Can embedded computing boards shrink to the size of postage stamps?

Extreme small-form-factor embedded computing has been an elusive goal for the military electronics industry. It’s often a tradeoff between performance and adhering to open-systems standards. The best-performing components tend to be proprietary, which the military is trying to avoid.

Feb 1st, 2018
John Keller New

Extreme small-form-factor embedded computing has been an elusive goal for the military electronics industry. It’s often a tradeoff between performance and adhering to open-systems standards. The best-performing components tend to be proprietary, which the military is trying to avoid.

Still, military systems designers as well as those working on industrial automation and many other embedded computing applications that must operate in tight spaces face a landscape where they must choose between proprietary closed-system components, or pursue standard small-form-factor embedded computing like COM Express, VITA-74 VNX, and 3U VPX.

Although small, these technologies might not be small enough for a wide variety of wearable computing and deeply embedded computing for which tomorrow’s aerospace and defense designs will likely call. 3U VPX is powerful, yet might still be too big for the smallest applications. COM Express and VNX still have yet to gain critical mass in aerospace and defense applications that demand small-form-factor embedded computing.

It may be time for another attempt at developing extremely small-form-factor embedded computing that adheres to industry standards, and the PICMG Open Modular Computing Standards organization in Wakefield, Mass., appears ready to take up the challenge.

A new generation of small-form-factor embedded computing may be coming together at PICMG with a computer board no larger than a postage stamp for wearable computing, smart factories, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

This project, just in its infancy, seeks to develop an industry-backed, open-systems standard for a tiny embedded computer with minimal processing and minimal I/O resources for lightweight applications that must operate in extremely tight spaces.

PICMG, formerly known as the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group, is likely to stand-up a Postage Stamp standards working group sometime this spring, and may have its first-draft standard ready for balloting by 2019, says PICMG President Jessica Isquith.

Postage Stamp likely will describe extremely small embedded computing mezzanine cards ranging in size from a postage stamp to a business card for operating close to assets on a factory floor and similar applications.

Isquith made her comments in January at the Embedded Tech Trends conference in Austin, Texas.

This potential future standard probably won’t be for anything like high-performance embedded computing — only for extreme size- and weight-sensitive applications operating near antennas and sensors, in robotic arms, in data analytics uses, and the like. It may operate together on a carrier card for handling several separate tasks.

It’s far too early to speculate on specific characteristics for the Postage Stamp embedded computing form factor. PICMG members have shown interest, and developments later this year will be the first indications of the directions this standard will take.

Anyone in the embedded computing industry interested in influencing and working with the future Postage Stamp standard should contact Isquith by e-mail at jess@picmg.org.

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