Commercial technology broadens mass-memory options for systems designers

Solid state recorders drop in price and expand their market, yet COTS continues to drive designers to the large capacity and low price of rotating disk technology

Dec 1st, 1998
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Solid state recorders drop in price and expand their market, yet COTS continues to drive designers to the large capacity and low price of rotating disk technology

by John McHale

The ability to store large amounts of electronic data is becoming one of the chief concerns for military and aerospace system designers - particularly when it comes to applications such as surveillance, reconnaissance, battle management, and weapons control. The need to store and retrieve massive amounts of data increases exponentially as U.S. military forces move ever closer to the digital battlefield of the future.

Today, designers have more mass-memory options than ever before, thanks to the dropping prices of solid-state memory, and the U.S. military`s turn to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) design approaches.

Solid-state mass memory, for example, offers the systems designer a rugged, reliable option for storing data such as maps, photographs, and radar tracks. Yet although the cost of solid-state memory is dropping and their capacities are doubling every six months, these devices still cannot match the affordability of hard-disk memory.

Declining silicon prices and increasing capacities attract more military designers to solid state recorders - traditionally used in space programs - while hard disks still offer the largest capacity at the lowest price for designers looking for a COTS solution.

Meanwhile, tape drives and optical memory also are options for niche applications, yet both media suffer from relatively low reliability, low levels of ruggedness, and sometimes high costs.

Solid-state memory

Solid state devices, which are inherently rugged with no moving parts, have always been the choice in harsh-environment applications, but the declining prices and push toward COTS equipment make it attractive to applications such as tactical moving maps.

The cost of silicon decreases 20 to 22 percent annually says Randolph Twogood director of military electronics at SEAKR Engineering in Englewood, Colo. "The irony is the capacity is doubling at an exponential rate."

The rule of thumb for solid-state memory is "double the capacity every six months and reduce the price 15 percent," says Amos Dixon chief executive officer of Phoenix International Systems in Orange, Calif.

Military designers want a real-time storage system with solid state memory because it does not fail in harsh environments, says Mason Fein director of sales and marketing of Mountain Optec in Boulder, Colo. The decision in most cases is based on what matters more - price or capacity, he says.

SEAKR engineers recently landed a moving map contract with Space Tech- nology Development Corp. in Alexandria, Va., and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, to provide a 56-gigabit solid state recorder for use on the Naval EarthMap Observer (NEMO) program. NEMO is a space-based system for collecting broad-area hyperspectral imagery for naval forces and commercial industry.

SEAKR`s solid state data recorder will be part of the Single High Data Rate X-Band Downlink System supporting near-real-time data transmission of acquired imagery.

Solid state aims at high-performance systems such as digital maps because they benefit from solid state`s fast access to data, fast verification, and its small size, says Bob Pollmann, business development manager for mass storage systems at General Dynamics Information Systems in Bloomington, Minn.

The General Dynamics RMS-1910 9-gigabyte removable hard drive is flying on the Boeing Airborne Warning and Control Systems - AWACS - aircraft. The RMS-1910 is an environmentally sealed disk with an internal heater for extended-temperature operations.

The Tactical Disk Recorder System, also from General Dynamics, records the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) digital video and radiometric data on the F-15E fighter-bomber. The FLIR imagery is recorded in standard AVI format for viewing on a workstation or PC with commercial multimedia software.

Engineers at M-Systems in Fremont, Calif., are promoting fast flash disk for high-end SCSI systems, says Raz Dan, director of technology at M-Systems. The price per megabyte could be $1 by the end of 1999, he says. Solid state is popular with avionics designers because of its low power consumption and low weight, Dan says.

Fighter aircraft designers need rugged and reliable packages to record data, says David Micha, program manager for airborne solid state recorder programs at L-3 Communications in Camden, N.J. "Our solid state devices also have error detection and correction for radiation environments," he adds.

L-3`s solid-state Strategic/Tactical Airborne Recorder (S/TAR) replaces magnetic tape recorders in fast, high-capacity, reconnaissance and instrumentation on all sorts of military aircraft, including helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, Micha says.

The U.S. Navy A-6 Intruder carrier-based jet bomber uses more than 300 S/TAR recorders. Military program managers like its low power, small size, and low weight, Micha says.

The Advanced Memory Unit (AMU) from Smiths Industries Aerospace in Grand Rapids, Mich., supports the Tactical Aircraft Moving Map Capability (TAMMAC) system from Boeing.

The TAMMAC system, which experts at the U.S. Navy and Boeing (formerly McDonnell Douglas) developed, consists of two subsystems: an AMU from Smiths, and a Digital Map System (DMS) from Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla.

Initial baseline TAMMAC aircraft include the Boeing F/A-18 fighter-bomber, AV-8B jump jet, V-22 tiltrotor, Bell AH-1 combat helicopter, and Bell UH-1 utility helicopter. Additional U.S. Navy aircraft are also candidates for the TAMMAC and AMU. A potential of more than 2,500 TAMMAC systems exists with production to span over approximately 15 years.

The AMU is a data transfer and recording system operating on both a standard aircraft MIL-STD-1553B communications bus and a high-speed interface bus over which the AMU and DMS will communicate. The AMU introduces new portable credit-card-sized PC Card - two of which are part of the AMU.

The PC cards will also interface with the U.S. Navy`s Tactical Aircraft Mission Planning System. The AMU is designed to replace earlier U.S. Navy Data Storage Set and Mission Data Loader equipment, fitting into the same installation envelope.

For the global moving map aboard the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules cargo turboprop aircraft, designers use the Sentinel Flash PCMCIA cards - short for Personal Computer Memory Card International Association - from the Raymond Engineering Operations of Kaman Aerospace Corp. in Middletown, Conn. The Sentinel cards use flash solid-state technology from SanDisk Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

The Raymond devices are hermetically sealed in stainless steel to guarantee survival and operation in environments where extreme shock, vibration, humidity, immersion, contamination, temperature extremes, torsional stress, and electromagnetic radiation are commonplace.

Each Sentinel card weighs 2 ounces and provides 85 megabytes of data storage. It also is compatible with interfaces such as SCSI-2, MIL-STD-1553, IDE, PC-ATA, RS-232, and RS-422. Designers can also configure it as a solid-state Redundant Array of Independent Disks - RAID - mass memory system.

The solid state technology competes with rotating disks in price because it lasts longer and saves money over the life cycle, says SEAKR`s Twogood. Hard disks may cost less initially but if they start to fail and take multimillion-dollar systems with them, the initial cost savings is questionable, Twogood says.

Eighty percent of the cost of a solid state recorder is in its solid state memory, Twogood points out. If the ground crew or pilot upon removal drops the device from an airplane, it can be an expensive error, he says.

Twogood`s engineers at SEAKR provide a data transfer system that enables ground crews to download memory without removing it from the airplane. The operator attaches a high-speed link cable from a portable/transportable DTS to the solid state recorder in the airframe, enabling the recorder to dump its data at 100 megabytes per second.

Memory units need to be more rugged for the ground systems, says Jay Balakirsky, senior director of business development at the Fairchild Defense division of Orbital Sciences Corp. in Germantown Md. Fairchild`s solid state mass memory unit can be hosed down with water. "You don`t need that [ruggedness] for an F-18," he says.

Fairchild`s Mass Memory Unit (MMU) provides the United Defense LP M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle with an external solid-state drive for mission critical on-the-move applications. The MMU has more than 3 gigabytes of removable flash memory in a cartridge, and contains a PCMCIA card receptacle and interface. It also has fast data declassification and is nuclear survivable.

DY 4 engineers in Kanata, Ontario, have introduced SVME/DMV-550 flash non-volatile mass memory module that functions as a stand-alone unit, or supports multiple boards per system for modular memory expansion. Available in air-cooled and conduction-cooled versions, the module targets fast-access, mass storage applications such as terrain mapping, mission profiles, intelligence gathering, signature analysis, training, and simulation.

DY 4`s memory module offers capacities from 110 megabytes to 2.1 gigabytes of non-volatile Flash memory in one VMEbus slot. It has the advantages and reliability of solid-state non-volatile memory and eliminates the need for shock and vibration isolators and environmental enclosures normally required for equivalent rotating media mass storage devices.

The basic technology is Flash, and "I would expect the next generation of device will be 3.8 gigabytes," says Duncan Young, director of marketing at DY 4. It is targeted at Army communications and avionics applications.

The module`s internal memory management unit offers host-transparent operation, and features Flash wear-leveling algorithms, block management and interleaving, variable logical data block sizing, and built-in test. A VxWorks driver provides a programming interface to support storage and retrieval of mission-critical data and operating systems file structures. The driver enhances the portability of mission software by hiding the underlying hardware, as well as simplifying the development, maintenance, and integration of the application software, DY 4 officials claim.

An internal DMA engine supports read/write burst data transfer rates as fast as 35 megabytes per second, and requires less than 1 millisecond random access time.

The Fairchild FA2100 Flight Data Recorder (FDR) designed by engineers at the L-3 Communications Aviation Recorders in Sarasota, Fla., recently received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification approval. The FA2100 met or exceeded all performance standards outlined in the FAA`s Technical Standard Order, L-3 officials claim.

The FA2100 was also selected as the cockpit voice recorder for Bombardier CRJ-700 passenger aircraft.

The new Fairchild Model FA2100 series of recorders is 30 percent lighter than the current generation of protected recorders, and records more than 25 hours of flight data, L-3 officials say. Higher reliability was obtained through the use of field programmable gate arrays, and multifunction components.

M-Systems engineers recently announced a single-chip, monolithic flash disk using Japan-based Toshiba`s flash technology. The first device in M-System`s DiskOnChip Millenium series offers 8 megabytes of memory and hard-disk emulation on a standard 32-pin dual-in-line package.

The benefits of the device lie in its ability to provide an integrated flash disk solution at a cost comparable to raw flash, while providing error detection and correction and read/write capability, says Chuck Schouw, president of M-Systems.

Hard disk drives

Although the capacity of solid-state mass memory may be doubling exponentially, "solid state won`t catch up to hard disk, because that technology is also expanding capacity and getting cheaper, says Floyd Baranello, business development manager at Raymond Engineering.

Solid state has its advantages, but hard disk drives are still the bulk of Codar`s business, says Maury Kolelemay, manager of strategic marketing at Codar in Longmont, Colo. For the most part customers come in wanting to read and write to a floppy drive, he says.

Engineers at Mountain Optech offer the SE-9000 half-height magnetic disk drives for harsh environments and limited spaces such as aircraft cockpits. The device currently is mounted in a helicopter application that uses a laser to detect airborne biological agents, Mountain Optec officials say.

"We don`t see much demand for PCMCIA," Kolelemay claims. "PCMCIA is used mostly for back-up systems."

The Codar 425M-S is based on the new, state-of-the-art 64 bit 200, 250 and 300 MHz UltraSPARC processors and Ultra 2 motherboard from Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto, Calif. Like the Codar 325M-S, the 425M-S is scalable and easily upgraded from single to dual processor via plug in modules. The 425M-S is fully compatible with the entire line of Codar rugged peripherals including flat panel displays and SCSI expansion devices.

The DSU1000 from Signatec in Corona, Calif., targeted at high-speed data acquisition, weather prediction, and satellite communications, supports transfer rates of 500 megabytes per second and storage capacity of 608-gigabytes in an enclosure of less than 4 cubic feet.

Each unit contains a system interface module for connection to various communication interfaces, a disk control module to manage the file directory and data flow, and multiple disk storage modules to scale the system transfer rate and storage capacity to meet user`s needs.

Optical drives

CD-ROMs are mostly used in ground-based desktop applications, and "we expect the same from DVD products," Kolelemay says. CD-ROM performs well in shock but has trouble in high vibration conditions, Kolelemay adds.

The Codar 425M-S Ultra 2 workstation for the U.S. Army`s Common Hardware Software Program, Common Hardware Software-2 program uses Codar removable hard drives with a 9-gigabyte capacity, a CD-ROM drive, and an 8mm DAT tape drive.

Optical still sells well to the U.S. Navy with 2.6 gigabytes for sonar applications, says Mason Fein of Mountain Optec in Boulder, Colo. Mountain Optec`s 5.25" Optical ST/SEL-2600 is part of the vertical launch system for the Navy`s Aegis Arleigh Burke class destroyer designed by Lockheed Martin Tactical Defense Systems in Eagan, Minn.

Meanwhile, engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., and Call/Recall Inc. of San Diego, Calif., are developing an advanced optical storage system that will store as much as 10 times more data than state-of-the-art optical disks.

Call/Recall will develop a single system that records and plays back data. The system will offer approximately 100 billion bits of storage and be about two cubic feet in size. That storage capacity is roughly equivalent to 80,000 books - the size of a small-city library.

Developers will configure the technology into a layered disk format, says Fred N. Haritatos, the program manager in the directorate`s Information and Intelligence Exploitation Division.

"We are trying to make our storage material more light-sensitive, so that one laser can both record and play back in a single `box` or system," Haritatos says. "Some of our older prototypes have one system as a recorder and one as a reader. Our goal is to combine both the recording and readout operations in a single system. Call/Recall will build a box to include the laser and mirrors, lenses, motor to rotate the disk and all the electronics to convert from an optical output to the electrical signal used by a computer."

Haritatos claims the advanced storage device will enhance the military`s image exploitation and new simulation technologies, while finding dual use in the commercial field in such areas as medical diagnostics. It is expected to enter the market in about four years.

Tape drives

TEAC America produces 8-mm videocassette tape on SCSI drives, says Steve Astulfi, national sales manager for TEAC America in Montebello, Calif. The tape has a capacity of 8 gigabytes of storage, he says.

The Navy uses TEAC`s RX-816/RX-832 8-mm video data recorder to record noise and vibration data for instruments on a ship, he says. Tape has advantages over other systems because it is inexpensive and archival, he adds.

Data can be retrieved from a solid state device, but with tape "it is on the shelf and you can grab it with your hands," he explains.

The TEAC device achieves four times the channel-bandwidth product of DAT type recorders and four recorder units can be synchronized at once, claim TEAC officials.

Engineers at AMPEX in Redwood City, Calif., offer the DST 812 library for tape storage. It uses a robotic cartridge exchange operation of less than seven seconds, combined with a search rate of 1.6-gigabytes per second, and delivers an average access time of less than 16 seconds for any file within the entire 12.8 terabyte library. Each drive has its own Ultra-SCSI data path, producing an aggregate transfer rate of up to 80 megabytes per second for the library. The DST 812 library holds 256 50-gigabyte DST tape cartridges, putting a total storage capacity of 12.8 terabytes online in only 21 square feet of floor space.

Still, tape drives have their drawbacks. Solid state devices continue to be popular for high-reliability, rugged military environments, Twogood says, because tape does not work well in extreme temperatures; heat makes the tape pliable, while cold makes the tape brittle, he explains.

"While tape technology is proven, it still suffers from low mean time between failure and substandard data throughput rates," Twogood claims. The introduction of state-of-the-art sensor platforms calls for a reliable, higher data rate, non-volatile data acquisition and storage system to support mission-critical data, he says.

Space systems faced the same problems with tape storage in the early 1990s and switched successfully to solid state technology, Twogood claims.

While many solid state systems are replacing tape memory devices, the solid state system must first be designed to work like a tape recorder so the pilots can learn to use them faster, Twogood says.

Navy officials, however, remain convinced of the value of digital tape. The U.S. Navy`s P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft uses the Acoustic Data Recorder (ADR) systems from DRS Technologies in Parsippany, N.J.

Lightweight, cost-effective, low-powered, and ruggedized, the ADR is designed to record multiple channels of acoustic information from sonobuoys dropped in the sea and other annotation data used to support the antisubmarine warfare missions of P-3C aircraft. The ADR`s modular design is based on the commercial industry standard Digital Tape Format for recording and storing large quantities of data, and is compatible with COTS interfaces. The ADR is built, tested, and qualified to withstand the hostile environments encountered by the aircraft.

The ADR contract validates the DRS COTS-based design approach of a new line of data-storage for mission-critical applications of domestic and international surveillance aircraft, says Mark S. Newman, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of DRS Technologies.

Engineers from Racal Recorders in Herndon, Va., have designed the portable Racal-Heim DATaRec A480 instrumentation data recorder. The A480 is targeted at general-purpose noise, vibration, harshness, and acoustic testing applications in aerospace, automotive, and general scientific industries.

The Racal device is an analog input, digital recording/replay system with a maximum 640 kHz total system aggregate bandwidth.

Racal`s Wordsafe Maxima systems are being installed at 13 major airports in China as a result of new airport construction and the upgrading of existing air traffic control operations by officials at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, which controls more than 100 airports in the People`s Republic.

The Racal device covers the security requirements for air traffic control through full system duplication, deck duplication, and power supply duplication. The device`s Flexispeech enables a 50 percent variation in the playback speed without distorting the pitch of the human voice. It also enables controllers to analyze recordings at below real-time speed and provides quick scanning of archive tapes.

The COTS effect

The U.S. Department Of Defense COTS initiative pushes the military to look for cost-effective solutions and take advantage of the state-of-the-art commercial technology. Hard disk manufacturers, for example, see COTS as helping their business.

Putting commercial technology in an affordable rugged package is what Phoenix does, says Amos Dixon of Phoenix International. Dixon`s company provides a "Chinese menu of storage devices," he says. Customers mix and match and take what they want, he says.

Designers now want commercial equipment in a rugged box with heaters and fans, Mountain Optec`s Fein points out. Dixon guarantees his parts with a 7-year warranty, but claims his parts have never failed "because we test the hell out of them."

Phoenix storage subsystems are compact enough to fit into tight designs; they can house hard disk drives and other devices in a space as small as a single 6U VME form factor slot. All devices use the SCSI interface.

COTS is driving military market, and forcing military systems designers to keep up with technology, Fein says. To take advantage of expanding capacities systems must be designed over two or three years instead of 10 to 15, he says.

Compatibility - backward and forward - is a driving issue, Dixon says. "You either plug and play or plug and pray," he quips.

Designers of solid state devices, however, say that COTS has not greatly influenced their business. "COTS saved us paperwork," says Fairchild`s Balakirsky. Fairchild`s business has remained consistent over the years, dealing primarily in the high-end military market, he adds.

Even though Raymond builds highly ruggedized solid-state devices, the broad use of commercial-quality memory systems in military platforms is giving Raymond a market boost. Commercial-grade subsystems fail, and systems designers come to Raymond for rugged replacements, Baranello says.

Baranello would only say that highly visible Navy programs were having difficulty with the COTS equipment.

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The Bradley A3 Fighting Vehicle system from United Defense uses the external solid-state Mass Memory Unit from Fairchild Defense in Germantown, Md.

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The RMS-1910 9 gigabyte removable hard drive from General Dynamics is flying on the U.S. Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System - AWACS - designed by the Boeing Co.

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The DY 4 SVME/DMV-550 flash non-volatile mass memory module, available in air-cooled and conduction-cooled versions, targets fast-access, mass storage applications such as terrain mapping, mission profiles, intelligence gathering, signature analysis, training, and simulation.

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The Optical ST/SEL-2600 from Mountain Optec is part of the vertical launch system for the Navy`s Aegis Arleigh Burke class destroyer designed by Lockheed Martin Tactical Defense Systems.

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The U.S. Navy A-6 Intruder platform uses more than 300 Strategic/ Tactical Airborne Recorders from L-3 Communications.

Who`s who in military and aerospace mass storage systems


Redwood City, Calif.


Call/Recall Inc.

San Diego, Calif.



Longmont, Colo.


DRS Technologies

Parsippany, N.J.


DY 4

Kanata, Ontario


Fairchild Defense

Germantown, Md.


General Dynamics Information Systems

Bloomington, Minn.


L-3 Communications

Camden, N.J.


Mountain Optec

Boulder, Colo.



Fremont, Calif.


Phoenix International Systems

Orange, Calif.


Racal Recorders

Herndon, Va.


Raymond Engineering Operations

Middletown, Conn.


SanDisk Corp.

Sunnyvale, Calif.


SEAKR Engineering

Englewood, Colo.



Corona, Calif.


Smiths Industries Aerospace

Grand Rapids, Mich.


Storage Concepts

Irvine, Calif.


TEAC America

Montebello, Calif.


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