Military rad-hard market and COTS usage in space
In this Q&A with Anthony Jordan, Vice President, Product Marketing and Applications Engineering at Cobham Semiconductor in Colorado Springs, Colo., he discusses the market for radiation-hardened (rad-hard) electronics in military and civil satellite systems and explains how the proliferation of small satellites will encourage more COTS usage in satellite payloads.
MCHALE REPORT: Cobham acquired your company, Aeroflex, last fall. Can you provide a brief description of your group’s (formerly the Aeroflex HiRel Microelectronics group) new role within Cobham?
JORDAN: We are now part of Cobham Advanced Electronics Solutions (CAES), one of four sectors within Cobham PLC. We are a vetted contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and all the services: Navy, Air force, etc. Underneath CAES there are five business units: Integrated Electronic Solutions; Microelectronic Solutions; Motor Control Solutions; RFMW Solutions; and my group, Cobham Semiconductor Solutions, which is composed of the Aeroflex groups that are located in Colorado Springs, the group in Plainview, N.Y., and our European arm in Sweden now called Cobham Gaisler. Semiconductor Solutions is a vetted contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and all the services Navy, Air Force, etc.
MCHALE REPORT: Does being part of Cobham create new opportunities within the rad-hard market?
JORDAN: Yes it has. We are working directly with the DoD and system integrators to deliver rad-hard components. We are also seeing some opportunities to act as a supplier for larger DoD contracts, but that is tied in via Cobham, where we supply other Cobham groups, such as Electronics Solutions, with components for radar and electronic warfare (EW) systems that are supplied directly to the DoD.
Cobham is very interested in revenue synergy and bought us with the goal of creating additional revenue based on synergy. As a result, we are exploring some very interesting areas specifically for Cobham. It’s been an exciting time.
MCHALE REPORT: The DoD released it’s FY 2016 budget request in February with an increase in overall funding, almost a reverse trend from the last few years. How do you see the funding outlook for high-reliability space electronics?
JORDAN: We are cautiously optimistic about the DoD market. The classified world has stayed flat for Cobham, as has the rest of our DoD business. NASA has seen an uptick as has the commercial market. A number of our microelectronic IC products and motion control devices are now orbiting Mars on NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolutio (MAVEN) Satellite. There are a lot of new systems in weather satellites as well. Hosted payloads are another growth area for us, especially with geosynchronous platforms.
We are not expecting a huge amount of growth overall, as, like everyone in this market, we are still the early stages of satisfying mega-constellation requirements. The government is still trying to figure out how to leverage swarms of satellites tied together in mega-constellations and the missions they would perform. They are asking, “How do we satisfy two-year missions with small to nano satellites?”
The satellites themselves are a reasonably good size – 100 to 200 kilograms – not something you could fit into a shoebox. They have a reasonable power budget – less than a couple hundred kilowatts – have onboard avionics, and good capabilities management. They are the way of the future.
MCHALE REPORT: How do you manage reduced cost requirements from the government? You can’t cut corners in space.
JORDAN: I think our challenge flows down almost like a repeating record. To a certain extent, we see customers wanting to put more capabilities into their boxes with more sensors and instruments that provide more capability in every payload, whether its function is communication, surveillance, etc. But they also at the same time want reduced cost and reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP). Having to meet power budgets and cost budgets while increasing capability remains our challenge.
Then when you start talking about mega-constellations, the world changes significantly with cost targets that are so much lower than what has been traditionally set. In order to hit these cost targets to make the mega-constellation more feasible I think it will be a combination of manufacturing improvements and being smarter about how we drive cost out of electronics, while still delivering products that meet mission requirements.
MCHALE REPORT: Regarding the radiation-hardening process, what method is most preferred today?
JORDAN: I think we have to be smarter with rad-hard-by-design and rad-hard-by-process. These processes are affording us a certain level of radiation hardening that we can take advantage of, but we can’t afford to over design, especially with high-performance digital solutions. If we do that we won’t hit the customer’s size or power targets. We have to be careful when we design in next-generation technology, as we are very focused on SWaP-C.
MCHALE REPORT: Do you consider any of your space products commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)? Will there be a time when we see “COTS in space,” or is “COTS” still a four-letter word in the space and rad-hard community?
JORDAN: The pendulum may be swinging. I don’t know where its going to stop, but I think there will be strong desire to use more COTS components in the satellite community – in both military and commercial markets.
While failure is not an option in manned space platforms, there is more flexibility when dealing with satellites and unmanned platforms. With cost-effective small satellites, if you lose one year’s work it may cost a couple hundred thousand dollars compared to millions spent on more life-critical applications. The reduced cost of these satellites will enable integrators and the government to place more solutions in space at lower cost, and if some fail then the cost can be amortized. If you need five then you throw up ten.
However, while this trend is emerging it won’t really affect the classified world, where those risks are unlikely to be taken with their billion dollar programs.
MCHALE REPORT: Looking forward, what disruptive technology/innovation will be a game changer for space satellite systems? Predict the future.
JORDAN: The industry game changer will be more of a disruptive mindset as we are going to see more and more reliance on COTS technology. The market is going to have to figure how to manage COTS in the space supply chain as satellites themselves become more disposable commodities that are driven by business models out of Silicon Valley that see satellites as a means to an end.
This is a change that will disrupt our world and we’ve had a lot of conversations about how we will think about satellites from an electronics perspective if they become disposable. It will likely result in even more reliance on COTS and open standards such as SpaceVPX. We can leverage Ethernet to immediately get to 10 Gbps. Leveraging open standards will also enable more capability for the sensor payloads. It’s early yet with this disruption, but the changes, when they come, will happen fast and we need to be prepared for how we manage them.