NAVAIR is working with other defense agencies to use standards to foster new technologies for unmanned systems and other aircraft.

Military, suppliers focus on long-term technical advances, compatibility

Armed Forces, companies set profiles to facilitate rapid technical development while reducing costs

Equipment developers are moving quickly to ensure that military users will have long-term access to boards and modules that provide higher performance, easy replacement, and reduced costs. Board and system designers adopting new technologies are standardizing interconnection layouts to ensure that boards designed by various suppliers can be used to upgrade systems as technology advances.

Designers of both manned and unmanned aircraft in search of technology that's faster, more versatile, and less expensive have sometimes been stymied because boards and modules created by one vendor aren’t compatible with those built by other companies for another platform. At the recent Embedded Tech Trends in Austin, TX, government agencies and the VITA trade association that manages standards commonly used in military aircraft detailed efforts to improve compatibility. That will make it easier to find compatible modules and increase performance over aircraft lifetimes.

The main step was to create profiles for different board and module categories for Open VPX, the VITA standard for high-performance systems. For example, sensor modules now have well-defined connector configurations that eliminate the incompatibilities of the past.

“VITA made the decision to more fully design slot profiles, we now have a collection of slot profiles for different applications,” said Michael Munroe, Technical Product Specialist at Elma Electronic Inc. “Now it will be possible to plug in a video board from one supplier and later replace it with a video board from another supplier. This will bring down the cost of boards used in multiple programs. It will also ensure that orders from different military groups are large enough to justify development from a number of companies.”

U.S. military planners endorse this attempt to focus on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. The latest step in this effort comes from combined efforts by U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

“We want cooperation between the three services to establish a common approach to embedded systems,” said Michael Hackert of NAVAIR. “We’d like to create modular technologies that facilitate reuse and let us swap out boards to gain the benefits of the new iterations of technology."

These moves are made with long-term considerations, making it easier for design teams to deploy the newest technologies in modules that can be used in vehicles that have been in the field for a while. Military planners want to have a number of companies that push these technical advances into production.

“Everything I do I have to think about doing it for 30-40 years,” said AFLCMC’s Ilya Lipkin. “We want an open business model to ensure a strong industrial base.”

VITA’s member companies are making a strong push to move the latest technologies into operation. A growing number are employing graphic processing units, highly parallel chips popularized by Nvidia. They are particularly popular in image processing systems as designers combine different processing technologies to improve efficiently handle huge volumes of data sent by sensors.

“When you go to 4K cameras and higher resolution in other sensors, you need a lot more processing power,” said Roy Keeler, Senior Product Developer at Adlink Technology. “You need a mix of CPUs, GPUs and/or FPGAs. General purpose GPUs are on the rise. They have a lot of bandwidth to take in a lot of information, memory is close by and they’re easy to program.”

While sophisticated processors and sensors get most of the focus in advanced designs, often-overlooked connectors also play an important role. For years, designers of high-speed systems have pondered the transition time for turning to fiber optics, which offers far higher bandwidth than copper, which is desirable because it’s cheaper than fiber. However, connector and system designers keep pushing the limits of copper connectors.   

“Five years ago, everyone thought 25 Gbaud would mark the point where we needed to go to optical copper,” said Ivan Straznicky, technical fellow at Curtiss-Wright Embedded Computing. “Now we’ve come up with a way to handle 25 Gb/s using copper. In the future, 32 gigabits may be possible using this technology.”

At the ETT conference, TE Connectivity announced plans to unveil a 25 Gbaud connector this summer. While that will let designers leverage investments in copper, optical suppliers say the pricing differential is decreasing. They hope that may prompt some engineers to turn to fiber optics for scalable designs.

“RF technology at 25 gigabits is at its limit, they spent two years to develop this,” said Gerald Persaud, vice president of Reflex Photonics. “We plan to take optical up to 4.8 terabits/second in 10 years. That’s far beyond what copper can do.”

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