Budget cuts spur use of rugged COTS systems

As the U.S. defense budget shrinks, the military’s appetite for rugged Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) products will continue to grow. The services can no longer afford the protracted development schedules and massive cost overruns often associated with new programs. This makes COTS components – from chips to boards to subsystems and systems – attractive in every corner of the procurement world, especially for High Performance Embedded Computing (HPEC) in radar and other sensor applications.

COTS is attractive at the subsystem level because it can reduce risk levels of a program – especially cost and time to market – since there is no upfront Non-Recurring Engineering (NRE) overhead. Delivery time can be a matter of weeks and, because it is already ruggedized, the function takes less time to field. The subsystem, already packaged in a standard chassis, could serve as a platform for software development, interoperate as part of a larger system, or plug into a smaller platform at the system level after appropriate testing and certifications have been completed. Rugged COTS subsystems or systems typically have been tested in a laboratory, simulating the intended operating environment, and have achieved a correspondingly high Technology Readiness Level (TRL).

COTS technology can also reduce technical risks, from the early integration of cards, to analysis and testing of how well they work together, to interoperability with other systems, through operation and lifecycle support. Much work has been done upfront to ensure hardware compatibility and to fine-tune the operation of low-level software such as board support packages, drivers, and operating systems.

Ruggedness is also important. Although there is no overarching standard for this quality, vendors typically offer several levels of ruggedization – based on military specs – relating to prospective environmental factors such as temperature, shock, vibration, sand, dust, humidity, and saltwater corrosion. Products are often tested to procedures found in MIL-STD-810.

Ruggedization is now so common in military and aerospace products that it’s typically considered from the beginning – from design, assembly, and test on through thermal management, mechanical engineering, and hermetic control. Ruggedization techniques include elements such as parts screening, substrate material selection, conformal coatings, stiffening, and cooling.

A rugged COTS system can offer a range of processing functions, such as generic CPU boards, video processing, and special-purpose signal processing cards with hundreds of processing engines per chip. But COTS also needs to be flexible, especially at the system level, where so many elements are provided that customers could literally be boxed in before they know it. It’s important for the vendors to have built into their menu of architectures a wide range of flexibility, especially as to the I/O configuration.

An example of a rugged COTS subsystem appropriate for HPEC applications such as radar is the GE Intelligent Platforms D8I-3VF1, a 3U VPX, forced air-cooled platform with as many as three Intel multicore Core i7 boards expandable to eight slots, including video capture, General Purpose Graphics Processing Unit (GPGPU) and switch cards (see Figure  1). Its I/O capability ranges from MIL-STD-1553 and Gigabit Ethernet (GbE).

Figure 1: The GE Intelligent Platforms D8I-3VF1 is a 3U VPX, forced air-cooled platform.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Increased demand

Rugged COTS subsystems and systems are becoming more common because the demand is growing. For example, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) spending for COTS-equipped aircraft, such as the P-8 Sub Hunter and the KC-46 Tanker, reached $4.71 billion in 2012 and will spike between 2013 and 2016, as these programs reach full production, according to Frost & Sullivan, a U.S. market analysis firm.

Revenues for unmanned systems – which leverage rugged COTS technology and put a premium on ruggedization, as well as economies of Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) – are expected to grow even faster. The aviation side of this market could grow at an annual 12 percent compound annual growth rate, hitting $18.7 billion in 2018, say analysts at Market Research Media. That could produce $86.5 billion in revenues from 2013 to 2018. These numbers don’t include the proliferation of civilian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which recently received the blessing of the U.S. Congress. Civilian UAVs will also be deployed with COTS systems.

The military clearly wants more economical and less time-consuming solutions, and rugged COTS is a proven approach to this end.