Small sats, reduced SWaP requirements flavor military rad-hard market and NSREC event

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 Conference () held last month in Boston, trends in radiation-hardened (rad-hard) electronics for military systems, and the potential of impact of small on space electronics designers.

This month’s panelists are: Chuck Tabbert, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Ultra Communications, Inc.; Ken O’Neill, Director of Marketing, Space and Aviation, Microsemi SoC Products Group; and John Broline, product marketing manager for the Mil/Aero products group at Intersil.

MCHALE REPORT: Last month the rad-hard community gathered in Boston for the annual NSREC. What trends did you see emerging at the event?

TABBERT: The need for higher and higher computing power at the same power, size, and weight constraints and the need for an interconnect system able to move the massive amounts of data that instruments and sensors are putting out. Also trending is access to advanced foundries that are allowing different players to compete in the market and new business models are evolving to increase performance and lower cost.

O’NEILL: At NSREC and at other conferences over the past 12 months we have noticed increased use of CubeSat concepts for mainstream space applications. The main space agencies are planning CubeSat missions for scientific programs, beyond the low earth orbit domain of traditional CubeSat missions. Some missions are planned for geosynchronous earth orbit and even lunar orbit, using larger form-factors than the original 1U cube-sat (10cm by 10cm by 10cm and mass less than 1.33 Kg). This shift to more demanding orbits is changing component selection choices for the designers of these CubeSat, as they now have to plan for longer mission duration and harsher radiation environments than traditional CubeSat. Some cube-sat designs today are evaluating radiation-tolerant parts for critical functions.

The last 12 months have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of commercial space ventures, which aim to reduce the cost of satellite development by challenging the status quo of space system procurement. Several such programs are in place to design constellations of many hundreds or even thousands of satellites in the 150Kg to 200Kg class. Whether they are designed for low cost global communications networks, space tourism, or mining and colonization of the moon or planets; these “new space” programs seek to achieve reliability by implementing redundancy at the system level or by having redundant satellites on orbit, and aim to reduce costs by eliminating the traditional QML-based screening that is applied to most radiation-tolerant or radiation-hardened products. Over the past few months several of these programs have received substantial financial backing from a prestigious list of investors.

BROLINE: This seemed to have been a normal annual NSREC with the typical companies and attendees. Some of the key takeaways were a continued push for improvement in space, weight and power (SWaP), in other words improvements in integration and power consumption/efficiency. There was also a sense of various companies wanting to make sure that we were committed to the market, as there has been various dynamics -- such as the expansion of the small satellite market, changes in export rules and government spending -- playing out in the industry lately. Lastly, there is a push for alternative solutions for the small satellite market. This market has taken on a life of its own and satellite suppliers to this market are using and looking for alternative solutions in order to keep their costs low.

MCHALE REPORT: What is the outlook for rad-hard suppliers in the military market? Are conditions improving or are sequestration and cuts still handcuffing ?

BROLINE: The overall conditions for the military market and government type programs have slowed, but with programs like [] Orion, it looks as though there will be a resurgence of sorts. Other government funded programs, such as for space exploration, seemed to have slowed, but nonetheless there are still opportunities to be had in this area. With respect to sequestration, the major impacts that I have seen are with respect to delays in certain programs and prime and subcontractors watching their spending and timing of spending. I think we are still working through these effects, but we see things improving in the future.

TABBERT: We’ve got to get away from relying solely on military/NASA market funding. With the export rule changes, I don’t see why U.S. companies can’t compete head-to-head with any company in the world to win the slots up and down the satellite food chain. Those who adapt to this will be successful and others, with old school thinking, will perish.

O’NEILL: The impact of sequestration and the government shutdown several years ago is still being felt in U.S. programs. Some programs are still delayed, however, conditions do seem to be improving. We have noticed funding starting to turn on again on some major projects, but this time funding is being released for current year procurement, limiting contractors to purchase for a single space vehicle only, whereas in past years we have seen funding released at one time for procurement of several space vehicles over a period of several years. We also have seen several U.S. programs re-open bidding for critical systems. In some cases, incumbent system suppliers have lost to competitors for cost or schedule reasons.

MCHALE REPORT: What military or NASA applications represent the best growth opportunities for rad-hard suppliers over the next five to 10 years?

O’NEILL: All of them! Seriously, the march toward higher system performance with lower cost of ownership is relentless in all aspects of the electronics industry, and the space electronics segment is no exception. Future military and NASA systems require rad-hard components to have increasing capabilities in terms of performance, throughput, bandwidth etc., while at the same time reducing power consumption and cost, without sacrificing reliability or radiation hardness or tolerance. This is a tough requirement for rad-hard suppliers to meet. This is true for pretty much all military and NASA systems, whether they are technical refreshes and capability enhancements of existing military space programs, or new NASA missions to perform scientific research in earth orbit, on the moon or Mars, or in the furthest reaches of the solar system.

BROLINE: The greatest opportunities for radiation hardened ICs are with military and NASA programs such as Orion, GPS III, missions to Mars, and beyond. These space flight mission profiles must be able to withstand the radiation effects encountered during long duration missions. There is no room for failure.

TABBERT: Again, I reiterate that reliance solely on military or NASA applications is a wrong market strategy in my estimation. I see earth-observation and situational awareness as becoming more and more important and this leads to good growth in the computing and interconnect markets along with power conditioning.

MCHALE REPORT: What impact will the development of mega-constellations have on the rad-hard community? Will this drive more of a demand for COTS in space?

TABBERT: The mega-constellations are not going to stand for the present pricing structure and therefore new sourcing and business models will be developed that lead the market from a “build-to-order” to a “build-to-forecast” model for suppliers. They’ll need to lower their unit cost structures and make up revenues on volume buys. The “off-the-shelf” part of COTS is going to be the norm rather than the exception.

O’NEILL: The emergence of the “new space” ventures, whether mega-constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites or individual planetary exploration vehicles, presents some interesting challenges to systems manufacturers and component suppliers alike. The mega-constellations have the advantage of built-in redundancy at the space-vehicle level, which allows an approach to reliability, which assumes if one satellite has a failure, there is sufficient capacity in the remainder of the constellation for other space vehicles to take on the duties of the failed satellite. This can permit some cost optimization of component choices. However, redundancy at the system level doesn’t eliminate the risk of common-mode failure mechanisms, arising from inadequate radiation tolerance or insufficient reliability screening in the chosen components.

The stated goal of the “new space” mega-constellations is to reduce cost through the use of commercial components, so I believe it is safe to assume that this will drive increased demand for COTS components in space. However we believe that traditional space programs will continue to use rad-hard and radiation-tolerant parts, qualified and screened all the way up to QML class V (for monolithic ICs) and QML class K (for hybrid assemblies). We note that the initiatives to use COTS components in space programs in the 1990s in the original Iridium constellation and in proposals such as the Teledesic constellation did not change procurement practices on mainstream space programs, which continue to rely on QML components.

BROLINE: I believe these mega-constellations will have a limited impact on traditional higher orbit programs. The traditional programs will still have longer mission life and therefore will need mission assurance. The mega-constellations may in the long run give other traditional satellite designers some new ideas, but they will be slow to implement major changes. Furthermore, the mega-constellations may bring about lower cost, more flexible launching options for the industry in general.