FPGAs: Where Defense and Particle Physics Collide

July 17, 2017

The defense industry is known for being a driver of technology innovation. It might surprise you to know that technologies deployed in defense also find their way into other boundary-pushing applications. Particle physics research, for example, faces some similar challenges to military embedded computing applications.

Data processing challenge

Last month, we wrote about the data processing challenge in multi-channel radar systems. A similar obstacle faces modern particle physics research, as there is a tremendous amount of data produced in each experiment. In a nuclear experiment, all of the signals produced during one particle interaction are referred to as an event. In one experiment, there can be thousands – even millions – of events per second. Researchers need detectors with thousands of individual channels to capture all of this data.  Additionally, events occur at random, are different sizes, and only some of them are interesting. As a result, there is a staggering amount of data produced during each experiment. Once the signals are captured, they need to be efficiently converted, processed and analyzed. To do so, researchers are increasingly leveraging the flexibility of FPGAs to optimize their signal processing hardware for specific experiments.

Evolving application requirements

Different experiments will have different signal processing and digitizing requirements - meaning that being able to use one set of hardware for many applications is critical. Over time, experiments get more advanced, produce more data to be processed, and require different sample rates.

Using an FPGA-based system built on open standards like PCIe, VPX, and FMC allows researchers to configure their hardware to adapt to multiple applications. For example, researchers could use Abaco’s PC821 – a PCIe FPGA carrier board with a Xilinx Ultrascale FPGA – and an FMC134 – a high bandwidth, multi-channel, multi-mode ADC FMC+ module. They can develop different firmware for each application and load the FPGA accordingly. Since the FMC134 can be operated in a two- or four channel mode, there is an extra degree of flexibility for the ADC component. Additionally, a different FMC module can be used on the FPGA carrier should the need arise. This allows the customer to use a different ADC without having to replace the entire FPGA board.

Like military customers, hardware modularity helps particle physics researchers address multiple applications with a common architecture.

Technology upgrades and system downtime

As the frontier of our particle physics knowledge is pushed ever onward, more advanced experiments are conducted and the need for increasingly powerful, cutting edge signal processing hardware is of constant importance. In addition, when a system is ready to be upgraded, it needs to be down for as short a time as possible. Downtime can be costly and no experiments can be conducted during that timeframe.

Much like military applications, particle physics research systems can (and do) benefit from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology. By leveraging COTS technology, customers significantly reduce development time versus a custom, in house development. This means that more advanced experiments can be conducted sooner and system downtime can be minimized.

The most advanced particle physics experiments require the most advanced signal processing technology. Since Abaco has strong relationships with industry leading FPGA and ADC manufacturers like Xilinx, Altera, Texas Instruments, and Analog Devices, we can provide the latest chipsets on a COTS board at the same time the chipsets are made available to the public. This enables our customers to benefit from the latest high-performance technologies to continuously upgrade their systems over what can be several decades – at minimal cost.

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