Designers of small rugged computers for the battlefield balance size, performance, and cooling

Feb. 3, 2020
Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components are being embraced so the technology can be serviced at the base instead of waiting for specialized parts or sending the system back state-side.

Forward-deployed computer systems, servers, and vehicle-mounted laptop computers need to be as tough as the warfighters that use them. Industry experts note that small rugged mobile computers and network equipment for military vehicles and command posts have increasing amounts of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components so the technology can be serviced at the base instead of waiting for specialized parts or sending the system back state-side.  

Panasonic Corp. of North America, based in Newark, N.J., has been the standard bearer of vehicle-mounted, ruggedized computers with their Toughbook series.

Scott Heckman, Panasonic’s national sales manager for their U.S. Army and Special Operations Command (SOCOM)
business, notes that his customers are trending away from super-specialized computers, such that users easily can upgrade memory and other components to keep the technology on the cutting edge without buying entirely new machines.

“A lot of those purpose-built machines wind up being incredibly expensive, and because they are custom built, it’s hard to really do technology refreshes in any meaningful way,” Heckman says. “So as the IT world advances, our software needs advance. It’s hard to efficiently or reasonably cost-effectively redevelop those systems since it’s such a low volume of product really driving or covering the engineering costs right now.”

With COTS components now relatively commonplace in the military, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and American taxpayers can get more bang for their buck on the battlefield and have changed what warfighters can expect from a ruggedized system.

“I think for a longtime people really accepted a rugged (system) was going to be bulky; we’re going to be maybe a little bit behind in technology; it was going to be expensive,” says Panasonic’s Heckman. “As the markets matured, I think we’ve now seen expectations that we have current processors and current technology especially as we have to increase security postures and connectivity. It’s important that we have up-to-date specifications that are going to comply with all of the security protocols.”

While ruggedized systems embrace COTS to reach the bleeding edge, they also have retained the need for components that largely have been phased out of many consumer-grade laptops.

“Kind of counterintuitively as the industry moves away from optical (drives) to a much smaller, more efficient USB-type drives due to the security postures around USB, we’re not only seeing a desire to retain optical (disc drives) but we’re getting requests to incorporate Blu-ray drives because they obviously allow greater file sizes both from our imagery and mapping so that’s something that we are addressing wherever we can,” Heckman says.

Plug and play

One way Panasonic has met the demand for myriad options, including optical drives, from its customers is with the modular approach the company took with its Toughbook 55 laptop.

The MIL-STD and IP53 certified semi-rugged laptop enables users to add on Blu-ray and DVD drives, USB ports, VGA, and even extra Ethernet ports and a second battery, which Panasonic says enables the laptop to function for as long as 40 hours.

“It’s all meant to be end user changeable and configurable,” says Heckman. “So if you wanted a Blu-ray drive to do imaging onto your system or to load an image mapping pack for a particular mission, you could then pop that out and pop in another device like that.”

The Toughbook 55 offers the latest Intel 8th Gen vPro quad-core processors, as much as 64 gigabytes of RAM, as much as 2 terabytes of data storage, increased battery life, four microphones provide high speech recognition accuracy, color-selectable backlit keyboard, and a 25 percent larger touchpad.

Power and polish

David Jedynak, chief technology officer at Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions in Ashburn, Va., says that rugged computer systems are expected to have the same fit-and-finish expected by civilian customers coupled with ample processing power. “They want to be able to push more and more capability farther towards the edge so there’s less reliance on having to do things in non-real time, being able to do it in mission,” Jedynak says. “More polish - things need to just work and work quickly. Boot up, shut down, all those things need to be more polished. It goes right to warfighter experience.”  

Jedynak and Curtiss-Wright senior product manager Mike Southworth note that specifications that meet open standards are being requested by customers.

“Hardware and software modularity based on open standards is becoming even more prominently pushed, as evidenced by initiatives such as SOSA, VICTORY, OMS, FACE, GVA, and more,” Southworth says. “Merging of both computing and networking device functions is also becoming common, as the Internet of Battlefield Things (IoBT) is pushing every device to be connected either over Ethernet or wireless.”

Curtiss-Wright’s Jedynak notes that Internet of Things (IoT) devices produce a lot of data, so support and creative solutions to manage that data are important.

“In general, we’re seeing a lot of things happen in the Internet of Things,” Jedynak says. “People are trying to add more capabilities on the edge. How do you enable that in the battlefield? Providing good support for machine learning or other sorts of networking technologies out on the edge are part of that. IoT generates a lot of data. If you want to decimate that data, you need to think about things like machine learning, or even do things like using the data and reacting to the data on the edge.”

Information security

Southworth and Jedynak report that Curtiss-Wright’s defense customers, perhaps unsurprisingly, demand to keep their systems and data secure.

“Cyber security is increasing in importance as defense contractors seeking to satisfy customer concerns and yet support architectural requirements for scalability and security,” Curtiss-Wright’s Southworth says.

“Leveraging commercial encryption standards blessed by the NSA via the Commercial Systems for Classified (CSfC) initiative, in lieu of traditional - and costly - NSA Type 1 encryption, is driving network devices to undergo FIPS 140-2, NIAP common criteria evaluations and CSFC reviews on Ethernet switches, routers, and network attached storage (NAS) devices.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are also hot trends for computing devices that can leverage GPU technologies to accelerate parallel processing of many cores to enable autonomous machine control,” Southworth says.

Keeping connected

Curtiss-Wright’s Southworth informed that Ethernet is instrumental in moving data in battlefield systems.

“Ethernet continues to be the backbone for situational awareness applications and network-centric operations in the military and aerospace sector with throughput speeds increasing beyond 1G to 2.5G, 5G, 10G, 40G, and even 100 gigabits per second in some radar applications,” Southworth says.

“Cabling complexity is also being simplified with new IEEE standards - driven by automotive needs — that reduce the number of twisted pairs needed. In addition, rugged Power Over Ethernet (PoE) is poised to further enhance system capabilities onboard air, land, and maritime platforms, transferring Ethernet data at faster speeds and DC power at higher levels—all in a single eight-wire cable.

“In fact, reliable MIL-STD qualified embedded PoE switch solutions are available from Curtiss-Wright to help system integrators reduce platform SWaP-C, while simplifying cabling, power, and device management for modern networked electronic payloads,” Southworth says.

With reliable Ethernet connections of paramount importance in the mil-aero sector, Curtiss-Wright’s small form factor DuraNET 3300 offers 10G/1G PoE in a rugged design that is fanless, has circular connectors, and is made for harsh environments and has EMI requirements per military standards and DO-160 standards.

“The DuraNET 3300 serves as an ideal Ethernet backbone connectivity solution for size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) sensitive unmanned air/ground vehicles (UAVs, UGVs, UUVs), helicopters, and other tactical/combat platforms exposed to harsh environmental conditions – e.g. high altitude, extreme shock and vibration, extended temperatures, humidity, dust and water exposure, noisy EMI, dirty power,” says Southworth.

“Integrated EMI and power filtering comply with civil and military vehicle and aircraft requirements, including power input voltage spikes, surges, transients, and EMI/EMC compatibility requirements per MIL-STD-704F, MIL-STD-1275D, MIL-STD-461F, and RTCA/DO-160 with optional MIL-STD-704 hold-up support for aircraft power transfers.

“The unit also simplifies cabling and power management for IP cameras and phones, supporting PoE injection for as much as 24 devices,” Southworth continues. “The DuraNET 3300 has been designed to allow for Cisco IOS visibility to manage the PoE ports through Cisco’s UI to monitor, and control the PoE usage on each port, including which ports supply power and the number of Watts per port within the total available power budget.”

In addition, Curtiss-Wrights’s DuraCOR offers an ultra-small form factor modular mission computer built around the powerful and efficient NVIDIA Jetson TX2i integrated in a miniature rugged chassis with MIL-grade high-density connectors.

“Thanks to the unit’s Pascal GPU architecture, larger memory bandwidth, and support for CANbus, the DuraCOR 312 can deliver as much as twice the performance or power efficiency of TX1-based systems together with native vehicle bus interfaces,” Southworth says.

“The unit also deliver an unparalleled modular system design, boasting multiple Mini-PCIe I/O card slots, high-speed M.2 internal storage, removable SATA Flash SSD capabilities, and an aerospace-grade power supply supporting 50-millisecond power hold-up in a fanless IP67-rated mechanical package designed for wide temperatures and harsh shock and vibration, along with ECC memory for mitigation against single event upsets at high altitudes.”

On the edge

Officials at Combat Proven Technologies LLC (CP Tech) in San Diego also note a desire to get more processing power out of computer systems on the battlefield, explains CP Tech President Mike McCormack.

“The biggest trend driving small rugged mobile computer development right now is the focus on bringing edge computing into the military space,” McCormack says. “While edge computing has been adopted and embraced by enterprise users, the defense industry is beginning to realize the advantages of having the analytical capabilities of a high-performance computer in forward operating environments. This has already been achieved with larger rack-mounted servers, but reduction in size is paramount for users who require small tactical computer systems with performance levels typically found only in larger servers.”

The desire to bring edge computing power to the battlefield means companies like CP Tech need to start with robust data storage capabilities.

“The biggest demand we see is for greater processing power,” McCormack says. “High-performance processors are mandatory in edge computing, with the second biggest requirement being the data storage capacity to handle the amount of data being processed by the CPU. CP Technologies has designed our own line of small tactical computer systems, which provide modular expansion capabilities in a rugged transportable case for networks on the move. The development of small tactical servers with as much as 16-core enterprise-level processors, 512 gigabytes of system memory, and four removable solid state hard drives gives our customers a robust base for their mobile computing requirements that can be used in vehicles or command posts. When combining the server modules with rugged switch and router modules from the same CP Tech small tactical computer systems product line, our customers have the ability to build and configure complete custom server deployments in a SWaP-optimized mobile platform.”

Keeping cool

Of course, oodles of processing power creates a great deal of heat. Compounding the issue, recent military engagements have seen warfighters and support staff deployed to literal “hot spots” in southwest Asia and across Africa.

“Mobile data environments have serious constraints on the methods they can employ to keep things cool,” says CP Tech’s McCormack. “Server room air-conditioning and water-cooled systems which require coolant reservoirs aren’t options for systems that are required to be man-portable or self-contained. The most tried-and-true methods of cooling electronics components are through active, fan-driven cooling, or by passive heat sink cooling. Both have their benefits and limitations, and the selection of either is truly driven by the requirements of the operational environment in which the units are required to perform.”

CP Tech’s small tactical computer systems use Intel Xeon processing performance optimized for virtualization applications, gigabit switching and routing capabilities and over 10 minutes of sustained battery backup time. These systems accommodate flexible mounting options with brackets that can be mounted in a standalone configuration, to a bulkhead, in a half rack/case, or a standard 19-inch rack and are made to meet the needs of their customers.

“From a purely performance and modularity standpoint, our small tactical computer systems have been designed to be completely configurable within a rugged mobile transit case, which provides our customers an endless amount of variety to ensure they’re not forced into a system that doesn’t meet their needs,” McCormack says. “Our solutions allow customers to design a deployable solution that is custom-tailored to their needs.”

At the front

Officials of Pixus Technologies Inc. in Waterloo, Ontario, confirm that the trend driving development in small rugged mobile computers and network equipment for military vehicles and command posts is packing as much processing power as they can into rugged enclosures.

“From the electronics packaging point-of-view, the constant drive to support higher speed computing inside a smaller and lighter space is never ending,” says Justin Moll, vice president of sales and marketing at Pixus. “This means that the enclosure manufacturer needs to provide thermal management for often hotter chipsets in a more compact format. The SOSA initiative is pushing new power/cooling requirements along with RF and optical signaling over OpenVPX, which can make our goals more challenging to achieve. The backplane speeds are also increasing, requiring us to use advanced techniques to achieve optimal performance.”

He continues, “For applications that require low-cost signal acquisition/SIGINT, Pixus has partnered with National Instruments’ Ettus Research brand for ruggedized versions of their USPR Software Defined Radios. With our IP67 weatherproof and MIL rugged designs, we have expanded the application base for these otherwise commercial systems to capture, process, and record wide signal bandwidths at a broad range of frequencies.” 

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