Maintaining legacy test systems, an obsolescence battle
Sequestration is forcing aircraft, ground vehicles, and other military platforms to perform well past their
planned operational life, creating obsolescence challenges with their electronics and test and measurement equipment. The Department of Defense (DoD) is also demanding that test systems be compatible with multiple platforms to reduce costs.
Many older aircraft, ground, and naval platforms are receiving upgrades to their avionics, vetronics, radar, combat systems, and weaponry as funding for new platforms gets redirected or cut due to budget constraints and sequestration. This situation creates obsolescence problems for the test equipment designers as many of the testers and interfaces on the legacy platforms were not designed to work with modern Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software and hardware.
“This is my fourth round of sequestration,” says Steve Sargeant, Maj. Gen. USAF (Ret.) and CEO of Marvin Test Solutions in Irvine, CA. “During my nearly 34 years in the Air Force it was also called downsizing, rightsizing, etc. It was a similar exercise each time resulting in military aircraft, ground systems, and other platforms having their service extended well beyond what their original planners thought would be their useful life. The same goes for the test equipment on these platforms. Many test systems have been in operation for more than a decade and are obsolete.”
Replacing old equipment with COTS
Leveraging COTS technology is often a cost-effective method for upgrading older systems, but challenges exist as the COTS products are often software-based and the legacy system is built to accommodate only hard-wired technology.
“Using software-driven COTS products to replace older, hard-wired logic equipment presents a host of issues that require an ongoing need for test equipment to provide visibility of a problem, especially in the area of interface protocols and timing,” says Michael Carter, CEO and President of Sabtech in San Diego, CA. “We frequently encounter customers who are trying to replace old equipment with our COTS products but find that an interface is poorly or incorrectly documented so things don’t happen as expected. In some cases, the interface is not documented at all and it requires complete reverse engineering. Timing problems manifest themselves when things happen faster or slower than before, as with a faster processor or software-induced latency.”
Sabtech’s Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) Interface Analyzer (NIA) is still in demand because it goes directly to the issue of problem cost, Carter continues. “If a problem results in a major program-schedule slip, or the inability of a ship to deploy on time, the cost is great. One such example occurred in 2012 involving a combat system upgrade that interfaced with an old Navy radar. The new system was developed at the contractor site using a simulator for the radar side, but when it was connected to the live radar at the Navy’s test lab, the interface would not come up. The issue was worked on for months until the NIA was brought in and pinpointed a software protocol problem in a matter of hours. It turned out that the simulator was more tolerant than the live system of a certain sequence of events. The NIA was key to getting the schedule back on track and saving many more man-hours of effort.”
Commonality of test equipment across platforms
Across the Department of Defense (DoD) there is a push toward commonality – using the same equipment, hardware, and software across multiple platforms to reduce operational and training costs. This requirement is also being applied to test and measurement equipment.
“The military customer wants the deliverables to match their requirements and they want long-term support,” Marvin Test Solution’s Sargeant says. “As they continue to add new weapons, they will also want to use the same test equipment across multiple platforms.
“For example, one of the services today is preparing to take over maintenance of the Reaper and Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and on the Reaper they use two weapons – Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Hellfire,” he reports. “The traditional acquisition approach would be to find a test set for each of those two weapons. However, sequestration makes it ludicrous to go down that path when in fact there are systems today that can merge the necessary software for testing both weapons into one system.
“Today when you see maintenance and sustainment being done under the nose of an F-15 or F-16 and even an F-22 aircraft, you will see one box that is a stray voltage tester and another larger box for armament testing,” Sargeant explains. “Those products have become obsolete. When the F-15 and F-16 were fielded, there was a budget line for each tester. In other words, to upgrade this capability you would have to replace two expensive systems. This is not the most efficient path in today’s sequestration environment.”
What Marvin Test Solutions “has done over the last the three years is work with maintainers to combine the capability of each of those systems into one test set – the MTS-3060 SmartCan, a universal O-level aircraft armament tester,” he says. “It is a handheld device that weighs less than three pounds and works with MIL-STD-1553 and 1760 databus technology for smart weapons. Legacy aircraft are being modified to carry smart weapons so the test systems need to accommodate that. The legacy test equipment used today is inadequate, as it was fielded before smart weapons.
“The MTS-3060 can emulate smart weapons on the bomb rack, as it contains JDAM software,” Sargeant continues. “It can preload test the arming and release of the weapon, thus knowing whether it will work before personnel even bring out the weapon loaders to haul explosives on the aircraft. The SmartCan provides preload testing and troubleshooting for alternate mission equipment including missiles, bombs, and rockets. The SmartCan provides measurement, stimuli, and communications functions at a fraction of the cost of replacing the two separate, large systems. It comes in a small, hard plastic case and can be put on wheels for those who want to pull it.”
Reducing training costs
“By improving the consistency of test equipment, training costs will also be reduced,” Sargeant adds. “The cost of training is not often talked about, but it can be quite expensive. Having one piece of test equipment for UAVs, fourth-generation aircraft, and fifth-generation aircraft to train on and maintain – with the only variable being the weapon software inside – significantly reduces this expense. Whether the maintainer is an airman, sailor, or marine going from an F-16, F-18, or AV-8 to an F-35 in the future, the system will be operated in the same way each time with only the software load changing depending on the weapon being used.”
Small teams, small budgets
System-development teams at large primes and system integrators are often under budget pressure, even in times when military funding is flowing out of the DoD. They have to balance a need for high-end testing equipment with their budget limitations.
“Military developers want flexibility and reduced cost from their test equipment, especially in today’s budget constrained environment,” says John Wiedemeier, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Teledyne LeCroy Protocol Solutions Group in Santa Clara, CA. “When companies such as Lockheed Martin do development they do so in small teams, often because they have tight budgets. Unfortunately, high-quality test equipment comes at a premium. However, we found a way to cost-effectively produce a protocol analyzer for lower speeds at under $5,000 USD per unit. The Summit T24 is a PCI Express 2.0 solution with data rates of 2.5 and 5 gbps and has all the same functionality as our premium box, but only works with Gen1 and Gen2 speeds. Military system developers are not yet using Gen3 speeds. If they end up needing to move to the faster speeds, it has a 13-month warranty for Gen1 users who plan to upgrade to Gen2 products. Users also want a certain set of functionality. Everything we make, even on the low end, has the same software features and ways of looking at data.” (See Figure 1.)
The Summit T24 protocol analyzer also meets a demand for compatibility “with all of the military form-factor-targeted interposers such as VPX, XMC, and Compact PCI Serial,” Wiedemeier continues. “This combination is compelling to small teams who are budget conscious but need the flexibility of different probing options.”
The Teledyne LeCroy Summit T24 also has new user-convenience and analysis features, such as support for lane swizzling, which enables a board developer to lay out a mid-bus probe pad with lanes in nonstandard order, according to the Teledyne LeCroy data sheet. Internally, the device maps the lanes back into their correct order and accurately displays the embedded bus traffic. Other new software features include more compact trace files that enable faster analysis of trace data, enhanced error checking for automatic identification of additional error types, and simplified or advanced modes to set up trace recording options.
Picking the right standards
“In the military it is about picking the technology that will have the best returns long-term and we see XMC, VPX, and CompactPCI Serial as the big ones; so far, it seems like that is where the action is,” Wiedemeier says. “There is a lot of support in the military for those standards, especially VPX. XMC was hot for a while and we see CompactPCI Serial having strong potential. For CompactPCI Serial we worked with MEN Micro and they’ve helped us qualify our systems. It is taking off in Europe and MEN Micro is looking to bring it to the U.S. market.”