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Technology developments that reduce complexity and enhance usability are always a welcome addition to military applications. That need is being fueled by the increasing availability of stand-alone rugged boxes. The development of stand-alone rugged boxes has provided a singular computing solution for the military’s manned and unmanned applications where reliable high-performance computing is a must. The term “stand-alone rugged box,” first introduced by COTS Journal, refers to complete system boxes, which provide a tested and enclosed computing solution that eliminates complex integration chores for military customers. The military’s demand for stand-alone rugged boxes has spurred large-scale development in this technology–a boon for military engineers tasked with integrating onboard electronics in tactical vehicles.
Since the success of Net-Centric Warfare (NCW) depends on the quality and reliability of transmitted information, technological developments that decrease the potential points of failure and time wrestling with technical failures, can help ensure mission success. Stand-alone rugged boxes have been gaining momentum as they are also tested to quality for military-standards, which means faster time to deployment and lower costs.
Possibly the most intriguing development of stand-alone rugged boxes is their modular nature. The modularity of some stand-alone rugged boxes provides longevity and flexibility as components can be upgraded in the future without a complete system redesign–an especially attractive feature to military contractors faced with tightening budgets. Since most stand-alone rugged boxes are based on open architecture embedded board standards such as PC/104, VPX, and EPIC, customers can add additional cards into available card slots with minimal engineering required. For this reason, military system designers are not only interested in these rugged boxes as mission computers, but also as an upgradeable computing platform. The ability for customers to tailor their device with mission-specific I/O is a key motivator for the further adoption of this technology as it reduces costs and speeds time to deployment.
Tech Advancements Fuel Box Trend
The spike in demand for stand-alone rugged boxes can be attributed to the technological advancements in embedded computing designs that have made these systems increasingly reliable, powerful and rugged. One of the most significant developments moving stand-alone rugged boxes to the frontlines is low-power processors. Intel’s Pentium M and Celeron M processors are a popular choice for rugged systems as they are designed from the ground up to deliver high performance with low power consumption. Initially designed for notebook computers, these types of mobile processors serve as an ideal choice for deeply embedded designs.
Advancements in thermal management have also helped to propel stand-alone rugged boxes forward. Thermal management for defense applications has always been a challenge due to the high operating temperatures of the latest processors and dense packaging needed for environmental ruggedness. Fortunately, advancements made in conduction-cooling techniques mean that this preferred cooling technique will continue to meet the military’s requirements. New designs in conduction-cooling are now capable of cooling over 100 watts. Some of the advances that have made this possible include developments in embedded heat pipes, heat sinks, new thermal interface materials and heat spreaders.
The inclusion of heat spreaders, a thin sheet of metal incorporated on top of a device to help dissipate heat, has drastically reduced thermal issues in embedded designs. These heat spreaders are now designed to accommodate a number of thermal options, such as top-mounted heat sinks, fan heat sinks and heat pipes to effectively cool microprocessors. Innovative heat pipe/heat spreader combinations are proving especially effective in the thermal management of stand-alone rugged boxes. Although not a new cooling technique, the use of embedded heat pipes in conduction frames can dissipate large amounts of heat with very little temperature difference, eliminating the need for any input power for active cooling or the inclusion of moving parts.
Thermal Modeling Opens the Door
Thermal modeling software is responsible for making significant advancements in conduction-cooling. By identifying potential cooling issues, thermal modeling software has led to important thermal management developments by ensuring new thermal devices will meet specific standards.
Cable-less technology has also improved the reliability and ruggedness of these box designs by eliminating points of possible failure. By using I/O breakout boards, rigid flex connectors and board-to-board connectors, a cable-less internal interconnect scheme can be achieved to ensure high reliability and signal integrity, yet still support modular customization.
The ongoing development in solid-state drives is another catalyst helping stand-alone boxes come into their own. Based on flash technology, solid-state drives have proven to be rugged and perform well in extreme conditions. For this reason, solid-state drives have become the leading data storage technology for almost all mission-critical military applications. With no moving parts, these devices are not hindered by seek time, latency nor other electromechanical delays found in traditional hard drives. The drawbacks commonly associated with solid-state drives are being dismissed as random access speeds rival and now beat other media, retention and re-writing cycles have dramatically increased, and many systems offer a single-control erase-all function for security-sensitivity applications. These developments have played a critical role in the increasing popularity of stand-alone rugged boxes.
Military Ruggedness Standards
As mentioned earlier, stand-alone rugged boxes are often tested and qualified to meet military standards, making them mission-ready. However, buyers need to be aware of the differences in the levels of testing and qualifications in today’s available stand-alone rugged boxes. For example, some suppliers advertise products as “designed” to meet military standards. This simply means that the manufacturer took certain military standards under consideration but appropriate testing has not been done to ensure compliance with military standards. Buyers need to ensure that the system they are investigating for purchase has not only been designed but also “qualified” to meet military standards.
To be truly mission-ready, stand-alone rugged boxes should at minimum meet the military standards for temperature, shock, vibration and ingress conditions relevant to the target platform under consideration. For example, the operating environment inside a climate-controlled cargo aircraft will differ greater from an externally mounted device onboard a wheeled personnel vehicle. Additionally, there is an increasing demand for these boxes to be prequalified for MIL-STD-461E for electromagnetic interference/compatibility (EMI/EMC) and power supply operation (per MIL-STD-1275D/MIL-STD-704E). System failures due to voltage surges and spikes cannot be tolerated.
Stand-Alone Rugged Boxes at Work
Among the many military units deploying stand-alone rugged boxes is the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC). The NSWC recently implemented Parvus’ DuraCOR 810 computer and DuraMAR 1000 mobile router in the Navy’s newest class of surface warship, the Littoral Combat System (LCS) (Figure 1). The LCS operates manned and unmanned vehicles for conducting mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare. Two DuraCORs and one DuraMAR unit are installed in each LCS Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) to carry out these warfare missions.
Stand-alone rugged boxes also caught the eye of Smiths Detection, a leading technology developer and manufacturer of sensors that detect and identify explosives, chemical and biological agents, weapons and contraband. Smiths Detection specified the DuraCOR 810 as the central computing unit for its Chemical Biological Protective Shelter (CBPS). CBPS shelters provide medical personnel and soldiers a highly mobile, self-contained collective protection system. With a contamination-free, environmentally controlled working area, these shelters serve medical combat services and combat service support personnel as mobile medical aid stations, field command posts or emergency facilities.
Rugged Boxes in UAVs
Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles are also tapping into the benefits of stand-alone rugged boxes as demonstrated by Aurora Flight Sciences’ deployment of the common mission computer for the GoldenEye 80 Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) (Figure 2). The GoldenEye 80 is an advanced Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft designed to carry advanced sensor payloads for homeland security and battlefield operations. Aurora uses a stand-alone rugged box based on the small form factor DuraCOR 820 (Figure 3) mission computer subsystem dubbed the Aurora Common Mission Computer (ACMC). The computing architecture for this Parvus subsystem is based on a low-power mobile Pentium CPU, solid-state memory, Linux operating system, military-grade power supply, and various peripheral and network inputs. It is anticipated that the ACMC’s robust combination of function and small form factor ruggedness will enable the company to support a wide range of unmanned vehicle operator control applications.
Procurement of stand-alone rugged boxes is happening at a breakneck speed in support of wheeled and armored vehicle programs for the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) equipment onboard mine sweeping vehicles is also utilizing Parvus mission computers. One user attests to the durability of the DuraCOR 810 mission computer as Army vehicles equipped with the device endured four different Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts and kept booting up without a problem–all while being externally mounted to their vehicle.
Trends to Watch
Perhaps the most promising upcoming technology for stand-alone rugged boxes is multicore processors–specifically dual and quad core processor technology. By providing new levels of energy-efficient performance, multicore technology enables each core to run at a lower frequency, dividing the power normally given to a single core. For stand-alone rugged boxes this means reduced footprints, lower power and thermal burdens, and energy efficiency, compared to multiple separate CPU nodes.
In addition, Intel’s new Atom processor family injects more possibilities for rugged stand-alone boxes. This new low-power processor has a thermal design power (TDP) specification in the 0.6-2.5W range and scales to 1.8 GHz speeds depending on customer need. By comparison, today’s mainstream mobile Core 2 Duo processors have a TDP in the 25-35W range.
The development of Gbit Ethernet and IPv6 network addressing is another exciting step for many military electronic systems. The speeds that Gigabit Ethernet can handle and its pervasiveness in defense systems make it the ideal choice for designers working on network-centric warfare applications. New stand-alone and fully integrated rugged Gigabit Ethernet Switch and network router subsystems are being introduced. These devices will further the Department of Defense’s ambitions for IPv6, providing the warfighter with advanced networking capabilities for Network-Centric Warfare, by way of improved routing, enhanced security and Quality of Service (QoS).
Stand-alone rugged boxes have proven themselves as a necessary component to the military’s arsenal of computing devices. The advances made in embedded computer technology will continue to push stand-alone rugged boxes further into military programs, helping to actualize Net-Centric Warfare.
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