz., have introduced more compact rugged displays based on feedback from the digital fighter. The DVE08, an 8.4-inch, 3.6-pound Driver’s Vision Enhancer (DVE) display, is designed for easy integration in various wheeled vehicle platforms, ranging from Medium Mine Protected Vehicles (MMPVs) to smaller, lighter MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs).

SWaP seachanges

“There is little doubt that SWaP is becoming an overriding concern in combat vehicles. The requirement to add increasing amounts of functionality with higher performance in spaces that are becoming more constrained is a recurring one,” explains Gene Parker, business development manager of vetronics at GE Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va.

“One of the implications is that we are seeing a transition from 6U VME to 3U VPX, because of the higher performance of VPX and because of the smaller form factor of 3U,” Parker adds. Processors from Intel and Freescale are also helping reduce power consumption and heat dissipation. In fact, the company’s PPC9B single-board computer uses Freescale’s P2020 dual core processor to deliver nearly 10x the performance of Freescale’s 7410 without consuming more power (20 to 25 Watts).

Another growing requirement is for boards, especially 3U VPX boards, built with covers to the VPX ruggedized enhanced design implementation (REDI) specification, Parker explains. “They are being recommended by the U.S. Army TACOM (Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command) so that boards will support a line replaceable module (LRM) concept, allowing them to meet desired two-level maintenance requirements; it allows a faulty board to be replaced in situ in the field, substantially reducing repair costs and the lengthy time and supply chain required to replace entire systems.”

Condition-based maintenance

Maintaining vehicles and vetronics in the field can be expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous. For these and other reasons, the industry has seen an uptick in the adoption of condition-based maintenance (CBM). “The maintenance manuals that go with each vehicle -- which can constitute reams of paper, five or six volumes on how to maintain the vehicle -- say that every 200 hours or so you need to replace the engine, replace the transmission, or do other site maintenance on a bearing, for example. It gets very expensive very quickly,” he says.

With CBM, “you monitor key points or key focus areas, such as the main bearings of the turret or the engine or transmission, and you heavily sensor the engine and the engine compartment to understand what the temperatures are, how many operating hours are on it, the oil viscosity, the average temperature of the oil, etc.,” Patterson explains. “It actually looks at the condition of the vehicle and then predicts maintenance based on that information. It’s based on heuristics and actual real-life data, so you might get 1,000 hours out of an engine with CBM instead of servicing it four times during the same time period and costing thousands and thousands of dollars. You monitor the condition of major elements and service them as needed, not when a book says to do so; that is providing a whole new area of logistics and cost savings to the ground vehicle market.”

Aitech engineers and executives are working with the primes and providing a solution set or near solution set with COTS or modified COTS, working to integrate it into the vehicle, and working with the end user to make sure it meets the requirements. The company’s NightHawk RCU, with algorithms developed by academia, is currently being installed on a test vehicle for mil-aero CBM applications. Aitech’s NightHawk RCU is also used for vehicle embedded training.

In-situ simulation

Warfighters in armored vehicles need to train on associated armaments. “It is awfully expensive to keep shooting shells over the mess tent whenever you want to practice, hoping one doesn’t fall short,” Patterson admits. Embedded training enables soldiers to simulate battle inside the vehicle on the actual hardware without moving and without firing a thing. In some embedded training scenarios, Aitech’s NightHawk RCU embedded PC is performing video switching and graphics overlays to help train military personnel. “It works with the existing [vetronics] consoles such that you can play war games inside the vehicle,” he says.

Embedded training is a hot topic, Parker agrees. “In among all the other systems onboard a typical military vehicle, there is a growing requirement for embedded training systems,” he explains. “They have two key benefits: First, by definition, they’re capable of much more realism than is possible in the classroom, which makes the training more valuable; second, it makes productive use of what would otherwise be troop downtime. Embedded training leverages the systems that are, for the most part, already on board and allows them to be used as if the vehicle was on a real mission.”

Curtiss-Wright’s MPMC-9620, a 6U VME system with two Intel processing modules, graphics, and audio capabilities, is employed by several ground vehicles to perform embedded training functions within the vehicle. In this application, the MPMC-9620 allows the soldiers to run operator training simulations in the crew station using the actual vehicle controls and displays, Wiltsey describes.

Integral imaging

High-quality imagery and information is integral to the realism or fidelity of military simulation and training, yet it is also critical to warfighter intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Sensors gather mission-critical information to enhance ISR, warfighter safety, and mission effectiveness, as well as contribute to a network-centric battlefield.

“The future is all about how more data is captured from sensors, and how that data is moved at high speed to where it’s most needed,” Parker notes. “We’re talking about radar, of course, but what is becoming really hot is vision systems -- acquiring video data from cameras, processing it, and turning it into useful information. The challenges are in processing the image in the first place -- decluttering it, tracking multiple targets, working around obscuration and decoys -- and then compressing the resulting video stream such that it can be transmitted at high speed with minimal bandwidth consumption and minimal loss of quality.”

Parker, like other mil-aero industry executives, is witnessing an increase in the number of vetronics developers who are evaluating GPGPU, or general-purpose computing on a graphics processing unit (GPU). “GPGPU leverages the massively parallel nature of a GPU’s processor architecture, but uses it for non-graphics applications,” he says. He notes growing interest in GE Intelligent Platforms’ Nvidia CUDA-enabled boards, such as the IPN250, a multi-slot solution capable of delivering 390 gigaflops of performance from a single slot. “One customer achieved a 15x increase in a radar application by using Nvidia GPGPUs.”

Jim Shaw, vice president of engineering at Crystal Group in Hiawatha, Iowa, is seeing demand for image processing with considerable throughput. “The use of state-of-the-art GPGPU technology, namely the Nvidia GeForce platform using the CUDA compiler, is becoming more common for vetronics,” he says. “These applications are required to crunch large amounts of signal processing data on the move. The use of these cards in a military environment presents a challenge for VPX, due to the form factor, and standard rugged servers, because they are rarely rugged.

“The need for mobile supercomputing in severe environments is providing a great deal of opportunity for companies that have the capabilities to integrate these technologies,” adds Shaw, who is also privy to a growing desire to solve the power problem within military combat vehicles.

A powerful problem

A great deal is going on, specifically in military ground vehicles, to add capability and capacity via modern electronics. If you look at the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV or Humvee) and all the electronics systems that are being added to that vehicle -- each for very specific reasons such as to thwart IEDs or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) -- the vehicle’s electrical system can’t handle it, Patterson admits. “They are having to put upgrades in for new alternators, new wiring systems, and new batteries to deal with the added capacity.

“We heard from the program offices that the vehicle commander in situ, in the situation and in the environment, has to decide which systems to turn on and which to turn off,” Patterson mentions. “Do I turn off the mine detection system or the RPG detection system? How would you like to be faced with that decision? It’s a horrible decision to make, and one the commanders don’t want to have to make. Yet, you learn by doing, you learn from the application, and that’s what defense is all about.”

Shaw also is privy to a growing desire to solve the power problem. “Oddly enough, customers are coming to us and asking for completely sealed, liquid-cooled enclosures for vetronics. Sealed because of the sand and dust issues; liquid-cooled because with supercomputers comes super power demands. It presents the packaging engineer with a new level of cooling challenges; and, in addition to being power hungry, this supercomputer needs to survive MIL-STD-810 ground mobile vibration.” At Crystal Group, engineers are answering these needs with a combination of selectively liquid-cooled components and air-to-liquid/liquid-to-air heat exchangers to isolate the electronics from the environment. In fact, Crystal Group’s solution for a recent military vetronics application consumes 1.6 kilowatts (kW) of power in an 11 cubic-foot, sealed enclosure.

Power, heat, and packaging

“Undoubtedly, we are seeing the requirements for vehicular power -- for both onboard and export applications -- increase well beyond what anyone could foresee just a few years ago,” acknowledges Mike Henderson, director of Military & Aerospace Products at TDI Power in Hackettstown, N.J. “For example, the Humvee onboard power requirement has increased more than eight times the original vehicle specification, and new vehicles like the JLTV [Joint Light Tactical Vehicle] are driving the power curve even higher.” For example, 20 kilowatts of onboard DC power to run new systems -- such as the WIN-T communication system, for example -- as well as 10kW or more of AC power for off-vehicle applications will become commonplace, he says.

The influx of new vetronics systems has caused dramatic increases in onboard power requirements, Henderson explains. In addition, larger amounts of AC power exportable off the vehicle are desired to power remote command posts, communication systems, field hospitals, and so on. At the same time, there is a push to eliminate towed generators that are heavy, noisy, and present a very attractive thermal signature for the enemy, he says. “As such, the optimum solution is for the enhanced electrical capability to be satisfied by the vehicle itself. The need for more power, lower weight, better reliability, and cost containment require very innovative solutions. Not surprisingly, these factors typically work in conflict with each other.”

New command, control, and communications (C3) systems are becoming increasingly capable. “That is good news for our warfighter, who will be able to fight future battles much more efficiently and effectively; but, traditional 28-volt DC vehicle power systems just can’t provide sufficient power, so intermediary DC buses of 370 or 700 volts DC are needed.” In turn, these higher-power systems require innovative thermal management and packaging. At TDI Power, engineers have developed a new technology and complementary family of products: LiquaCore.

“The technology employs liquid cooling from the vehicle’s coolant system to dissipate heat away from sensitive electronics in a modular, scalable architecture,” Henderson explains. The system is designed to provide very high levels of AC or DC power in a completely sealed product that can be mounted below the fording plane of the vehicle, freeing up valuable space inside the vehicle cabin for the soldier. The solution cools electronics with a water/glycol mix, described essentially as antifreeze, at a typical temperature of 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit); it employs something that is already present on the vehicle and does not require fans or heavy dissipating heat plates. “With LiquaCore, we can quickly configure a power solution using standard modules in a customized outer skin that meets the end users’ available space claim,” he adds. “For example, the power conversion system can easily be mounted in the V-shaped undercarriage of vehicles such as MRAPs.”

Empowering MTVRs

The U.S. Marine Corps all-terrain Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements (MTVRs) are not immune to the growing challenge of delivering adequate power. U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM) personnel, in March 2012, will test on-board vehicle power (OBVP) kits from Oshkosh Defense, a division of Oshkosh Corp. in Oshkosh, Wis. The OBVP kits leverage Oshkosh ProPulse diesel-electric drive technology, which is reportedly capable of powering a small airport or entire city block from a single military vehicle. Specifically, the MTVR with OBVP will provide 120 kilowatts of exportable military-grade power while stationary, and 21 kilowatts of military-grade power while on the move.

“There is a rapidly growing demand in the military for on-board power to support mobile radar systems, command centers, IED-defeat systems, and many other applications,” says John Bryant, vice president and general manager of Marine Corps Programs for Oshkosh Defense. As a result, company staff partnered with the Navy and Marine Corps to produce a technology platform to provide troops with increased tactical flexibility, while reducing the logistics footprint.

The OBVP kits will be supplied and integrated on MTVR standard and extended cargo trucks in January 2012, and government evaluation and testing is expected to begin in March 2012. Oshkosh personnel also will provide the training and sustainment support required for the new technology during government testing, under a contract valued at more than $8 million.

The foreseeable future is bright for vetronics suppliers, integrators, and end users and limited only by our imaginations -- and perhaps also SWaP constraints.

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