Military & commercial unmanned systems designs leverage open architectures

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 military and commercial markets for , open architecture trends, and what to expect at the upcoming Xponential show next week in Dallas, which focuses on unmanned systems.

This month’s panelists are: Chip Downing, Senior Director Business Development, Aerospace and Defense, Wind River Systems; Dudrey Smith, Senior System Engineer, AdaCore; Scott Unzen, Market Development, Omnetics Connector Corp.; and Mike Southworth, Product Marketing Executive, Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions.

MCHALE REPORT: In just over a week in Dallas, will hold their Xponential event, which focuses on unmanned systems technology. What trends are you seeing in the unmanned military market as well as the commercial arena?

DOWNING: Ten years ago, this event was much smaller, and most of the suppliers were showing highly proprietary and/or experimental systems. Today it is a true unmanned marketplace with a wide range of technologies based upon open standards serving the unmanned industry, including unmanned air systems, ground vehicles, autonomous cars, and industrial/robotic systems. It is great to see these technologies blossom into ready-to-use industrial products.

SOUTHWORTH: Within the unmanned military market, Curtiss-Wright is witnessing a number of significant trends, including (a) demand for collision avoidance technology and FAA safety verifiability to DO-254/DO-178, (b) implementation of manned-unmanned teaming, (c) integration of processors closer to on-board sensors, (d) increased sensor capability driving increased network connectivity with demand particularly for Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet, (e) machine learning enabling greater autonomy, and (f) increased demand for underwater/surface unmanned systems.

On the commercial side, the driverless automotive segment is heating up with most major automotive manufacturers vying for position with autonomous solutions for on-highway and off-highway applications. We see driver-follower commercial trucks, taxi fleets, and mineral/mining trucks all adopting autonomy to a greater extent. Major investments are being made by the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers].

UNZEN: In the military market, the missions and payloads continue to grow and expand increasing the challenges and demands that are placed on the engineers designing these systems and payloads. The connectors and compact circuitry within the embedded systems have met the size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements but with that has come the need to transmit an ever-increasing amount of digital data. Not only has the amount of data that needs to be transmitted increased but the data rates have also increased. With the increase in the amount of data and data rates the demand for a well designed interconnect solution that can maintain the signal integrity and prevent interference has grown.

For many of the companies providing solutions to the unmanned military market, the commercial area at this time offers very limited opportunities. Due to regulatory restrictions at this time many of the capabilities that have been developed for the military market are not being deployed for commercial use. One such restriction is how you operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); there are no rules in place yet that will allow you to use them beyond the line of sight.

SMITH: As far as military trends the focus continues to be on unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) for use in the Middle East as well as surveillance drones to assist with the Russian situation in Eastern Europe. Not much available on the actual technology going into these advanced Predator and Reaper drones other than working with BAE Systems in the United Kingdom (U.K.) to advance the capabilities for use on both fronts.

Regarding commercial [unmanned aircraft] the U.K. National Air Traffic Service has initiated their “drone safe app” to help users insure that their UAVs meets all U.K. safety requirements. There have been a recent total of more than 56 near misses with commercial airlines in the U.K. so the push is now on for more attention to safety. They have also been working closely with EASA [European Aviation Safety Agency] to insure a balanced approach between safety and cost. The FAA is watching this activity closely.

MCHALE REPORT: Many expect that the commercial market for unmanned systems will eventually dwarf the military market. What non-military applications do you see trending that week?

SMITH: Small to medium sized UAV will grow in use via granted FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] exceptions for use in multiple areas including agriculture, movie making, police work, rescue efforts, security, news, etc. Over 5,000 exceptions have already been granted over this last year. I see this as the largest use effort in the future as well. [The] FAA has formed a “drone committee” to deal with large UAVs flying in the National Air Space. RTCA will be having a presentation of the current status this June in Crystal City, Virginia. At the same time, Amazon has clearly indicated that it will “be some time” before package delivery is a reality. Rural area deliveries are problematic because of power requirements and the weight of batteries. Urban deliveries still need to address safety, security, and privacy issues. Google announced that it has dropped its current pursuit of UAVs.

Another important commercial application area I have been somewhat involved is in unmanned ground vehicles with Tesla, and automotive in general. With the accident that occurred last year, Tesla announced that their vehicles should not be used in a completely unmanned mode – always with the driver in the loop. Recently, the NTSB [U.S. National transportation Safety Board] cleared Tesla of any fault in the accident in that the car performed exactly as designed and intended. The fault was primarily with the driver of the Tesla and the truck driver. Tesla continued their analysis of the situation to find out why the breaking system was never engaged either by the driver or automatically. It was discovered that the camera sensor and recognition software couldn’t distinguish between the white side of the truck and the sky. Therefore, no danger was detected nor announced. Tesla is not changing their current position of their self-driving capability that it should be used as an advanced autopilot system with the driver in the loop and not as a true unmanned system. Again, the focus here is with smart sensor technology as well as target recognition software. In addition, drivers avoid many accidents via defensive driving techniques. This requires a much higher degree of AI [artificial intelligence] and sensor capability to recognize potential issues and take preventive action.

DOWNING: AUVSI Xponential today proves that this expanding industry knows how to create vital components and integrate these components into highly functional, unique products that deliver immediate value to customers. For example, the commercial UAV industry now has a wide range of systems that can be used for precision agriculture, mining, building/infrastructure inspections, and more. To formally bless these commercial UAV operations, the Federal Aviation Administration has created Part 107 guidance and certifications. However these guidelines limit operations to daytime, line-of-sight, under 400 feet, and more:

The biggest challenge for unmanned systems developers is to create systems that can operate autonomously outside of these restricted Part 107 environments, creating very unique and powerful value. These systems will need to prove both hardware and software robustness using safety standards like IEC 61508, DO-178C, and ISO 26262. Wind River and Intel are well positioned to serve this larger, higher-value market expansion.

SOUTHWORTH: There are strong signs that the consumer automotive autonomous vehicle market is on the verge of explosion, changing our paradigm for transportation forever. Anticipate related software, component, and systems suppliers to be in full force at Xponential. Given the market size for automobiles, this market may eclipse the military market at some point.

UNZEN: The topics that I see trending for non-military application at [Xponential] are:

  • Discussions about safety along with schools for pilot certification
  • Improvements in flight controllers and flight stabilization technology
  • LIDAR technology for better positioning and control of the aerial systems
  • Better cameras and video recording devises
  • Unmanned aerial services for inspection of cell towers, constructions sites, and agricultural fields
  • The use of unmanned aerial systems for search and rescue by law enforcement and the park services.
  • The need for better battery technology to prolong the flight time and capabilities of the unmanned systems.

MCHALE REPORT: Where do technology and open architectures fit in with unmanned systems? Are the platforms themselves becoming COTS, not just the payloads?

SMITH: Much of the COTS reuse is in the area of platform reuse. To handle the processing and data storage requirements while still maintaining a low power requirement has resulted on the reuse of custom systems on a chip along with the associated development environments. In addition, the hope is that any safety certification that was developed with these platforms will also be considered as part of the platform reuse.

UNZEN: COTS technology and open architectures are allowing for a more rapid development and evolution of the capabilities of unmanned systems. Open architectures will allow more companies to enter the field because they will be able to design their systems with hardware that already exists and they will not have to design and build all of their own components.

SOUTHWORTH: By and large, sole-source proprietary technologies are still frowned upon by unmanned military system [designers], but when size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) reign supreme, customers still want open architecture interfaces and software compatibility, but the choice of embedded board and chassis form factors is less important. Functionality or cost could trump using standard boards/chassis architectures. This is often what drives the selection of line replaceable units (LRUs) versus systems with line replaceable modules (LRMS). As for platforms becoming COTS, there is increased emphasis on optionally piloted platforms, adding unmanned capabilities to existing manned platforms. So, yes, the platform too is becoming even more COTS.

DOWNING: This entire industry is going COTS, and highly integrated COTS. This trend is increasing along with system complexity, utility, and value. A couple of years ago the UAV platforms were turning into COTS platforms, and the mission/application capabilities were the differentiating components. The UAV platform today and mission capabilities are now pure COTS plays, and now the differentiators are the sensor fusion and derived business intelligence aspects of commercial UAV flights.

MCHALE REPORT: What unmanned systems platforms -- air, sea, or land -- do you see being the best bets for embedded computing suppliers and why?

SMITH: It appears that the largest advancement by the military in the [unmanned systems] area is with unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs). Lockheed Martin’s Marlin and the Bluefin Robotics Knifefish are being developed to assist with the location and destruction of underwater mines as well as other target recognition military tasks. BAE Systems is working on the Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation (POSYDON) using long-range acoustic signals. This will be a major benefit for both military and commercial UUVs. Many UAVs use COTS hardware/software, which can also be applied to UUVs, the big technical areas that need to be worked are power/weight, communication, data storage and management, smart sensor development, and AI software especially in the area of target/structure recognition.

SOUTHWORTH: In terms of revenue, there is currently more government budget allocated and programs of record for unmanned air system, but the highest growth area is with unmanned surface/underwater (naval) platforms. When the “Shift to the Pacific” happened, our military forces found that there was a gap with respect to naval capabilities for surveillance, mine detection, and related missions that were never invested in.

UNZEN: Currently I believe that the best development opportunities for new unmanned systems platforms for embedded computing suppliers are sea based. There is currently research and development projects underway involving not only the expansion of undersea technology but also highly maneuverable high functioning surface vessels for the Navy that will include among other technologies the ability to swarm. With the high functioning highly maneuverable unmanned capabilities currently being requested for these vessels there will be a need for lot of computing power.

DOWNING: In terms of volume, unmanned ground systems will certainly rank the highest, especially as autonomous cars and personal transportation systems gain traction. Unlike UAVs and UASs that require some sort of licensing and regulation, like the FAA’s recently announced Part 107 rules, many of these ground systems will not require special licensing, regulations, or training, which will accelerate adoption. But as autonomy increases and the use of these devices in air, sea, or ground operations expands into safety-critical domains, these devices will need RTCA DO-254, RTCA DO-178C, IEC 61508, ISO 26262, and other safety certifications.

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