Prequalified system-level COTS takes the load
With military budgets under fire and program schedules increasingly pinched, design managers are focusing more than ever on cost. Gone are the days of gold-plated programs entailing high risk of cost overruns and schedule breaches. Suppliers are on the hot seat to deliver systems within tight cost and time constraints.
The situation is particularly challenging on the hardware side: The commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) revolution that kicked off in 1994 has increased performance and reduced costs despite the need to mitigate the obsolescence risks associated with dependence on the consumer electronics market. Yet the cost of developing software continues to rise. This reality means that, in order for customers to focus resources on adding value to their applications, the highly commoditized hardware side must bear the brunt of a new wave of retrenchment.
The COTS trend in military procurement began with chips and quickly expanded to encompass larger electronic modules. Integrated circuits, cards, and interconnects are now available from the commercial market, along with low-level software such as board-support packages, drivers, and operating systems. The challenge with military COTS lies in integrating the right pieces to meet solicitation requirements, test for performance and environmental rigor, and roll solutions out in a timely fashion.
The military high-performance embedded computing (HPEC) market has responded to these challenges with lines of rugged COTS subsystems, which reduce cost, schedule, and technical risk. These solutions are already integrated, analyzed, packaged, and tested before they are offered for sale. Once offered, they can be rapidly fielded.
Size, weight, and power (SWaP) optimization also has been baked in from the outset with these choices. Moreover, ruggedization is built into designs, including the arcana of thermal management, mechanical engineering, and hermetic control. Elements have already been screened, coated, stiffened, and cooled, according to expected requirements.
Even with all this advance work, these COTS subsystems still offer designers a wide range of choice. They avoid the risks of new hardware development – which could take as long as 24 months and millions of dollars to complete – yet don’t box the customer into the suppliers’ board, box, or system-level product lines. Depending on a program manager’s specific needs, new combinations of components may be combined to create new products; happily, these products take much less time to field than would an all-new development. This procurement route promises flexibility and performance at the lowest possible cost.
The challenges of COTS
Repackaging cards, modules, connectors, and low-level software into new configurations is not a trivial or risk-free enterprise. It does, however, involve far less time and risk than developing a system from scratch. Connector design, for example, may have to be tweaked to provide the required level of signal integrity. In another example, low-level code will need to be optimized for the interoperation of components that had not previously been run together.
The whole system, moreover, from the cards to the enclosure, is often rigorously retested for compliance to environmental specifications – such as DO-160 for airborne applications or MIL-STD-810 for ground vehicles – even though it already uses battle-proven and prequalified components. This additional testing includes ensuring performance under stressors like temperature, shock, vibration, dust, humidity, and corrosion. Typically, manufacturers offer a range of ruggedization levels, depending on the platform type and intended operation.
The resulting unit can plug into a larger system such as a mission computer or display or can function alone as the brains of a smaller platform such as an unmanned vehicle.
One example of a rugged COTS subsystem is GE Intelligent Platforms’ DO-160-qualified, conduction-cooled, rugged display computer. The DAQMAG2A offers a range of video input/output (I/O), from analog RGB (red/green/blue) sync-on-green and PAL/NTSC (phase-alternating line/National TV System Committee) to high-definition SDI (serial digital interface) standards encompassing legacy analog and modern digital formats, ICS-8580 video compression, and on-board conversion from one signal format to another. The 18-36-VDC system also features the Intel Core-i7 processor and three Gigabit Ethernet, four USB, and two serial COM ports (see Figure 1).
The demand for high technology-readiness-level (TRL) embedded processing systems to meet the requirements of today’s tight budgets has challenged the ingenuity and efficiency of HPEC vendors. Subsystem designers have responded by focusing their resources not just on developing new components, but on recombining existing modules into new configurations, where the emphasis is on integration, performance verification, and qualification testing.
This approach can cut development time on the hardware side to one-half or even a third of what it would take otherwise, and slash costs by millions of dollars, while providing considerable flexibility.