Rugged computers proliferate through military applications

Onboard computing for the military is increasingly common and crucial for military weapons, vehicles, and sensors, which is driving requirements for their ability to withstand the combat environment.

In the old days (the 1980s and 1990s), rugged battlefield computing largely meant ensuring a command post’s rack-mounted command and control (C2) system could withstand temperature extremes and the shock and vibration of a nearby explosion.

Onboard computing, however, has become increasingly common and crucial on more and more weapons systems, vehicles, field sensors, and related platforms. The ability for rugged computers to withstand the combat environment is growing in importance, as well.

Today, the ruggedization requirement ranges from even more complex rack-mount command post and vehicle computers-and a mission expanded to command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR)-to devices carried by individual warfighters or small units.

“There are two real realms in what we do-designed to be rugged from the start and ruggedizing commercial technology,” says David Jedynak, chief technology officer at Curtiss Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Ashburn, Va. “You aren’t really starting with a clean sheet, but taking what is generally commercially available and making sure the board we are making is designed for this use right from the start. You start with component technologies-processors, memory, PCB [printed circuit board] designs-usually what you see in the industrial world, but then build in native design concepts that allow you to be efficiently rugged. That can include how a PCB flexes to laying out a board for the most effective cooling or more exotic things, such as significantly higher power requiring the use of techniques such as liquid flow.”

Data security

The ubiquitous and critical nature of battlefield computing means the requirement to ruggedize such systems against everything from extreme temperatures and humidity levels, fine sand, saltwater, shock, vibration, radiation, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP). To complicate matters, today’s requirements include ever-higher levels of security. The latter includes both on-board data and data flow, whether wired or wireless.

“Going back 20 years, looking at commercial versus military architectures, the difference typically is ruggedization, equipment that can handle both temperature and other environmental extremes without degradation in performance,” says Michael Coon, a field applications engineer at TE Connectivity Global Aerospace, Defense & Marine (GADM) in Harrisburg, Pa. “As we migrate toward the Future Soldier, that period takes us from a compass and walkie-talkie to today’s soldier having GPS, a satphone, an onboard computer that does live video feeds through his helmet display, a drop-down key bag giving him access to maps, terrain, troop locations, etc.

“You’re seeing an evolution not only in the amount of data that needs to be transferred, but also the type of data, an evolution along the lines of ruggedized wireless, fiber optics, and high-speed interconnects,” Coon says. “That also means miniaturization in rugged, lightweight systems with higher and higher bandwidth channels. So we’re taking very large, militarized, ruggedized connectors and shrinking them while also allowing faster and faster bandwidths. Traditional filtering that was on the board now has to be lighter, handle faster speeds, and be more complex. Ruggedization is the big key.”

The U.S. military has seen the networked battlespace evolve more quickly than originally envisioned to meet the needs of more than a decade of combat in extremely harsh environments. The result has been a complex merging of requirements for rapid fielding, SWaP [size, weight, and power consumption] enhancement, faster-smaller-lighter-cheaper, ruggedization, high bandwidth, mobility, interoperability (including backward to legacy devices) and enhanced security at the software, hardware, and frequency levels.

All those requirements have been further complicated in recent years by downsizing, budget cuts (often forcing continued use of legacy equipment beyond its intended life cycle), the Pacific pivot (with a greater emphasis on Navy/Marine Corps capabilities), an entirely different set of environmental threats, and more technologically capable potential adversaries. In the end, however, no one of those is significantly more critical than the others.

Without security, no level of ruggedization provides a combat edge-and vice versa. SWaP, bandwidth, mobility, cost, speed-to-field, and other considerations all must be built into new systems from the original blank sheet of paper. To the extent possible, especially given the extended use of legacy systems, that also is true with upgrades, albeit more difficult to accomplish.

COTS components

Ruggedization and security also are affected by the military’s growing dependence on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components since the 1980s and, more recently, the use of open architecture in new designs.

“There are two things driving that-cost and technology. The latter is not only performance, but compatibility,” says Gregory Powers, busi- ness development manager at TE GADM. “DOD [the U.S. Department of Defense], globally, has pretty much stepped back from a lot of rugged computing standards. So COTS configuration and control is assured through a number of civil and commercial organizations.”

As to concerns that adversaries also have access to COTS components and systems and might twist open architectures to their own purposes, Curtiss-Wright’s Jedynak says those are over-simplified and largely irrelevant. “Terrorists can buy components on the open market and build things, but typically those are out-of-date items that are not supported. If you buy an off-the-shelf cellphone to remotely detonate a car bomb, that can’t be scaled up and maintained long term. And their adversaries-meaning us-can easily understand the technologies they are using and how to defeat them,” he says. “At the same time, we ensure the commercial technologies we use are well-supported and designed, available for a very long time and any vulnerabilities an adversary could exploit are identified and protected.

“With MIL-COTS, we get all the benefits of open standards and industrial competition, but also assurance that what is being bought is protected, in some cases through ITAR or various classification levels. So the overall posture is more guarded, more sustainable in the long-run,” Jedynak adds. “That level of support, quality, performance, and attention to detail ultimately will triumph over the short-term use of truly off-the-shelf equipment you can get at a local retail store.”


Regardless of how and where battle-space computing is employed, how well it meets combat requirements also depends greatly on the platforms in which it is installed and other proximate or potentially interfering equipment and technologies. Those often involve methods of construction or other alternatives designed to address their own SWaP, acquisition/lifecycle maintenance costs, and other requirements, with non-platform critical computing considerations coming late in the process.

“For example, we’ve seen a migration away from traditional aluminum or other metal aircraft into composites. The more composites you have, the more that aircraft is susceptible to lightning or surge strikes going into the equipment rather than being absorbed by a metal aircraft’s large mass surface area,” Coon says. “So we look at existing equipment and incorporate ways to help remove or compress that transient strike in a composite aircraft without the contractor having to re-layout their boards.

“We’re also seeing more and more portable, ruggedized network architecture-switches and routers. So on today’s battlefield, you have to ruggedize the network connectors and I/Os to handle the level of data coming from individual soldiers or equipment into the C2 center,” Coon continues. “That may be a wired, wireless, or fiber-optic architecture. We’re also looking at more and more applications where, rather than a traditional connector with [a few] fiber-optic contacts, they may have 24 or 48 fiber-optic interconnects within the same size, making that trunk larger to handle all the information.”

Another significant change in recent years has been the growing use and diversity of combat robotics and with that, requirements for more portable, ruggedized lightweight controllers. Coon predicts a significant increase in that area as future weapons evolve, including ruggedized robotic equipment carriers and field transports, some with weapons for sentry support.

As combat equipment at all levels becomes more technology enhanced and interdependent, more bandwidth will be required to manage it, creating yet another cycle of environmental needs versus security and SWaP. Depending on their products and customer requirements, contractors involved with rugged and secure military computing, especially within the battlespace, have different views of and approaches to COTS and even open architecture.

COTS and open systems

Mercury Systems in Chelmsford, Mass., has expanded-largely through acquisitions-from providing specific electronics for battlefield applications, such as embedded fabrics for radar systems, to address the full span of battlefield sensor electronics at component, module, subsystem, and integrated levels. Those range from high-performance IR and acoustic sensors to rugged storage solutions.

Meeting the military’s toughest needs with straight COTS is rarely part of the equation, points out Darryl McKenney, Mercury Systems engineering services vice president. “We don’t believe COTS has truly existed in terms of being sold into machines for the primes. We instead refer to it as ‘custom-off-the-shelf’-commercial items close to, but not exactly, meeting needs for military temperatures, ruggedization, and security. That goes into our methods to satisfy customer needs. When you look at VITA-47, most of the specs we are designing to meet have a direct link to some of the original MILSPECs.

“With regard to open architecture, for cards to have slot profiles and plug-and-play together has significantly reduced some of the plug-and-pray phenomena we had to deal with for several years,” McKenney says. “It’s a much larger challenge to our engineering organizations.”

McKenney points to the temperature ranges for which commercial computers are built versus the military’s need to use them at more extreme levels as an example of MCOTS, which can include developing or eliminating high-performance connectors, which are reliability concerns. “We develop technologies allowing us to run custom-printed circuit boards, connectors, software, hardware, cooling mechanisms in extreme environments and temperatures where conventional computers won’t work. So we’ve had to improve subsystems almost from beginning to end.

“When you look at our deployable radar systems for ground-based applications, we’ve had to help develop rugged connectors for VPX to help solve long-term reliability index issues for extended deployment,” McKenney says. “Some of the original VME-based radar systems in the 1960s, for example, might get to 80 watts per slot; the latest system we deployed approaches 200 watts per VPX slot.” However, he adds, such changes cannot be developed and deployed in a vacuum.

“We very much believe in standardization to leverage innovation. For example, we helped develop VITA 62 [Open VPX-compliant] power supplies, using open standards on the power supply format and configurations. That same 1000-watt power supply has been engineered for about a dozen platforms, which a few years ago would have had custom power supplies for each,” McKenney says. “We now have 6U VPX cards that can be used in airborne applications, from small to wide-body, ground mobile or ground radar or fixed installations. Leveraging the same card across many different mission platforms, using different software, really helps drive the affordability index.”

Continuing evolution

As to the future, McKenney sees a continuing evolution of technologies to meet changing battlespace conditions and requirements.

“As companies such as Intel make faster and faster silicon, that is driving newer innovations in how we will compute, distribute, and handle the volume of computational data we can now generate. Some of the newer breakthroughs, as we generate 10, 50, 100 times more data and translate it into usable information, will be among the huge paradigm shifts we will see in coming decades.

At the same time, McKenney notes, simultaneously merging ever-growing requirements for rugged and secure computing with an equally pressing demand to free battlefield devices from physical connectivity is probably our largest single challenge moving forward. “Those are opposing, intense, polar situations. We’re being asked to ratchet down and control where information goes, who gets to see it, what it looks like-yet make it available to a wide audience. Those conditions do create opportunities for innovation, where more COTS will be deployed in the next five years to allow people to transport data at speeds, using bisectional bandwidth, and in secure capacities like we’ve never had.

“I look at combat computing not only as rugged, but as smart. As I look across our sensor chain and the ability to communicate from legacy to new equipment and crossing many different old and new platforms, smart becomes an important paradigm because you are seeing lots of platform integration upgrades needing smart electronics for a smarter battlefield,” McKenney says.

Networked battlespace

Curtiss-Wright’s Jedynak agrees in principal, but has a slightly different take on meeting all the demands of a networked battlespace without the solutions working against each other.

“Security, SwaP, and rugged, we don’t think, really pull us in opposite directions. When you optimize SWaP, smaller sizes, for the most part, mean fewer problems with vibration and shock, which is a benefit. As you become more efficient in your computing resources-bits per watt, for example-your cooling requirements start to drop to achieve the same level of performance. So you can cut back on mass, which further improves SWaP optimization,” Jedynak says.

“If we can continue following along with Moore’s Law, driving electronics to ever-smaller sizes, it makes dealing with environmental issues somewhat easier, with less external surface to protect,” Jedynak says. “If you reduce size without reducing power, you can have some cooling problems, but if you take the same level of performance and shrink it, with half the power requirement, it helps shrink the box.”

As the U.S. military continues its drawdown in Afghanistan and prepares to give more attention to Africa, with its scarcity of infrastructure, and the long distances that mark the Asia/Pacific, most involved with designing future systems to meet evolving military requirements agree on certain key predictions:

  • wireless communications will continue to proliferate;
  • the use of commercially developed technologies and devices will grow even more;
  • in high-end computing, VPX for defense also will continue to proliferate; and
  • cost-maintenance, repair, incremental upgrades-will be a prime driver for mission- and life-critical systems.

“Incremental evolution, from C2 computers to handhelds, will be based on commercial developments. In many places, the commercial world is a few years ahead of the military,” says Powers. “Some people say optics eventually will replace copper, given its advantages in speed and distance and the ability to deploy in areas previously not thought possible.”

“Changing budgets will really drive us, in a good way, to push the technologies, understanding what is good enough, best value, highest performance and the various shades in that spectrum, and how to get better synergies,” Jedynak says. “That is the overriding theme.”

BY J.R. Wilson

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