Rugged Shoebox Computers Still Popular; GE does an about “FACE”

Hint: Bottom line? US Army realizes h/w changes faster than s/w, so FACE tries to make software portable by defining standard interfaces. This may be bad for the h/w vendors, though, as it cuts both ways.


GE Intelligent Platforms has introduced a rugged “shoebox” computer for mil systems called the FACEREF1. I’m scratching my head over the wisdom of the name, but it stands for Future Airborne Capability Environment and is based upon the FACE Consortium’s specs for an open reference architecture. A sub-group of the Open Group (actually “Open Group Managed Consortium”), the FACE Consortium “provides a vendor neutral forum” where industry and government work together to develop best practices and open standards for avionics. (Note to self: Isn’t that what PICMG and VITA do?)

This isn’t the first time GE has developed a rugged shoebox. Back in 2005, SBS Technologies – later acquired by GE if memory serves – rolled out the Rugged Operation Computer (ROC) shown in Figure 1. Launched at AUSA DC in 2005, this 5.75 pound “palm-sized” rugged shoebox was really unique in its day because it bucked the trend of sticking 6U VME cards in ATR boxes. Then about the smallest you could deploy using rugged COTS was a 1/2 ATR (short) whereas the ROC measured 3.5  (H) x 4.2 (D) x 6.8 (W).

Figure 1: The SBS Technologies ROC was among the first COTS rugged shoeboxes, weighing a mere 5.75 pounds in 2006 and was equipped with either a Pentium M or PowerPC CPU in 2006.

That’s roughly one quarter the size of the equivalent VME ATR box. ROC also used proprietary cards inside, though an industry standard PMC card was a factory option. While companies like Dy4, Radstone, Curtiss-Wright and others were relying exclusively on open standards, SBS realized the value was at the system or box level, not the card. Why not put whatever worked inside?  This theory is common today, but not seven years ago.

In 2011, GE also introduced a similar rugged shoebox family – the CRS-C2P-3CC1 and CRS-C3P-3CB1 (what’s with the names, guys?) which this time were based upon standards: 3U CompactPCI from PICMG (Figure 2). They also ran Freescale PowerPCs with a Wind River operating system.


Figure 2: GE’s 3U CompactPCI CRS-C2P-xxx and -C3P-xxx were 2- and 3-slot open standard-based rugged shoeboxes. They were introduced in 2011.

Today’s FACEREF1 shoebox uses GE’s SBC312 SBC (Freescale P4080 8-core), plus a PMCCG1 graphics PMC (S3 2300E GPU) shown in Figure 3. What makes this shoebox unique isn’t really the card, it’s the software premise behind FACE making GE’s rugged shoebox a software reference platform supported by a Wind River hypervisor, Presagis OpenGL for graphics, and the venerable VAPS XT object-oriented HMI tool from Presagis (formerly Virtual Prototypes, or VPI). FACE is sponsored by the US Army’s PEO Aviation, undoubtedly as a way of abstracting hardware to ensure software portability as COTS technology changes much faster than the certified code running it.

Figure 3: GE’s latest rugged shoebox conforms to Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE), an open platform that defines software interfaces and emphasizes portability to maximize warfighter value.