GaN designs, small sats, hot in space 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 trends in the military space market with attendees and exhibitors from the Nuclear Space Radiation Effects Conference (NSREC) held last month in New Orleans, Louisiana. They discuss the increased use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components in mega-constellation applications, the impact of the New Space in the industry, and how the outlook for the military space market.

This month’s panelists are: Joe Benedetto, Sr. Vice President and General Manager at Cobham RAD solutions; Eli Kawam, Manager of Micropchip’s Aerospace & Defense Group; Monty Pyle, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at VPT, Inc.; Josh Broline, Product Marketing Manager at Intersil; and Minh Nguyen, Senior Marketing Manager, Space at Microsemi.

MCHALE REPORT: This month the rad-hard community gathered in New Orleans for the annual NSREC. What tech trends did you see emerging at the event?

BENEDETTO: The biggest trend is continuing from the last few years and that is the use of more COTS components in satellite systems. There is also continuing interest in testing new technologies for their radiation resistance, such as GaN [gallium nitride] and FINFETs [fin field-effect transistor] to see if they could be applicable for future systems.

KAWAM: Based on the conversations we had with attendees, the trends we see in industry and with “New Space” is a drive toward more radiation tolerant requirements for LEO [low Earth orbit] missions and less RHBD [radiation hardened by design] requirements for GEO [geostationary orbit] and interplanetary missions. Attendees seemed concerned with cost of launch to actually get things into space. Currently, half a dozen private companies worldwide are developing launch vehicles. This will ultimately result in significant cost-reductions for launch, which means there will be that many more vehicles put into space.

PYLE: We noticed continued segmentation of products to meet specific space customer missions. The space market end customers are looking for standard products that are tailored to their specific mission requirements. This affects radiation requirements (TID & SEE levels), mission duration requirements, environmental requirements and electrical requirements for products from suppliers like VPT.

Another trend that we see emerging are more of the small satellites or even larger CubeSat missions being required to meet radiation requirements versus being able to fly whatever happens to be available. This has been talked about for some time, now there appears to be some movement in that direction coming to fruition.

BROLINE: On the power management theme, the level of integration is increasing and also the need to offer higher power solutions to be able to meet the trends of the power requirements for next generation FPGAs, ASICs, or microcontrollers, and so on.

From my vantage point at NSREC, we saw more GaN solutions being offered on the power management side of things. Not necessarily on the RF side, but with users needing lower voltage, more specifically less than 200 volts.

NGUYEN: NSREC 2017 was another well-attended event. I had many meaningful conversations with the conference attendees who are continuing to push the boundaries of technology and testing methodologies for these new technologies.

MCHALE REPORT: What is the outlook for rad-hard suppliers in the military market? Do you see funding increasing like it is in other defense applications under this administration? Or will it continue to be flat for the foreseeable future?

BENEDETTO: There is a flat to a slight, slight growth in the rad-hard supplier market. If there is any growth, that growth may come from missile defense applications. We are seeing a lot of activity and expect additional funding to be in place for missile defense within the next three to five years. I also think there is some erosion in the “traditional” satellite market (i.e. the market that uses rad-hard, hi-rel, QML type parts). We expect the majority of satellites launched in the next few years will not use traditional rad-hard parts.

PYLE: The interest and number of qualified queries regarding terrestrial rad-hard applications has certainly increased; however, this increase has not been limited to the relatively short duration of the current administration. It has been more in correlation with the increasing concern of certain countries having or claiming to have long-range nuclear capability. North Korea is an obvious driver for nuclear event defensive capability. As these types of threats continue to present themselves, it is reasonable to expect defense funding and demands to increase accordingly.

NGUYEN: We have seen very strong activities for radiation-tolerant and radiation-hardened products for military programs. I expect the activity levels to continue for months to come. We recently surveyed the hiring rate at our key military/defense customers, and were glad to see in a nice increase in hiring, which is a good indicator of how strongly these programs are going.

KAWAM: While we won’t forecast the size of the military market or speculate on how governments will allocate funding, we see opportunities opening up in this space due to the availability of radiation tolerant components with pin-to-pin COTS equivalent parts, permitting quick, cost-efficient.

BROLINE: It depends on where you’re at in the industry as far as the supply chain. From a component manufacturing perspective, I think recently we’ve seen healthy levels of spending on the military side. I generally expect spending to take a small breather for the next year, but additional programs will emerge given the geopolitical situations; overall the military will still be a robust market long term.

MCHALE REPORT: What applications – commercial, civil, or defense – represent the best growth opportunities for rad-hard suppliers over the next five to 10 years?

BROLINE: I think there are three growth opportunities. The number one by far is the commercial LEO (low Earth orbit) applications for constellations and small satellites. Generally speaking, that part of the market or the emerging part of the overall market is starting to get organized and focused.

Then possibly exploratory applications, like programs that include Mars and the moon. It may not grow fast like commercial LEO programs, but I see those applications as contributing to growth opportunities.

The third growth opportunity in the long term would be defense applications.

KAWAM: The new commercial mega constellations offer new growth opportunities for suppliers of radiation-tolerant products. [For example at Microchip we take] COTS products tailored to automotive and industrial applications and make rad-tolerant versions that are pin-to-pin compatible with the original. So, wherever the growth happens customers can develop with COTS products for development of systems and code, then change to the rad-tolerant version for final systems testing.

PYLE: Very few suppliers are active in all three markets, or even two, because the market application demands are respectively very different and unique. In regards to opportunity, if a company can leverage its existing known and proven core technology and capabilities for a specific market, then with a few changes, material adjustments, etc. apply it to a new market, that represents its most significant growth opportunity.

BENEDETTO: There is definitely a growth opportunity for commercial satellites; that’s the best opportunity. It will meet challenges and technology node targets. There is definitely an opportunity there for rad-hard suppliers, however they may not be able to take advantage of the opportunity because commercial satellites are looking to use lower cost/higher performing parts that are currently available by rad-hard suppliers. For rad-hard suppliers, the best bet and real growth may come from missile defense.

NGUYEN: At the moment, military/defense programs are strong under the current administration. I expect civil programs to stay flat, while it will be interesting to see the growth of commercial programs given how competitive the market has been with newer players, especially players in New Space.

MCHALE REPORT: What impact will the development of mega-constellations/small satellites have on the rad-hard community and the use COTS components on rad-hard environments?

BENEDETTO: Mega constellations are throwing a real curveball to the community. Mega-constellations and small satellites have been able to deliver mission survivability. They are launching satellites using almost all commercial components (including industrial and automotive grade) – and proving that they are able to meet mission goals. With mega constellations, they are able to build additional satellites and look to achieve system reliability through redundancy. Instead of building very expensive satellites, they can build less expensive individual satellites and spares improving the overall reliability of their constellation.

Improving reliability and radiation tolerance of COTS components combined with lower launch costs is driving the reliability through redundancy. The emergence of lower launch costs is allowing this strategy to be successful. In cases where a single high reliable system is needed (such as launch vehicles), then reliability through redundancies can be used at the component or board level.

BROLINE: I don’t see a major change in the foreseeable future. If there were really something that’s going to happen and have a major erosion of the existing rad-hard solutions that are used today in traditional satellites, it would probably be five years or more out. Keep in mind, a lot of times various companies venture into doing their own characterization and testing on COTS parts. A lot of times they’ll keep that information close to their vest, so it’s typically not available out there for public consumption. That tends to potentially slow down any erosion if you will from using COTS parts, and not only just in small satellites but also in larger satellites or traditional satellites.

Then, the other factor is these large mega constellations that are just underway. You really won’t see a large portion of the satellites in space or operable for two to three years. That’s where it gets interesting because now you have potentially a much larger amount of satellites that are up in orbit that have a reasonable mission life. With that you start to get a better feel for the performance level of the commercial parts they utilize.

The traditional market and traditional players really start to pay attention and may possibly start to implement similar strategies. Not that they’re not trying to implement or utilize COTS parts today, but this is mainly for a different reason right now.

KAWAM: While COTS offers all the widely publicized availability and variety, the reality is, depending on the grade of satellite and mission profile, rad-tolerant and RHBD products will always offer the first line of reliability and performance that offers mission success. [We have found that our] approach of taking COTS products and making rad-tolerant versions that are pin-to-pin compatible greatly reduces [customer] development risk and shortens the time to market.

PYLE: It has already had an impact on both the rad-hard and greater space community in general, and it’s not necessarily positive. There is an appreciable amount of analysis paralysis in the industry right now around this topic, however the actual capability and probability of success by using COTS (which in the context of this topic is more accurately described as commercial grade components) is becoming less appealing as actual results of testing seem to be providing the direction.