NTDS technology still widely used across Navy platforms worldwide
The Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS), first developed in the 1960s, is still widely used in naval platforms worldwide and has a large installed base, but is in decline as new systems are not using the technology. In this Q&A with Michael Carter, CEO and President of Sabtech, a leading designer of NTDS products, he tells Military Embedded Systems about where NTDS technology is today, managing its obsolescence issues, and how reduced Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) requirements are affecting system designs. Edited excerpts follow.
MIL EMBEDDED: Can you tell me briefly about your company – where it’s located, number of employees, markets you serve, and what you supply to the military?
CARTER: Sabtech is a closely held private S-Corporation with headquarters in Yorba Linda, CA (approximately half way between Los Angeles and San Diego). Sabtech also maintains business development and engineering services offices in Virginia Beach, VA, and Lucerne, Switzerland. The company employs more than 50 people, including full- and part-time employees and consultants.
Sabtech has been serving the C5ISR market for 30 years, providing Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) and Air Tactical Data System (ATDS) interfaces, data I/O, NTDS and ATDS to Ethernet converters, NTDS long haul boards and repeaters, software for data translation, multiple equipment emulators, data storage units, data display terminals, general purpose computers and servers, and test equipment.
The company also designs custom chipsets, FPGAs, ASICs, board-level products, custom software, and systems. Sabtech technology is deployed by the U.S. and allied forces worldwide in surface ships, submarines, mobile ground forces, satellites, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and airborne systems. Sabtech provides payload and data I/O solutions for NTDS, Ethernet, 1553, and other protocols. The company also provides solutions for replacing legacy systems that can no longer be maintained or procured, ensuring these systems can be supported well into the future. We have no debt and fund all development using operating profit.
MIL EMBEDDED: Among other technology offerings, Sabtech is known for their expertise in Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) technology, which was first developed in the 1960s. Could you give a short history of NTDS and define its capabilities?
CARTER: NTDS is a computerized tactical information processing system first deployed in the 1960s onboard combatants. NTDS provided a point-to-point, deterministic, real-time processing and integration of sensor data to provide for delivery of weapons on targets. Battle force effectiveness was enhanced as NTDS wireless data links enabled ships within a task force to share sensor data with other ships providing a common operational picture. A variety of Univac embedded computers were developed with extensive I/O capabilities that effectively served combat system requirements to the present day. Current tactical data processors now exceed the processing capability of the legacy NTDS equipment and U.S. Navy open architecture initiatives are replacing NTDS-based combat systems and sensors.
MIL EMBEDDED: Where is NTDS technology today? What is its role in Naval systems?
CARTER: NTDS is still widely deployed in support of mission-critical combat system applications to include Aegis, Tomahawk, VLS, SQQ-89, guns, radars, and electronic warfare systems.
However, NTDS is a declining technology; it is not being used in new systems. NTDS has had many eulogies, but it is far from dead. It has a large installed base and is in constant need of support and technology insertions to sustain legacy systems. To this end, Sabtech has developed NTDS solutions that employ the latest technology in custom semiconductors, ASICS, FPGAs, multi-core processors and advanced software algorithms.
MIL EMBEDDED: Is NTDS used outside of Naval applications? If so, where?
CARTER: NTDS has limited applications outside Naval applications. ATDS, a variant of NTDS, is used in aircraft, and NTDS is also used in land-based vertical launch systems.
ATDS and NTDS are also used in training simulators and in the Patriot missile systems as an option. ATDS PowerNet is used in ground base radars for the Marines – CAC2S – as well (see Figure 1).
MIL EMBEDDED: What is next for NTDS equipment design wise? Where is the technology heading?
CARTER: The future of NTDS is limited, therefore there are no new NTDS systems being designed. NTDS technology innovation is limited to the use of newer technology to sustain legacy systems. In addition, new technology is necessary to sustain NTDS legacy systems because much of the original technology used in NTDS designs has gone end-of-life and is no longer in manufacture.
NTDS interfaces are still in wide use and will be for 10 to 15 years, but there are no new NTDS designs being incorporated into new systems.
MIL EMBEDDED: Have NTDS designs adapted to the increased demands for reduced SWaP?
CARTER: For the most part, no. There is no incentive to innovate NTDS technology for SWaP for the following reasons:
– NTDS is a declining technology.
– There are no NRE funds available for NTDS technology.
– The return on investment for NTDS technology does not justify the development expense.
– If the development costs are borne by a company there are no guarantees the technology will be deployed in an NTDS system.
– Political and government budget constraints make technology development for NTDS too risky.
If most, or all of the above were not barriers to NTDS technology development, Sabtech has technology available that would afford the following to NTDS legacy systems:
– Reduce the size of systems by at least 50 percent and as much as 90 percent.
– Reduce the weight by at least 30 percent and as much as 90 percent.
– Reduce the power consumption by at least 25 percent and as much as 70 percent.
– Increase reliability (MTBF) by as much as 10 fold.
– Eliminate scheduled maintenance.
We were able to reduce the size by 40 percent, the power by 60 percent, and the weight by 40 percent. The result was a longer life for the product.
MIL EMBEDDED: Beyond NTDS, what is the next evolution in technology for your Navy C4ISR customers?
CARTER: Sabtech has developed new technology for the following:
– Custom chipsets and board products that can be used in a server as a network appliance for NTDS to Ethernet conversion.
– UAV/Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV) data I/O solutions for ATDS, RS232, RS 422, 1553, ARINC429, and STANAG.
– High-definition video cameras with 6K resolution at frame rates of 100 frames per second.
– NTDS digital storage solutions to replace legacy computers and magnetic tape systems.
MIL EMBEDDED: Can you provide a case study/example of where your NTDS programs are serving a new Navy C4ISR program?
CARTER: Sabtech’s first major Navy program supported was Navigation Sensor System Interface (NAVSSI), which was deployed in support of JMCIS in 1995. Sabtech worked closely with SPAWAR engineers through the years, providing software and hardware changes as required to support evolving ship-borne architectures. NAVSSI is currently evolving into the GPS Navy Timing System (GPNTS) with NTDS requirements supporting open architecture migration to Consolidated Afloat Navy Enterprise Systems (CANES).
MIL EMBEDDED: Sequestration, Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts, the drawback in Afghanistan, and other political pressures have hit the defense electronics market hard lately. How do you see the current environment in terms of opportunities for COTS suppliers like Sabtech? What are the growth areas if any? ISR? Unmanned Systems?
CARTER: This is one of the most difficult periods in the military and defense market since the late 1980s. Suppliers like Sabtech are being asked to do more with less and with no guarantee of a contract award. Even with IDIQ contracts, because of budget cuts and sequestration, no purchase orders, or very few are being released.
In short, this environment requires suppliers, especially smaller ones, to innovate or die. But the outlook is not bleak for companies that are able to produce products with high value to the defense market.
One way Sabtech does this is with products that allow aging and increasingly unreliable systems to be modernized and sustained at a significantly reduced cost. This is especially important in an era of declining budgets where service life extension of systems is critical to maintaining the operational availability of every ship and aircraft.
- In 2010, the USCG replaced the load device and operator console for the fire control system on all Hamilton and Famous class cutters with Sabtech’s Shipboard Peripheral Replacement System (SPRS). All 25 ships are equipped with the Mk 92 Mod 1 Fire Control System (FCS), which is used to detect, track, and engage air and surface targets with their Mk 75 Gun Mount. The last of these ships will pass out of service around 2032. In 2011 the Navy performed the same upgrade for their FFG class ships.
- As part of the Navy’s Aegis midlife extension program, the SPRS will replace existing legacy peripherals for the Shipboard Gridlock System (SGS), Gun Weapon System (GWS) and Vertical Launching System (VLS). Sabtech’s SPRS will be installed on 22 Aegis destroyers by fiscal year 2018.
Innovation is not driven by new requirements, but by keeping legacy systems in operation longer.
MIL EMBEDDED: In these application areas what types of new performance requirements and capability demands are you getting from your customers?
CARTER: We are continuing a trend where there is a much higher degree of systems integration required in equipment that can perform multiple functions. Examples would be a system that can perform data conversion with multiple types of I/Os, data and video processing, compression, processors that can run custom applications, and high-density storage.
MIL EMBEDDED: What are some design challenges that you see COTS suppliers having to solve for military designs in the future? More thermal and SWaP issues?
CARTER: Both military and non-military applications are on a relentless drive toward solutions that are smaller, lighter, faster, and better, using the absolute minimum power while maintaining interoperability with open standards. For small to medium-size manufacturers, it can be daunting to stay ahead of the tidal wave of new technology (hardware, software, tools, techniques, form factors, etc.) needed to build high-value products. The investment risk is too great and the time-to-market is too short to make the mistake of creating a product that is less than the best available when it hits the market.
An example of such a target product would be a high-end SWaP-reduced video processing system that can be put aboard a UAV in order to minimize the volume of high-resolution camera data that must be processed via downlink to a land-based system. A massively parallel processing system with the requisite horsepower today occupies two six-foot racks. The challenge is obvious.
Thermal management is also very important. It is about total cost of ownership. One of the added benefits of the emphasis on SWaP is as you reduce power dissipation you reduce the amount of heat. As a result the reliability of a system goes up. The number one factor in failure rates is heat caused by power dissipation. By mitigating that you significantly increase reliability.
All new Sabtech designs are fanless; this eliminates trip test and shock qualifications. When you get to the point where you no longer have vents a plethora of maintenance issues go away.