Full speed ahead: FACE initiative fosters reuse, cuts costs and delivery time of military avionics systems

1The Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Technical Standard aims to hasten delivery and cut costs of military avionics systems via a modular architecture, data models, standard interfaces, and conformance criteria that meld to enable reusable software components and a common operating environment. Our editors recently caught up with Jeff Howington of Rockwell Collins, a FACE Consortium founding member, to find out how the FACE approach will affect the U.S. Army's Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) program - and the industry at large.

MIL EMBEDDED: The FACE Consortium approved and published its FACE 2.0 spec in March. How will it work, technically speaking, and how will it benefit mil avionics systems? (Also, what about the FACE 1.0 spec?)

HOWINGTON: The intention of the Technical Standard for (FACE) Edition 2.0 is to reduce costs and speed delivery of military avionics systems. Most future expansion of aviation capability will come from the integration of systems controlled by software, so the FACE Consortium, an Open Group Managed Consortium, concentrated its efforts toward addressing avionics software development and deployment. One of the biggest cost drivers to conquer is the common practice of developing different software for different platforms that implement the same capability. By codifying a modular architecture, standard interfaces, data models, and conformance criteria into a common operating environment and reusable software components, we will have the means to share capabilities not only across platforms, but also across the military services and avionics vendors as well.

Edition 1.0 of the FACE Technical Standard was published on January 30, 2012 and laid the foundation by standardizing the modular architecture and interfaces. Edition 2.0 adds a data model, which provides an interoperable means of data exchange among FACE software components, further reducing the need to modify those components when they are integrated onto different platforms. Edition 2.0 is published by The Open Group at their web bookstore. [See http://www.opengroup.org/bookstore/catalog/c137.htm]

MIL EMBEDDED: What is Rockwell Collins’ role in the FACE Consortium, and how are systems integrators like Rockwell going to leverage the FACE approach?

HOWINGTON: Rockwell Collins is one of the founding members of the FACE Consortium. Our company is active within the technical and business working groups, and we hold leadership positions in the steering committee and the data model subcommittee. Together with more than 50 other member organizations, we are working to create a successful technical standard and business strategy.

The FACE environment gives customers greater freedom to incorporate capabilities that reside in other platforms. Reusing already-proven and fielded capabilities benefits integrators like Rockwell Collins because it adds value to our underlying product – a complete functional hardware and software system. Imagine if your personal computer was the best and latest, but you couldn’t run the word processing application that your colleagues use. At the very least, your training and the way you operate your computer are different and in the extreme case you cannot exchange files with others. Your office IT team will soon replace that computer, as it raised your cost of doing business. Our military customers are tackling similar cost issues. Rockwell Collins will leverage the FACE Technical Standard and associated business practices as one means to solve that problem.

MIL EMBEDDED: Rockwell Collins already leverages their avionics systems used in business and commercial jets for use in military platforms. How will the FACE initiative affect this?

HOWINGTON: Rockwell Collins first adopted modular open architecture concepts 15 years ago and today it powers how we leverage our civil avionics systems onto military platforms. Examples of this are the Rockwell Collins’ next-generation avionics systems now aboard the Boeing 787, which we leveraged into the U.S. Air Force KC-46 tanker program, and the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion business and regional jet avionics solution, which we leveraged into the Embraer KC-390 and the AgustaWestland AW609 aircraft. These reuse examples represent substantial cost reductions and schedule savings for our customers.

The good news for Rockwell Collins is that we already implement much of our avionics capabilities as reusable software components. These components can move readily within our system families. Since their design is close to the FACE Technical Standard, we are well prepared to meet these new requirements.

MIL EMBEDDED: In which ways is the FACE initiative similar to the CAAS program started by Rockwell Collins and the Army to leverage COTS and common software architectures across Army helicopter platforms? How will the FACE concept affect CAAS, or will it?

HOWINGTON: More than a dozen years ago, Rockwell Collins began working closely with U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command in the development of the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS). To meet the Army’s demanding requirements, we adapted our Modular Open Systems Architecture technology fielded on the USAF’s KC-135 Tanker aircraft. Today, CAAS flies on nearly 1,000 Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and allied force rotary-wing aircraft. These aircraft include the MH-47G, CH-47F, and other Chinooks for the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Italy; the VH-60N, MH-60T, and MH-60L/M Black Hawks; the MH-65E; and the CH-53E. With the first CAAS implementations dating back to 2000, this architecture remains a trusted capability for our military rotorcraft customers.

The CAAS program and the FACE initiative have similar goals with respect to capability reuse. FACE intends to go further by establishing a standard for an architecture that supports portable, capability-specific software applications across military avionics systems, regardless of the avionics vendor. To work successfully, FACE applications must execute within a FACE computing environment on the installed computing hardware of the platform.

So the most immediate change you will see with CAAS is the inclusion of a FACE computing environment to support execution of FACE-conformant applications. The CAAS modular open architecture design closely aligns with the FACE Technical Standard and is requiring minimal modification to provide a FACE environment. CAAS will also continue to support the Army’s existing software applications. This provides the crucial ability to preserve customers’ existing technology investment, while extending their platforms to accept the latest capabilities well into the future.

MIL EMBEDDED: How will the FACE approach enhance the military’s use of DO-178B/DO-178C software and similar safety-certified code, even though military platforms typically don’t have to undergo FAA certification? What does the FACE “certification” process entail, and by whom are products approved, or is it all the “honor system”?

HOWINGTON: Flight safety is very important to the FACE Consortium. Its goal is to complement the existing airworthiness processes, not to replace them. FACE certification indicates adherence to the Technical Standard for portability purposes.

The reason for this is that airworthiness processes prescribe significant efforts to prove that the functional logic residing within software components will work as intended in all conditions. But the FACE Technical Standard does not address how this logic is created. Instead, the modular architecture, standard interfaces, and data models are described and it is up to programmers and integrators to ensure safe designs are in place in the way their software operates within that framework. The benefit with portability is that if the finished software meets DO-178 criteria, the software supplier can reuse both the software and its certification artifacts in another system, saving time and cost.

The FACE conformance certification process provides a formal evaluation assuring that the software component adheres to the FACE Technical Standard. For example, part of the verification process will examine which Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) a FACE application uses. A truly conformant application will use only those APIs called out by the standard and no other.

Software portability comes only if everyone plays by the same rules in the standard, so no “sneak circuits” are allowed, so to speak. If the application passes the complete set of conformance tests and other defined required criteria, then it is considered FACE conformant and is marketable as such with an official certification logo. The FACE Conformance Certification Guide describes this process.

MIL EMBEDDED: Describe the FACE business model and how much that business model will provide in long-term DoD savings, in light of present and possible DoD budget cuts.

HOWINGTON: The FACE Business Guide suggests a number of potential software-centric business model options for avionics acquisitions. These are not often used in marketing defense avionics because currently, most purchases of avionics result in the delivery of embedded hardware with software bundled within. Adhering to the FACE Technical Standard allows for more software acquisitions independent from hardware.

One example for applying the FACE business model is the potential acquisition of Required Navigation Performance for Area Navigation Flight Management System (FMS) capability (RNP RNAV). Rockwell Collins has been able to reuse its civil RNP RNAV capability aboard military aircraft that use our avionics systems. If such a capability were to appear as an application that conforms to the FACE Technical Standard, not only could we apply it to Rockwell Collins’ avionics systems, but to other aircraft as well if those aircraft provide a FACE Computing Environment. This will result in major cost and schedule savings by reducing if not eliminating software modifications when moving the capability from platform to platform, which in turn reduces integration costs and safety certification costs.

MIL EMBEDDED: How does the FACE approach benefit embedded COTS suppliers? Do you foresee any possible challenges for COTS suppliers in implementing the standard? If so, what?

HOWINGTON: The FACE Consortium is privileged to have several embedded Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) suppliers as consortium members, including all of the largest real-time operating system vendors for avionics. These companies provide insights into the issues faced by COTS providers, including the important role that intellectual property protection plays in incentivizing their participation in the defense marketplace. Many of the FACE documents and processes now incorporate these insights.

A number of COTS suppliers have announced products that are aligned with the FACE Technical Standard. Many have cited the value that it brings to their products and the expansion of their addressable market as a result. Many COTS suppliers tend to use open standards and by all accounts the transition for avionics-oriented suppliers has gone well. Because the FACE Technical Standard does not address how functional logic for avionics is created, or eliminate the flight-safety knowledge required, it does not readily open the market for just anyone. The avionics learning curve still remains, which applies not just for COTS providers, but everyone else as well.

MIL EMBEDDED: Will there be a “store” where designers can download conformed code or products?

HOWINGTON: Suppliers can make their conformant software products publically known through the FACE Library. The library consists of two major functions, the FACE Registry that lists the products and their searchable metadata, and the FACE Product Repositories, which contain the actual products. The product registry is the single-reference listing for certified FACE-conformant products, and products are listed there only after they receive their FACE certification. Multiple, independent repositories enable suppliers to configuration manage their products and ensure intellectual property protection.

Obtaining software from the FACE Library is a two-step process. Prospective customers first search the product registry for products that meet their requirements. The registry will contain information approved for public release about the products, such as names, capabilities provided, requirements for the hosting hardware, and the suppliers’ contact information. Once a selection is made, the customer establishes contact with the supplier for purchasing information. If purchased, the software is obtained from the appropriate product repository. FACE Product Repositories are owned and managed by contractor entities, government agencies, or other organizations that supply the software.

MIL EMBEDDED: Which technology(ies) is/are needed to take the FACE concept to the next level, but not available now?

HOWINGTON: The Consortium continually explores ways to improve avionics software, but we see beneficial results using current technologies. The next level is to promote FACE adoption and use.

MIL EMBEDDED: What will FACE activities look like a year from now. What about 3 years from now? Ten or 20 years from now?

HOWINGTON: When the FACE Consortium first formed in 2010, a conscious decision was made to focus on promoting military avionics software portability and reuse. That area alone is hard enough to get right and required strict focus to prevent distractions from moving us away from our end goal. In the short term, you will see us continue to focus on solidifying the FACE Technical Standard and the support for it in terms of standing up the FACE Library, a conformance certification program, development tools, test tools, and so forth. Over time however, we’ve seen interest from other adjacent markets that see value in our work. If interest is strong enough from the civil avionics market, we may look into how we can help there. Longer term, it’s hard to say if we will take the FACE Consortium into different areas, or provide another team with our lessons learned and enable them to head off on their own.

The one constant that I believe will endure is the joint government industry consortium structure that has proven its worth throughout. We have averaged 130 people at our last two meetings from more than 50 consortium member organizations. More than 600 individuals are directly or indirectly involved in any number of activities, such as weekly teleconferences and the like.

We could not fault anyone for thinking that a crowd of that size would produce nothing of merit. Yet this team has succeeded in creating a workable software-centric avionics ecosystem as evidenced by industry product announcements and government program awards. We are on track to continue refining and improving the FACE concept.

Jeff Howington is a member of the Rockwell Collins business development team within the company’s Government Systems Airborne Solutions segment. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the FACE Steering Committee.

Further information on the FACE Consortium can be found at www.opengroup.org/face. Contact ogface-admin@opengroup.org for specific inquiries. The FACE LinkedIn Group is located at www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=4127663&trk=myg_ugrp_ovr

Topics covered in this article