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COTS Tech, Companies Continue to Blur Rugged, Defense Systems

Embedded tech used in civilian applications continues to affect rugged systems to the point that it’s hard to tell the old players from the upstart wannabes. That adds up to choice for the market.

Used to be that if a COTS supplier built rugged boxes, guaranteed its system over -40 ºC to +85 ºC, and had a “quality manual,” then that vendor was a bona fide “Rugged COTS Supplier.” I’m talking about 20+ year veterans Curtiss-Wright, GE Intelligent Platforms (now Abaco), Aitech, General Micro Systems, Mercury Systems, Pentek and a handful of others. They are longtime members of VITA, build conduction-cooled boards to IEEE-1101.2, have a list of “ilities” a mile long (e.g. reliability, maintainability, survivability…etc.), and stuff their line replacement units (LRUs) in ATR-style boxes.

The companies I just named still do (most of) those things, and they’re just as credible as ever. Yet many of them now also build boards in other form factors you wouldn’t recognize. As well, there are new companies that build 6U or 3U VPX and CompactPCI boards just as credibly as the good old boys—yet these upstarts (Extreme Engineering and Creative Electronic Systems come to mind) had been mostly unfamiliar to me until the last couple of years. What’s going on in this market?

COTS Continues

Yet again, civilian embedded (COTS) technology is the great equalizer. With it, new-to-me vendors are taking aim at the rugged defense and aerospace markets—while the tried-and-true stalwarts are finding ways to solve old problems in new ways. Let’s start with that ATR chassis I mentioned above. While still the preferred way to bring extreme ruggedness to deployed vetronics and avionics systems, rugged small form factors that may or may not follow an industry standard are creeping in. These typically tiny, hardened boxes—what I’ve long called “rugged shoeboxes”—are typically smaller than a cigar box.

The company Parvus of Salt Lake City made a name for itself ten years ago by quasi-ruggedizing COTS technology then surrounding it in a decent box encased with all kinds of crazy looking rubber bumpers (Figure 1). This was not unlike what an Otterbox does today for your smartphone—except Parvus had neon-colored bumpers in blue, orange and green. Today, Parvus is owned by Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions and it’s a given that Parvus’s packaging innovation will spread across Curtiss-Wright’s product portfolio. This expands CW’s traditional VME and VPX product line into many other form factors.

Figure 1: Example of Parvus bumpers called “Bumper Beans” used for contemporary PC/104 chassis. (Courtesy of Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions.)

Figure 1: Example of Parvus bumpers called “Bumper Beans” used for contemporary PC/104 chassis. (Courtesy of Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions.)

Similarly, now-defunct SBS Technologies had their own really rugged, but completely non-standard, shoebox. In fact, SBS was nearly one of the “good old boys,” choosing to uprate commercial-temp tech when possible and then testing the end result to “guarantee by test” (as opposed to by design). SBS was acquired by GE Intelligent Platforms (now Abaco)—and the scrappy SBS “can do” COTS attitude lives somewhere inside of Abaco. Interestingly, from a recent article I wrote about Abaco and from its website, the company is reasserting its “ilities” and bona fides in the defense space. Yet, after chatting with Abaco CEO Bernie Anger, the underlying current at the company is hard-core military with an emphasis on “get it done right and meet the customer needs.” This was precisely the SBS mantra, and I expect to see new form factors emerging from Abaco while it stays true to its rugged roots.

Not to be outdone, the one guy that has always been hardcore DoD and conduction-cooled is rad-hard supplier Aitech. After all, its stuff has to survive both low-earth orbit (LEO) and deep space, ionizing total dose radiation and being blasted to the heavens bolted to a million pounds of thrust. So knock me down with a feather when Aitech recently announced a small form factor shoebox based upon COM Express. Its low profile A172 fits the bill for a shoebox, and while it is based upon a PICMG standard, it sure doesn’t look like a traditional ATR box (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Aitech’s COM Express shoebox “Rugged Compact PC” (RPC) is deployable but isn’t a traditional ATR-style box. (Courtesy: Aitech Defense Systems.)

Figure 2: Aitech’s COM Express shoebox “Rugged Compact PC” (RPC) is deployable but isn’t a traditional ATR-style box. (Courtesy: Aitech Defense Systems.)

Another company deviating from its roots is General Micro Systems. While still building VME and VPX LRUs, the company devised a proprietary computer-on-module (COM) approach that allowed modular SBCs and I/O to be stacked and cooled while sandwiched in a small form factor box (Figure 3). In this form factor the company has also moved into the rugged router, switch and server market, with plans to enter the rugged rack-mount server space as reported by COTS Journal in January.

Figure 3: General Micro Systems rugged low-profile shoebox with removable drive. (Courtesy: General Micro Systems.)

Figure 3: General Micro Systems rugged low-profile shoebox with removable drive. (Courtesy: General Micro Systems.)

COTS Catalysts

In all of the cases mentioned above, it’s the changing face of commercial off-the-shelf that allows evolution. Curtiss-Wright might never before have considered deploying non-VME or –VPX modules in defense platforms, but clearly the Parvus approach worked for countless programs. Rubber bumpers, uprated components and whatever else is in the Parvus “secret sauce” clearly has value—Curtiss-Wright bought the company.

Extreme Engineering, a group of engineers and managers from the old Heurikon Corporation, decided first to build rugged products for the defense industry regardless of the form factor. Today, Extreme builds products in myriad form factors. From discussions I’ve had with the company at trade events, it is an “engineering first” company with no pre-defined favorite technology. That is: the form factor matters not.

And Abaco and General Micro Systems (GMS), for example, rely heavily on proprietary thermal cooling technology partly inspired by the commercial market. Abaco has access to thermal intellectual property (IP) from General Electric (see article “Taking the Heat”). On the other hand, it was what wasn’t available commercially that inspired GMS to create its RuggedCool technology which is today the cornerstone of the company’s rugged box strategy.

COTS technology continues to change. Recent processors from Intel, including the 6th Generation Core (code named “Skylake”) and the new server-class Xeon D CPU will bring new performance, density and I/O to these rugged systems. As well, ARM and AMD embedded announcements from Germany’s Embedded World promise more choice than ever.

Editor’s note: the editor has currently, or has had previously material associations with the companies listed in this article.

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