Rugged electronics hitting the mark

June 1, 1997
The DOD`s emphasis on commercial off-the-shelf equipment, and market imperatives to get the most power at the least cost are bolstering suppliers of ruggedized equipment, yet military program managers still have a bias for mil-spec gear

The DOD`s emphasis on commercial off-the-shelf equipment, and market imperatives to get the most power at the least cost are bolstering suppliers of ruggedized equipment, yet military program managers still have a bias for mil-spec gear

By John McHale

Despite the 1994 commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) initiative of former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, designers and buyers of military equipment still prefer equipment and components that meet military specifications. Yet those who prefer mil-spec hardware have increased their buying of so-called "rugged" products that often do not offer the extreme reliability of mil-spec equipment, but nevertheless can meet the needs of certain applications at less cost.

Some influential industry observers say military systems designers are turning to rugged components not by choice but only because business imperatives are forcing them to. Mil-spec components typically "are hard to find," admits Dick Copra senior vice president of marketing at rugged VME board supplier Vista Controls Corp. in Santa Clarita, Calif.. "The Silicon Valley companies don`t want to make [mil-spec] products" that are nearly impossible to sell beyond the relatively small military and aerospace electronics niche, Copra says.

But traditional military/industry antagonisms that center on the mil-spec-vs.-rugged issue is changing. Military flag officers and program managers are relaxing their requirement for mil-spec boards, prompting defense prime contractors to turn to more-affordable rugged equipment in emerging harsh environment programs. Rugged equipment has its roots in commercial applications, and enables military systems designers to buy at the lower costs that commercial economies of scale provide "In the old days before COTS, the vendors could sell their mil-std component at 10 times the value of the commercial part. Now it is more profitable for them to stick to the commercial market" as their customer base for mil-spec components begins to dry up, Copra says.

To the surprise of some, rugged equipment and components can be reliable enough for many military applications previously considered the sole province of mil-spec gear-even in the harsh radiation-laden environment of space. "The military is willing to settle for industrial grade if it is rugged and reliable," says Ed Boutilier president of Stealth Computers in Toronto.

Conditional acceptance

Some suppliers believe the military is loosening up on mil-spec requirements, but with a big caveat. While government officials are buying more and more rugged equipment, they continue to require strict testing on all the products, points out D.J. Singh, president of IBI Systems Inc., a vendor of rugged and rack-mount computers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sometimes company officials do not understand provisions of certain industry standards they cite. Other times they simply need to perform additional testing to prove a component`s reliability to themselves rather than relying solely on specifications.

"Just because a company lists standard specifications doesn`t mean they have those specs. They need to be tested and qualified," says Thomas Vedders, president of packaging specialist Isolation Technologies Inc. in Cherryville, Pa.

Isolation Technologies` TR 1500, table-top mounted universal shock and vibration isolated COTS PPC tray for PC, monitor, keyboard, and trackball is being used aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney as part of the NAVMACS II Installation program. NAVMACS, short for Naval Modular Automated Communications System, is a communications processor that can be configured for shipboard or shore-based applications.

Military officials are seeking out suppliers who test their equipment and certify it under harsh environmental conditions, but that do not necessarily meet the letter of military specifications.

"That`s why they come to us," says Vince Greco vice president of the Greco Systems Rugged Products Division in El Cajon, Calif. "They know Greco products are tested under the most extreme conditions."

Greco backs up his boast with the Greco Systems RCS 10000, a rugged 586-based PC tested and certified as Tempest Level II. This specification seeks to contain any inadvertent electronic transmission, which eliminates the possibility of hostile forces intercepting and decoding secure data with nearby sensors, says Greco.

While managers of many military systems are relaxing their requirements for mil-spec equipment, members of the avionics industry are moving slowly because of the rigid safety requirements involved, explains Dan Baker, research director for the market forecaster Technology Research Institute (TRI) in Sudbury, Mass.


Ruggedization is easier said than done, points out a 1996 TRI report entitled "DOD Defense Contractor Requirements for COTS & Rugged Computers. That is where companies such as rugged board specialist DY 4 Systems in Kanata, Ontario, add value. "These suppliers sell a great vari ety of boards having software compatibility across all commercial, rugged, and mil-spec grades," the TRI report states. "Their trick is to design the mil-spec version of the board first, not the other way around."

The report lists four factors that make it tough to ruggedize commercial designs for military use:

- conduction-cooled, mil-spec boards use a conduction layer, and advanced planning is necessary to properly route the electronics around it;

- because they create hot spots, the mezzanine cards increasingly used in commercial designs are generally frowned upon in mil-spec work;

- the ceramic chips required in rugged or mil-spec boards may not even be available from component suppliers who traffic primarily in plastic, and additional care is needed when substituting commercial chips and selecting component sources; and

- a comprehensive suite of built-in-test equipment must often be developed to ensure that the board can be self-tested when embedded in military systems.

If board ruggedization were a simple matter, designers at Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment Corp., Force Computers, and other commercial board manufacturers "would be rushing to make rugged versions of their VME single-board CPUs and workstations," Baker says.


According to the TRI study, COTS boards come in various degrees of ruggedization including commercial grade, rugged grade, and mil-spec grade.

The report notes a trend among defense contractors to use rugged industrial specifications in what were formerly mil-spec-only applications.

Vista`s Copra says DY 4 and Radstone Technology Corp. Of Montvale, N.J., which have four main degrees of ruggedization, are setting the standards.

According to DY 4 Marketing Director Duncan Young, the company`s standards consist of Level 0: commercial grade; Level 100: conduction blown-air cooling; Level 200: designed to meet a temperature range of -55 to 85 degrees Celsius; and Level 300: already existing designs, essentially built to old military standards.

DY 4 engineers are offering single-board computers for military and aerospace applications based on the Intel Pentium, Motorola 68040, Motorola/IBM/Apple Power PC, and the MIPS R4700 micro- processors.


Companies where engineers are making mil-spec boards work with stringent design guidelines and reliability criteria that military officials establish. These criteria grow from the unique requirements of military systems, and bear little influence from commercial designs and market forces.

To keep power requirements to a minimum to lower heat and power dissipation, for example, mil-spec designers say they must use CMOS devices wherever possible, the TRI report notes. In addition, stiffener bars enhance board rigidity, and a protective conformal coating applied over the entire board surface imparts a long-term resistance to damage from humidity, fungus, and salt spray.

Conduction-cooled, mil-spec boards populate airtight chassis. A thermal management layer within the printed circuit board conducts heat from board components to the edge of the board where it the heat dissipates.

Other mil-spec boards use ruggedized components, but dispense with this expensive thermal layer, the TRI report explains. These boards mount in a conventional chassis where forced air circulates across the boards to cool them directly.

TRI experts predict that board manufacturers who sell only commercial-grade boards are likely to miss out on a mushrooming demand for rugged products in the future.


Even though designers of military and aerospace systems rely more heavily on commercially developed components as time goes on, this reliance on commercial technology helps shed light on a fundamental contradiction between military and commercial electronics that centers on obsolescence. Military aircraft and vehicles must exist in the field for 15 to 20 years - often longer. The U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers operating today are older than the pilots flying them. Dwindling post-Cold-War defense budgets offer little money for new platforms, and make it imperative to keep existing systems in operation as long as possible. That trend most likely will continue, and the lifecycles of military aircraft, vehicles, and ships entering service today may be in the field for half a century or more.

Commercial equipment, meanwhile, often must be replaced every five years at the outside or risk falling hopelessly behind in capability. New desktop computers rarely last more than two years without their users noting their declining capability as new software releases come out. Industry officials today say the average lifetime of a microprocessor is about 18 months, and that lifecycle is expected to continue shrinking. Manufacturers are increasingly eager to scrap manufacturing and customer support for devices only a few years after their introductions.

Military officials are having big problems coping with this ever-tightening spiral. "Obsolescence in avionics is a problem because you can`t take out the electronics and change them every year," says DY 4`s Young.

Some experts insist on an overall strategy to reduce the lifecycle of military electronic subsystems. If 15 to 20 years is not feasible, they say, electronics lifecycles need to be reduced to 10 years. There are some proposals to reduce system lifecycles to 5 years. After that, program managers must give serious consideration to substantial electronic upgrades.

While many military aircraft have outer structures that are designed to last for 40 years or more, these airframes will provide easy upgradability for the internal components, Young notes.

The future

TRI`s report states that the strength of most mil-spec and rugged subsystems vendors lies in ruggedizing portable computers, workstations, and PCs, yet points out that companies need to develop greater integration expertise - particularly for applications involving Unix and real-time operating systems - to take full advantage of their technological strength.

The board vendors that have distinguished themselves in mil-spec and rugged designs offer a broad set of products specifically for military weapons. The report urges these vendors to continue stressing the differences between commercial and military boards. "In general, as programs move from the prototype/proof-of-concept phase to actual deployment, rugged or mil-spec grade boards replace their commercial-grade counterparts," the TRI report states

Other predictions in the report include:

- a significant demand spike for boards in the rugged category because of the trend to greater deployment of merchant boards, with increased demand for commercial-grade COTS boards (especially those deployed in naval systems), but at a slower rate that rugged boards overall;

- an increased awareness that while commercial firms do sell mil-spec boards, much of this business entails custom design, not just off-the-shelf orders;

- rugged products will increasingly prove popular as substitutes for mil-spec boards in ground, avionics, and submarine-borne applications, and commercial-grade boards are finding their way into naval tactical workstations; and

- the use of mil-spec boards will continue to be necessary and popular, but defense contractors will prefer to keep mil-spec board designs in-house, leaving commercial-grade and rugged boards to the merchant market.

Key players

TRI experts believe that board vendors such as DY 4 will benefit greatly in the years ahead since they have invested heavily to develop design and manufacture boards aimed primarily at the military market, and offer COTS products with a firm ruggedized foundation.

"These vendors remain vigilant to one danger in particular that the military market doesn`t become too commercial." The report says, implying that companies where design expertise centers on commercial-grade boards must play catch-up in the military and high-rel market niche.

Nevertheless, the report points out the vastly larger commercial market and the lure its lower prices have for an increasing number of military program managers. Without solid marketing strategies in place that strongly emphasize the differences between commercial-grade and ruggedized boards, "straight commercial board vendors the likes of Motorola, Force Computers, and dozens of other VME suppliers will eat their lunch and may even eat the lunch bowl too," the report states.

Strategies the report recommends for these vendors include:

- continuing to stress the differences between boards designed for the commercial market vs. those designed specifically for the military;

- licensing high-growth potential board designs from commercial board suppliers and ruggedizing them for the military/ high-rel marketplace;

- developing a real-time subsystem capability to complement and expand on the board business; and

- partnering with a large commercial subsystem supplier, such as Radstone Technology has done with Digital.

Rugged offerings

Officials at or Industrial Computers Inc. in Fairfax Va., are offering a conduction-cooled rugged 6U VME Pentium singe-board computer with an interface for PCI I/O. Applications for the board include electronics aboard aircraft, ship, and military vehicles, company officials say.

Meanwhile, designers at Miltope Corp. of Hope Hull, Ala., have designed the Soldiers` Portable On-System Repair Tool - better known as SPORT - which includes the Controller Diagnostic Aid (CDA) and the Instrumentation Expansion Chassis (IEC). SPORT will be used for intrusive diagnostics of weapon systems and vehicles for maintenance and repair operations.

The CDA is rugged compact portable computer with a 100 MHz Pentium microprocessor. It also has a backlit monochrome sunlight-readable active-matrix liquid crystal display. The IEC is an environmentally enhanced, rugged transportable docking station designed to complement the CDA. It has two ISA and one ISA/PCI expansion card-slots.

Designers at CETIA Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., have developed a board-level heat drain attachment they call "the Ruggedizer" that fits onto CETIA`s PowerPC single-board computers, which extends the thermal mechanical operating range of the original commercial hardware.

The Ruggedizer uses a 3-D laser scan technique that custom fits the heat sink into each board with tight mechanical tolerances and high thermal dissipation capacity.

The RNB 520 from Paravant Computer Systems of Melbourne, Fla., is a rugged notebook using commercial electronics packaged in a sealed Paravant T-6 aluminum alloy case. Replacing the commercial connectors and wire harnesses are interlocking connectors to ensure performance in the presence of shock and vibration.

The RNB 520 meets Mil- T-28800, which includes the environmental elements of Mil-Std 810E. The unit also meets the electromagnetic interference specification of Mil-Std 461, enabling the notebook to operate in the presence of radios, radar, or other computers without interference.

Engineers at Datametrics Corp. of Woodland Hills, Calif., have designed a stand-alone, filed-portable rugged portable workstation by incorporating a microprocessor flat-panel display. Other advantages of the device include the ability to configure with several different microprocessor architectures, various display sizes, and readability in sunlight and adverse conditions such as rain.

Experts at Dolch Computer Systems in Fremont, Calif., have produced the Dual-PAC-Pro, which is built around twin 200 MHz Intel Pentium Pro microprocessors. It has a high-resolution 12.1-inch flat-panel display. The PAC-Pro features five full-size PCI/ISA add-in expansion slots, a card-retention plate, and high-throughput cooling.

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Paravant Computer Systems is offering the RNB 520 rugged notebook computer that uses commercial electronics packaged in a sealed aluminum alloy case, substitutes interlocking connectors for commercial connectors and wire harnesses, and meets Mil- T-28800, which includes the environmental elements of Mil-Std 810E.

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The RCS 10000 from Greco Systems is a rugged 586-based PC tested to Tempest Level II.

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The TR 1500 from Isolation Technologies is table-top mounted universal shock and vibration isolated tray for PCs, monitors, keyboards, and trackballs, and is aboard the USS Mount Whitney as part of NAVMACS II.

TRI`s four levels of rugged

Rugged level or grade Components Temperature range


Non-rugged plastic 0 to 50 C

(commercial grade)


Rugged level 1 Plastic or Varies, but more

Ceramic extreme than



Rugged level 2 Ceramic -55 to 85 C


Mil-spec grade Mil-Std-883 Class-B Processed

source: Technology Research Institute

Upcoming report to track military COTS computer trends

Executives at Technology Research Institute (TRI) in Sudbury, Mass., are launching a study of the rugged military computer market that is to explain where the key opportunities lie, who the key players are, and which DOD and defense integrator buying trends are most important.

The upcoming 250-page report is to include interpretation, forecasts, market share charts, and vendor profiles on the key 60 to 70 commercial computer suppliers serving the market. The report will be available in September 1997.

TRI will also produce profiles of leading commercial computer suppliers to the defense market. This section will identify the 1996 revenues, markets addressed, and strategic direction of each firm.

Finally, TRI will recommend appropriate strategies for both commercial computer suppliers and defense integrators.

To assess buying trends, TRI researchers will mail 2,000 survey questionnaires and conduct telephone interviews with 50 DOD commands and defense vendors.

The report will also cover which applications require substantial board ruggedization; which computer features are necessary for different military applications, such as buses, microprocessors, operating systems, and computer languages; and which applications are driving demand for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology such as naval workstations, ground mission planning, avionics signal processing, and command, control, communications, and intelligence - better known as C3I.

Issues will include:

- which product types and military applications offer the best bang for the buck to commercial computer vendors - and what features, standards, and processes are necessary to help vendors win contracts and assure technological superiority on the battlefield; and

- how defense vendors can use open-systems standards and architectures to their best advantage, and tackle tough commercial technology concerns such as obsolescence, ruggedization, and software upgrades.

TRI`s analysts will employ the same research techniques they used in their 1995 and 1996 studies of the defense computer market. Their goal is to pinpoint market opportunities for selling commercial computer products into tactical military systems. TRI researchers will analyze the market to:

- map DOD and defense contractor application and feature requirements for commercial computer products;

- quantify the market for defense computers with five-year revenue forecasts for various market segments; and

- profile the products, applications, and strategic direction of key commercial computer suppliers serving the defense market.

To cover the issues, TRI not only will conduct mail and telephone interviews with buyers, engineers, and marketers in DOD, prime defense contractors, and commercial computer suppliers, but also plan detailed discussions with every major COTS vendor.

The research will begin with a 2,000-piece mailing to selected subscribers of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which will give general trend data and help identify additional people to interview.

TRI analysts also compile market information from trade publications, product literature, on-line databases, and trade shows.

For more information on the report, contact TRI by phone at 508-443-4671, by fax at 508-443-4673, or by mail to 730 Boston Post Road, Sudbury, Mass., 01776. - J.M.

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Miltope Corp. designed the Soldiers` Portable On-System Repair Tool, or SPORT, intrusive diagnostics of weapon systems and vehicles for maintenance and repair operations. SPORT achieves its thin profile, in part, by using rugged PC/104 printed circuit boards.

Sunlight-readable displays survive in harsh temperatures

Sunlight-readable active-matrix flat-panel displays can survive the extremely cold temperatures where many military systems are expected to operate, but the amount of energy required to run their lighting that not only helps defeat sunlight "washout," but also heats them in cold temperatures puts a strain on power systems.

At this time there is no technology on the horizon to solve the battery problem, admits Ed Boutilier, president of Stealth Computer Corp. in Toronto. "There is an alternative technology called transflective technology, which we use in our monochrome notebook."

Transflective technology, however, does not work with color screens, he concedes. Another alternative, says Boutilier, is to use a more intelligent power management system, which can put the processor in sleep mode when no one is using it, in a sense dimming the screen.

The latest project of Boutilier`s engineers is the Stealth Notebook Warrior, a NEMA 4, industrial-strength PC encapsulated in die-cast aluminum body armor. The Stealth Notebook Warrior uses active-matrix TFT color SVGA, with a dual-scan and monochrome sunlight-readable display. The product has a 200 MHz Pentium processor and can survive a 3-foot drop onto concrete.

Most sunlight-readable flat panels can survive in temperatures as cold as -20 degrees Celsius, but still draw too much electricity to satisfy the power-consumption requirements of many portable battery-operated applications, says Hassan Karimian, director of display technology at Dolch Computer Systems in Fremont, Calif.

Sunlight readability is not a major issue with most portable computers, because users often can move the screen out of the sun. But the display lighting on mounted systems, such as those in an aircraft cockpit or on a kiosk need to be adjusted manually, or include a system to check on the brightness of the sun.

Rugged portable computer makers, however, are looking into other design tradeoffs for use until battery technology catches up with the power needs of today`s displays.

In most sunlight-readable flat-panel displays, a fluorescent lamp placed between the glass and a metal mounting plate lights the display, Karimian says.

Dolch offers sunlight readability in its Multi-Slot 200 MHz Pentium portables. These computers now include a high-resolution flat-panel 12.1-inch SVGA and XGA color slot TFT displays. The high-contrast display uses a special black matrix coating for anti-glare/anti-reflection characteristics and are protected in transit by the system`s fold-down removable keyboard.

Engineers at Amrel Technology in Arcadia, Calif. won best new product of the year at the recent FOSE trade show in Washington for their sunlight-readable Rocky 1000. The computer eliminates outdoor screen blackout and mirroring by reverse polarization processing, a technique developed with Bausch and Lomb.

The technique eliminates the mirror imaging that occurs in direct sunlight by polarizing both sides of the glass. "You can take it outside in the sun and it will brighten up and shade itself, says Danna O`Donnell, market development manager at Amrel. - J.M.

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