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Adapting Commercial Technologies For Defense Moves Into High Gear

September 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

With the private sector serving as the font of innovation, delicate electronics must be configured for rough work.

A British firm is embracing the military’s trend toward using commercial electronics by developing a growing range of ruggedized products and systems. The focus of this longtime battlefield platform equipment provider has shifted from ruggedizing specific commercial hardware to providing complete off-the-shelf technology systems that are suited for military environments.

With many nations turning away from military specifications and toward private industry products, business analysts can expect the ruggedization market to be strong. However, the wide range of commercial assets and capabilities threatens to undermine interoperability and create a host of new challenges, particularly in software applications.

The solution, according to officials of the British company, is to serve as a system integrator that selects ruggedizable off-the-shelf hardware and consolidates it to suit a particular customer. An added advantage is that some components can be easily replaced, clearing the way for modular upgrades as new technologies and capabilities emerge.

This total system approach is being adopted by DRS Rugged Systems (Europe) Limited, based in Farnham, Surrey, England. Formerly Lynwood Rugged Systems, the firm was acquired recently by DRS Technologies Incorporated, Parsippany, New Jersey. As a result, the British firm has access to the range of technologies and expertise inherent in the DRS Technologies Electronic Systems Group in the United States.

Peter Hurst, managing director for DRS Rugged Systems (Europe), states that the company sees itself as a value-added systems integrator that takes leading-edge commercial off-the-shelf technologies and adapts them for military use. This involves meeting a range of environmental requirements in various platforms.

One company objective is to provide a greater level of integration for its customers, Hurst says. This goes beyond supplying discrete components to be packaged in a larger structure. The new company thrust is to take responsibility for a complete subsystem. It has taken a number of concepts for individual components and packaged them into a complete and ready concept.

He hastens to add that the company is not involved in application software. It handles rugged hardware engineering, testing, qualification and manufacturing as well as implementation. Consequently, contract success emerges from the partnership between the hardware and software specialist firms. Company sales of combat systems hardware exceed $100 million annually.

The company offers itself as an integrator to fill a vital role for many countries’ militaries. Hurst states that the U.S. Defense Department has “a level of competence that is probably unique in the world today,” when it comes to integrating advanced defense systems. For many other nations, however, that responsibility now resides with industry, leaving the ministry or department of defense to define the operational requirement.

Already having a systems business, the firm is developing a products business in a separate division. This products business will bring together advanced product-based technologies from throughout DRS and find markets for these products.

Dr. Richard Young, director of engineering for the British firm, explains that the company is expanding its total system effort to accommodate the wide range of commercial technologies that can be incorporated into a solution. These off-the-shelf items offer a host of capabilities, but a system still must be tailored to suit the customer’s needs.

“One thing we have learned about the systems business is that it is no good to sit in front of the customer with a clean sheet of paper saying, ‘We can do anything you want,’” Young advises. “You have to show him something. It may not be what he wants, but it must incorporate some sort of technology that he is interested in.”

Battle management systems are one niche for the company’s rugged hardware, Hurst allows. For example, with the cost of cameras shrinking, many of these devices are being installed on combat vehicles for various applications. Captured images in turn will require more displaying and managing.

Another targeted business is display technology. While not limited to fighting vehicles, displays are being designed with their functions in mind, Hurst says, because these vehicles represent the toughest environment for this technology. The company is developing a large number of liquid crystal displays, ranging in size from 5 to 20 inches.

A U.S. affiliate is developing handheld computers, which also may see greater use among militaries. This unit is based on a 266-megahertz Pentium chip and features a 6-inch screen and considerable input/output capability. The 5-pound package can run Microsoft Windows NT, which enables considerable interoperation with headquarters computer systems.

Hurst predicts that the company will advance its rugged computers into the more demanding environment of aircraft systems. This would include a variety of platforms, but not high-performance jet fighter aircraft. Much of the aircraft market remains in ground support, Young allows, although Hurst believes that opportunity exists in cockpits. Ground support is becoming more vital for the increasingly complex aircraft that are being introduced.

The firm already is involved in the airborne arena with embedded systems for larger aircraft such as maritime patrol aircraft. Young relates that, despite a reputation that aircraft are a tough environment for advanced technologies, the company has determined that many aircraft systems are not as sensitive to environmental hazards. Ground support systems, for example, do not face the same stresses as many airborne systems. By the same token, many aircraft systems are not mission-critical and can be equipped with ruggedized commercial off-the-shelf gear.

One example of this adapted commercial equipment is the company’s MC 50A, an airborne ruggedized PC. This system resides on the Royal Air Force Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol aircraft. Other company hardware handles radar and sonar images—whatever does not fly the aircraft, Young says.

One area that Hurst identifies as a company core competence is technology refresh for aging systems. A customer could be seeking to extend the useful life of an existing system or reduce its operations and maintenance costs. The company adapts commercial technology and inserts it with the help of a software or systems integrator. This may extend a system’s useful life by several years while adding new functionality, Hurst states.

The firm is working in this area for aerospace and maritime systems. Marconi Electronics was awarded a contract for the DCB(R) tactical data handling system, a fire control system for Swiftsure- and Trafalgar-class nuclear submarines. Most of the vessels’ electronic functions, especially the fire control system, are being changed. Engineers are replacing a majority of the displays, processors and keyboards, some of which are no longer made.

Another Nimrod upgrade focuses on the aircraft’s Link-11 communications system. This features ruggedized Sun UNIX hardware, and Young describes it as “quite complex.” The processor is located at the rear of the aircraft and is linked by fiber optics with the rest of the system at the front. This represents the first use of fiber links aboard that type of aircraft. Young relates that partitioning the system—which involved interfacing a variety of signal inputs—and ensuring there were effective communications the length of the aircraft was the biggest hurdle. With Link 11 carrying secure material, this connectivity had to deal with Tempest guidelines. This largely was solved by incorporating fiber, he notes.

Hurst allows that one of the company’s new business areas involves using commercial off-the-shelf technologies to provide rugged structures and systems for fighting vehicles. Rather than focusing merely on nonessential systems, this work incorporates commercial technologies into mission-critical areas such as fire control or battle management systems. Its commitment to this area can be measured by an independent research and development program to incorporate combat peripheral component interconnect (PCI) and associated interface cards into a fully sealed structure capable of surviving main battle tank conditions. “Traditionally, it is our belief that these types of computer systems and defense electronics have really been available only in MIL-SPEC [military specifications],” Hurst declares. “This is the first time that we have tried to take our techniques into this area of defense electronics.”

Young states, “We see compact PCI as a very important technology. It gives us a lot of the ruggedness that the old VME [versa module European] cards got, but at a much reduced price. It provides a bigger variety and more up-to-date technology because it can ride on the back of the commercial PCI. In all of our areas—air, land and sea—we see compact PCI as very much a mainstream, forward format.”

The company already has two customers for this technology. Vickers Defence Systems is using it for an enhanced version of the United Kingdom’s Challenger II main battle tank. DRS is teaming with Vickers to provide proof-of-concept demonstrators for trials inside the tank. The second customer is the Singapore army. This calls for 27 systems for the country’s M-113 armored vehicles, and Hurst offers that this contract could grow to encompass 1,000 vehicles. Both systems share common components, including the main structure of the computer system and the main processor board.

Young notes that many military software platforms are transitioning to Windows NT. However, many military officials are averse to having mission-critical functions on an NT platform. Young relates that the company’s U.K. customer does not consider NT to be a stable enough platform to support mission-critical functions. In many other areas, the move to NT “is pretty much a stampede,” he says.

Many good UNIX operating systems run on Intel platforms, but a number of big system integrators are “heavily wedded to Sun,” Young states. Sun is available on compact PCI, so engineers can link a common chassis and plug in a Sun Solaris or an Intel-based NT system.

The company is capitalizing on the flexibility of compact PCI technology to implement a number of processor architectures into platforms. This applies to maritime systems as well as battle management systems. One such development is a multifunction, integrated console known as OPUS. Its processor engine is based on compact PCI technology to incorporate a range of processor bases in one structure. It uses an 18-inch display screen developed by DRS Technologies Electronic Systems Group in the United States.

The system is designed for smaller ships and boats, characteristic of European navies, with cost objectives expected to be more attractive to smaller navies, Hurst explains. The company took the best of its component product technologies from other programs and combined them into a relatively compact modular structure. Young relates that each unit—processor box, keyboard, individual display—is modular and sealed to enhance its own survivability against shock and vibration. This allows reconfiguring a system rapidly without having to resubmit it for environmental testing. Previously, customers purchasing 10 units might face test and qualification costs equal to the total price for hardware.

Hurst states that OPUS is a generic design that can be used in virtually any ship or submarine environment. Its potential uses include sonar applications, command combat systems and battle damage management systems. Having a common console for various applications reduces the overall cost of ownership, especially in operations and maintenance, he claims.

Another advantage of OPUS is that its commercial off-the-shelf underpinnings allow smooth technology insertion. One easily incorporated option, for example, is an uninterruptible power supply that can be added without affecting the system’s integrity.

Among naval applications, teleprinters are hot off the presses. The company is replacing the Royal Navy’s existing teleprinter network, which is largely based on mechanical devices. The replacement units will be PCs that handle multiple lines and spool messages to a disk, rather than print every arriving message on paper. The navy’s 7392 project is replacing its aging teleprinters with these PC-based units that have flat-panel screens. The company calls the new items intelligent message terminals.

Internally, these terminals are regular PCs, but they meet naval ruggedization and Tempest standards. The central processing unit is based on a company-developed product called Genesis. Young notes that one of these terminals effectively replaces eight mechanical teleprinters. The new device also is backward-compatible with older, slower-speed communications lines. Young states that the company was challenged to purchase slow serial controllers. Most existing units start at 1200 baud, but some of the navy’s older systems—particularly those that use mechanical paper tape—operate as slowly as 50 baud. The company “chose the cards very carefully” and rewrote drivers when necessary to achieve this slow speed capability, Young says.

With the navy incorporating these units in a mix of old and new systems, every one of the eight lines must be programmable to slower RS-42, -43 or -232. These speeds can be mixed on a port-by-port basis. The top speed is 9600 baud, and the unit also has a synchronous upgrade capability. Even when this system is in place, the navy still will continue to use punch paper tape because of its broad range of older systems, Young notes.

The most difficult task, according to Young, was to make these units nonmagnetic. Many of them are being installed aboard minesweepers, and this characteristic is common across the product line. Young shares that every navy is making the same move for its teleprinters, and the company believes that this indicates a strong market for the terminal.

The prime contractor for the 7392 project is British Aerospace. Young says that the company, “unusually,” is providing the entire configuration, including the application software, which it obtained from the Australian firm Compucat.