Counter-drone tech, multicore processors, Trump defense spending, open architectures impact 2017 defense electronics market

Every month the McHale Report will host an online roundtable with experts from the defense electronics industry – from major prime contractors to defense component suppliers. Each roundtable will explore topics important to the military embedded electronics market. This month we discuss the technology game changers of 2017, the military commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) market, the administration’s military technology funding, and predictions for next year and beyond.

This month’s panelists are: Gregory Powers, Global Market Leader, Aerospace & Defense, Performance Solutions Division, W.L. Gore & Associates; Chip Downing, Senior Director of Aerospace & Defense, Wind River; Manuel Uhm, Director of Marketing, Ettus Research, a National Instruments company and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Innovation Forum and John McHale, Group Editorial Director of Military Embedded Systems and proprietor of the McHale Report.

MCHALE REPORT: In your opinion what technology was a game changer -- hardware or software -- for military electronics in 2017?

POWERS: From my perspective, there were two hardware areas, including open architecture and ubiquitous, robust connectivity that emerged as complementary game changers in 2017. These technologies did not suddenly materialize, but seemed to have passed an inflection point in the way of availability, integration, and baseline implementation. An example of the rise of open architecture is found in the OpenGroup’s Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) initiative. The SOSA initiative is one of the most recent to put the stamp on broadly embraced open architecture in military electronics, in this case sensor systems, and leverages groundwork of efforts like VMEbus International Trade Association (VITA) . Connectivity is the other game changer that highly complements and is a vital ingredient to the latest evolution in rugged system architectures. Without robust connectivity, the advancements in line replaceable unit (LRU) architectures would be significantly compromised, as various elements would not be able to effectively share their all-important data. Designers’ ability to call out pre-qualified, deployment worthy connectivity standards, like Society of Aerospace Engineers (SAE) AS6070/5 & 6 specific to Cat6a , is vital in creating cohesive, high performance electronic systems. Linked and vetted standards, like those being rolled out by OpenGroup, VITA, and SAE, act together to support the industry vision of open architecture with high performance and speed to market.

DOWNING: The military electronics game changer in 2017 is fully leveraging the power of state-of-the-art processors with software technologies that enable the simultaneous use of all cores in a processor package to execute independently with the operating system of choice. , multi-level safe and secure virtualized solutions will drive more data aggregation, analysis, and decision-making to the edge of our global combat missions. Military electronics have never seen a year with such a large increase in both COTS hardware utilization and software diversity in safety-critical and mission-critical solutions.

UHM: There is no question that drones have been a game changer, particularly as they have necessitated the need for drone countermeasures. While military UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] have been around for many years, the proliferation of consumer drones capable of carrying small payloads has resulted in new [electronic warfare] threats. These threats are currently being countered in the RF realm with SDRs [software defined radios] that have been programmed to either actively jam the controller or even hack the air interface protocol in order to take control of the drone. We are in the early stages of drone countermeasures and anti-drone solutions and can expect to see far more activity in this space in 2018 and beyond.

MCHALE: Counter-UAS solutions or counter-drone systems as mainstream press likes to call it. This market is starting to take off. The most sophisticated military solutions are a blend of detection technologies such as radar and electro-optical sensors. While companies such as IXI Technologies are producing handheld counter-UAS products. They call theirs the Drone Killer, which uses RF disruption technology in the form of a gun, enabling users to essentially shoot down a UAS by jamming its signals. Frost & Sullivan forecasts the counter-UAS market to be about a billion dollars by end of next year and then doubling by 2022. To learn more on this, read my column on this market here.

MCHALE REPORT: Did the 2017 military market past exceed, meet, or fall short of your expectations?

DOWNING: Overall, the 2017 military market fell short of my expectations. All governments need to face the harsh realities of today’s global conflicts, and fund military programs appropriately. It would be beneficial for the U.S. government to provide a reliable projection of future funding, so that long term program decisions can be made that will drive efficient, higher volume procurements resulting in increased efficiency and lower costs throughout our military operations.

POWERS: I believe 2017 was a positive transition year. Transition takes time, but the defense market at least met expectations with optimism rising for 2018. With the announcement or advancement of multiple new U.S. platforms, such as GPS-III, B-21, MQ-25, Future Vertical Lift, NGJ Inc 2, Next Gen Combat Vehicle and Mobile Protected Firepower, as well as multiple upgrade programs, there is no lack of activity. The signing of the U.S. defense bill on December 12, 2017 boosts the 2018 funding picture. The pledge of many U.S. allies to support the NATO 2 percent GDP level adds to the momentum.

UHM: 2017 has been another bullish year for COTS providers and I believe 2018 will exceed 2017. Given all the turmoil in 2017, I would have to say that it exceeded my expectations. That being said, new threats continue to grow and evolve at a pace that one could argue exceeds our capabilities to quickly and effectively respond. SDRs provide an amazingly fast response capability vs. having to build purpose-built hardware, but they still have to be programmed and tested. There is still a long way to go in improving the programming and debugging tools to significantly shorten the time-to-market and response time to new threats as they emerge. I am hopeful that in 2018 much progress will be made in this area.

MCHALE: The vibe I’ve been getting from COTS vendors throughout the year has been quite positive. Applications such as electronic warfare and radar upgrades are increasing demand for boards and systems. Many are confidently forecasting growth for next year based on the current Administration’s efforts to increase funding.

MCHALE REPORT: The Trump Administration is a year into its first term and has increased the DoD budget. How have the increases and the Administration’s approach to military spending affected the military electronics market -- from primes to COTS suppliers?

UHM: There have been small increases in spending, which is generally good for both prime contractors and COTS providers. One area that I believe should be an area of greater concern is cybersecurity. We have seen the number of consumer and enterprise hacks increase dramatically in recent years, jeopardizing sensitive consumer data and enterprise secrets. There have also been attacks on utility power grids and other critical infrastructure. Obviously, these concerns extend to military networks and data. More spending in this area will be critical to ensure the U.S. can stay ahead of other nations in protecting key data, as well as key assets. To this end, SDRs have been used for RF hacks of PCs, key fobs, and even vehicles, to test for vulnerabilities, as well as perform signals intelligence tasks, and I expect that trend to have a positive effect on COTS SDR providers.

POWERS: During the election cycle, there was pretty much a consensus from the various candidates that a strong and rejuvenated defense department was needed. The execution of the defense bill on December 12, 2017 has solidified confidence and is a milestone in setting an optimistic outlook for 2018 and beyond. One caveat is that there has been no clear effort to remove sequestration as an impediment to continued growth in defense spending. This creates a bit of uncertainty along with the final tax plan outcome and other fiscal issues, but I certainly detect relief that the potential for continued top line growth exists. As I attended multiple industry events throughout the year, I saw the entire defense ecosystem moving out smartly with a renewed focus and sense of urgency.

DOWNING: Until the U.S. Congress can fund multiyear programs reliably; our military spending will have efficiency challenges. Short-term military funding efforts drive an inefficient, buy-less-for-more procurement environment that degrades our global competitiveness and increases our costs.

MCHALE: While spending is up as is optimism among industry players there is still uncertainty within the defense electronics community because sequestration still exists. As I’ve written in the past if the administration and Congress can get rid of sequestration -- the automatic, across-the-board cuts to the defense budget – then everyone wins from the primes to the COTS suppliers to the government and most importantly the warfighters -- sailor, marine, soldier, and airman. They deserve to get the best tech possible as quickly as possible. Sequestration if continued could affect readiness, which can cost lives.

MCHALE REPORT: What will be the disruptive technology or disruptive market trend for 2018 in the military electronics industry and why? Predict the future.

POWERS: For 2018 and the foreseeable future, I believe an accelerating wave of electrification and automation will shift multiple paradigms in the aerospace and defense industries. The ever-increasing demand for data and bandwidth has and will persist going forward. This has injected a variety of innovative connectivity and packaging technologies in the marketplace to bring maximum bandwidth and enable open architecture. Data fusion can be certainly identified as a disruptive trend; platforms of the future will be increasingly sensor intensive as automation and the need for 360-degree situational awareness grow. Another highly disruptive trend is electrification relative to propulsion. Higher performance materials with superior environmental resistance in addition to size, weight, and power (SWaP) advantages will shift paradigms in new propulsion schemes, allowing higher power density and broadening the application space. Daily news headlines regarding hybrid and all electric systems have most people thinking of the trend. Recently announced mergers and partnerships, such as Boeing with Aurora Flight Sciences or Airbus with Siemens and Rolls Royce, or the various efforts in electric or hybrid military vehicles reinforce the message that the electrification technology trend is picking up speed in our industry.

DOWNING: Rapid agility for all missions is the future. The foundation of this agility is extremely powerful heterogeneous multicore processors//GPUs/GPGPUs that will support highly configurable, dynamic, multipurpose COTS mission systems that scale across a wide range of platforms and systems. Statically configured, purpose-built platforms are history. A virtualized future is coming to a COTS platform near you.

UHM: An area of great interest that is in its early infancy is that of applying machine learning to SDRs to create truly cognitive radios. For example, the DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge, which is in its first of three years, has been designed to encourage the development of machine learning algorithms such that teams of SDRs can autonomously learn to share spectrum in a collaborative manner with other teams of SDRs that may not even be using the same air interface. As this technology develops, we will see SDRs instantaneously adapt to their environment by sharing spectrum, moving in the spectrum, using adaptive interference mitigation and a host of other techniques. In this type of environment, spectrum situational awareness will be a huge challenge and a key differentiator for military forces. The forces that are able to automatically adapt so that the right information can be transmitted to the right user at the right time will have an unassailable advantage. I expect the foundation for these types of scenarios to be laid in the next few years.

MCHALE: Artificial intelligence (AI) especially in terms of improving decision making for warfighters. Efforts such as cognitive EW and adaptive radar where AI and machine learning algorithms essentially filter out actionable intelligence from false alarms, lessening the mental burden on the human operator.