Round Table: Unmanned Systems

Trying to balance the processing oomph it takes to achieve autonomy with security, thermal management, ruggedization, power consumption, and more could be the undoing of an unmanned system, but our Round Table panelists describe how these challenges are being met.

Peter Thompson, Vice President, Product Management, Abaco Systems

Doug Patterson, VP, Military & Aerospace Business Sector, Aitech Defense Systems

Rob Persons, Senior Systems Architect; Artesyn Embedded Technologies

Nigel Forrester, Technical Marketing Manager, Concurrent Technologies

Ken Grob, Director, Embedded Computing Business Development, Elma Electronic

Dan Demers, Director of Sales & Marketing – Americas congatec, Inc.

Bob Buxton, Product Management, VersaLogic Corporation

JC Ramirez, Director of Engineering, ADL Embedded Solutions

Frank Bertini, Business Manager of UAV and Robotics, Velodyne LiDA

Anil Nanduri, Intel’s General Manager, Unmanned Aviation Systems and Vice President, New Technology Group.

Editor’s Note: Tug of wars continue to take place in the unmanned systems space within both the mil-aero and commercial spheres. Root for Tug of War Team “High Temps” and you could be rooting against Team “Processor Performance.”

But thanks to the ingenuity that characterizes the solutions our panelists describe, maybe it’s not a foregone conclusion that either team winds up in the mud. And that goes for other opposing camps, too. GPS vs EMI? That issue didn’t stop the Intel® Falcon 8+ drone from tracking Artic polar bear populations. Fanless box crammed with the kind of computing muscle it takes to process generous helpings of sensor-acquired data vs “it’s getting hot in here”? The VITA folks are taking that problem on by defining, with VITA 48.8, Air Flow Through (AFT) cooled plug-in modules. Even an approach which doesn’t have either Full Custom or COTS achieving a “win,” but rather suggests a middle path that can shrink NRE costs is presented here. We are interested in how you have solved the challenges our Round Table participants describe, too and encourage your comments. Edited excerpts of our panelists’ responses follow:

For unmanned systems intended for heavy use in harsh environments, what problems are most urgent?

Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: Packaging high performance computing capabilities into a small, sealed, fanless box that must operate over a very broad temperature range has put thermal design in the hot seat, so to speak. As one compresses the design, the power density increases. Adopting new cooling schemes can address higher performance implementations. One example is VITA 48.8, which defines Air Flow Through (AFT) cooled plug-in modules for 3U and 6U VPX form factors. It significantly increases the thermal management margin and reduces the need for a complex liquid cooling alternative, where an air-cooled approach can be used.

Doug Patterson, Aitech Defense Systems: Cybersecurity, primarily in the form of uncontrolled access to data and systems. Many people don’t take into account the need to have safety measures deeply embedded into the hardware itself to create, for instance, a hack-proof firewall between an unmanned aircraft and the ground control station(s) for Comms, Data, and Network security. Software is only one level of securing a system’s data—the hardware components need to play an equal role, as well.

Peter Thompson, Abaco Systems: For the fully rugged solutions essential for unmanned systems deployed in harsh environments, maximizing resistance to shock, vibration, moisture/particulate ingress and so on is important. So is resistance to excess heat caused by high ambient temperatures and deployment in highly physically constrained locations. These challenges, and their solutions, are largely well-characterized and understood, and Abaco solutions for this space are highly SWaP-optimized.

Abaco has recently announced the implementation of a unique cooling architecture for one of our 3U VPX single board computers, the SBC347D. The SBC347D can operate at 100 percent of its rated speed even at temperatures as high as 75 °C. This is something of a breakthrough in an environment in which it is widely accepted that there is no alternative to throttling back processor performance in response to elevated temperatures. Throttling not only reduces performance, but also affects determinism in an environment where predictability is necessary.

Anil Nanduri, Intel Corporation: Safety is of utmost importance when operating a UAV, especially in harsh environments, for both the operators and the high-value assets it captures. Careful preparation and testing is always a critical step for any mission, but even more so when you are faced with high winds or extreme temperatures. Selecting the right UAV for the project is also an important consideration. For example, the Intel Falcon 8+ drone was designed with redundancies in place for safety and reliability—one of the reasons why it was selected by the Olympic Broadcasting Services to capture aerial footage at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in anticipation of frigid conditions and gusty winds.

Figures 1A and 1B: Intel and wildlife photographer Ole Jørgen Liodden explored the behavior patterns of polar bears in the arctic through the lens of Intel Falcon 8+ drone technology. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone was also deployed in the Arctic to help track polar bear populations. The drone successfully compensated for electromagnetic interference (EMI) from the steel ship so that from take-off to landing, it could be done safely in GPS mode.

Nigel Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: One, provide sufficient performance to process the amount of data that is being generated in real time by an increasing array of sensors, many of which are exponentially higher resolution than in the previous generation. Two, store the raw and processed data locally for the duration of the mission—without taking any extra space. Three, the complete solution needs to have sufficient security to prevent unauthorized use and unauthorized access to any data.

Figure 2: Roughly credit card-sized, VersaLogic’s Hawk EPU-3310 embedded computer is designed and tested for extreme (-40° to +85°C) operation. It also meets MIL-STD-202G specifications for shock and vibration.

Frank Bertini, Velodyne LiDAR: For unmanned systems that are increasingly reliant on sensors and controls systems, the advanced electronics need high resistance to shock, vibration, and temperature fluctuations. We see the ruggedizing of our 3D LiDAR sensors as being one of the most critical and ongoing challenges for our engineering team.

JC Ramirez, ADL Embedded Solutions: Not surprisingly, size, weight, and power still dominate the discussion; size and weight being most important while balancing secondary factors like power consumption, thermal management and operating temperature. System engineers truly have to take a holistic approach to their embedded designs in order to achieve optimal results.

Dan Demers, congatec: The ability to operate in the extended temperature range from -40 to + 85 °C and stress resistance against thermal shocks. Resistance against humidity as well as high mechanical shock and vibration. Getting more x86 or Arm processing performance into less space is key because with unmanned systems, the size, weight, power and cost demands are even more challenging than those for other embedded computing platforms, while the need for situational awareness and deep learning for security purposes and collaborative behavior increases.

Bob Buxton, VersaLogic Corporation: VersaLogic achieves the ruggedness and reliability embedded systems in the unmanned systems environment need in four steps. First, component selection for harsh environments. Second, extensive design validation testing. Third, full functional testing on all production boards, and fourth, environmental stress screening (testing while operating at temperature extremes). This applies to products from the ultra-small embedded computer shown in Figure 2 to industry-standard PC/104- and EBX-sized single board computers and I/O boards.

How is your company leveraging the experience gained in the embedded ecosystem on behalf of those with a stake in seeing unmanned systems successfully meet SWaP-C?

Figure 3: The conga-TS370 high-performance COM Express Type 6 Computer-on-Module

Doug Patterson, Aitech Defense Systems: Thanks in part to Moore’s Law and improvements in reduced line geometries, today’s IC technologies are “automatically” compressing system size, decreasing weight and power consumption as well as lowering overall system costs. Adopting and adapting those advanced technologies for extreme rugged and military applications—like GPGPU supercomputers—are paving the way toward SWaP-C by natural progression and technological evolution.

Ramirez, ADL Embedded Solutions: We are now leveraging our 20+ year legacy of small form factor (SFF) rugged system design for military and defense applications expertise to create ultra-compact industrial and unmanned solutions for a variety of harsh environments including leak detection and monitoring, agriculture, power sub-stations, wind farms, traffic engineering and oil and gas platforms. The key for many of these applications is not only meeting the performance and feature requirements, but making the solution compact enough to ease retrofit into existing infrastructure.

Figure 4: The Concurrent Technologies TR G4x/msd board

Dan Demers, congatec: Full custom designs are the SWaP stars but require a lot of effort with massive non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs. A pure COTS approach with modular PICMG or VITA system standards such as CompactPCI Serial or VPX is more cost effective but adds tremendous space and weight demands. Computer-on-Modules offer the ideal balance between both extremes, as they meet the size and weight demands very efficiently. They deliver everything required in a small form factor (SFF) and offer high scalability so that engineers can optimally balance the power and cost demands.

With these application ready super components, NRE costs shrink to 40 or even 10 percent of the engineering costs incurred by full custom designs, which addresses the need for lowest costs. The individual design of the carrier boards further contributes to optimized size, weight, and even power figures, so that Computer-on-Modules—available in COM Express (Figure 3), SMARC and Qseven formats—are highly recommended for unmanned vehicle designs. The next best options are SFF single board computers such as Pico-ITX or Mini-ITX if the provided standard interfaces are sufficient.

Figure 5: The military grade Aitech Defense Solutions A176 Cyclone, a fanless, rugged GPGPU supercomputer measuring only 20 cubic inches enables up to 1 TFLOP of parallel processing in a HPEC that delivers 60 GFLOPs/W.

Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: We have worked hard to integrate more features and capability on a single board. For instance, our TR G4x/msd board (Figure 4) is based on an Intel® Xeon® processor with up to 16 cores and 64GB DDR4 memory. It is designed to act as a rugged server and so has 1 and 10Gigabit Ethernet and PCI Express connectivity for high speed local and wide area network connectivity.

It also has direct attached storage options with up to 128GB SATA flash disk and two PCI Express based M.2 modules with up to 1TB capacity. The most important aspect with respect to SWaP-C is that this is all integrated within a single slot yet offers deterministic performance at military grade temperature ranges.

Peter Thompson, Abaco Systems: Unmanned systems are, in the large majority of cases, not only space-constrained, but also weight-constrained and power-constrained in order to maximize mission duration. At the same time, the autonomy that is increasingly the design goal of such vehicles requires the capture and processing of significant quantities of sensor-acquired data.

Figure 6: An Abaco Systems 3U VPX board with Xilinx RFSoC (Radio Frequency System-on-Chip) technology

The answer lies, as it has always done in embedded computing, in integration. Taking, for example, what previously took two or more boards to achieve and delivering the same functionality and capability on a single board to maintain performance while, in effect, halving size, weight, and power.

Increasingly, we are seeing this integration at the device level also. In the same way as processors and graphics controllers were once separate pieces of silicon, they are now integrated into a single chip—meaning that much more functionality can be housed on a single board.

Bertini, Velodyne LiDAR: Over the course of our 10-year history, Velodyne LiDAR has made continuous improvements in performance vs. size, weight, power and, most importantly, cost. Velodyne is investing heavily into microchip-level LiDAR sensor modules and we see at least a 20 to 30-year runway for continuous development and improvement of this nascent technology.

 “A specific challenge for unmanned aerial systems, however, is the requirement for certification—and this has proven somewhat less tractable. Historically, it has been addressed on a case-by-case basis – a process that is hugely labor- and time-intensive, and thus not only costly but also has a significant impact on time-to-market.

COTS vendors like Abaco are addressing the certification requirement noted previously by developing off-the-shelf hardware solutions with certification artifacts already created as part of the package. Abaco has launched a certifiable product portfolio which is available for use by multiple customers across many platforms—reducing systems costs and schedules for both manned and unmanned systems, to the great benefit of our customers.

This approach is also truer to the spirit of COTS: rather than each new development being, in effect, a custom development, initiatives such as Abaco’s certification initiative reduces the custom element to much more manageable levels.
If this type of approach were more widely adopted, customers would save substantial NRE and get vital new capabilities into the hands of warfighters more quickly and more cost-effectively.

However: on the other hand, the pursuit of autonomy in unmanned vehicles is relentless. For full autonomous operation to be achieved, the vehicle needs to leverage sensor fusion in order to become self-determining via cognitive learning algorithms. This, however, makes its behavior more difficult to predict—something that is at odds with the principles of certification, which requires/relies on predictable responses to situations.

This conundrum can be addressed, however. Instead of having physically separate systems within the air-frame for high level certification functions (e.g. DAL A/B) and low level or non-certification functions, these can be run in different partitions on the same physical system by using a DO-178-compliant partitioned operating system, saving power and weight. Hypervisor-based operating systems running partitions are now common in the embedded world (hence leveraging that world).”

–Peter Thompson, Abaco Systems

What best practices do you want to see more widely adopted?

Buxton, VersaLogic Corporation: SWaP-C is at the heart of design consideration for unmanned systems. VersaLogic’s portfolio includes COM + I/O solutions right down to credit card size. VersaLogic‘s commitment to SWaP-C has also been recently demonstrated by the introduction of new Arm-based products that especially address power and cost. VersaLogic also addresses SWaP-C requirements by modified COTS designs that can remove un-needed functionality from standard products to further reduce power and weight.

Grob, Elma Electronic: Modular, configurable systems, which are a large part of our design philosophy, enable companies to realize an initial system as well as support inexpensive reconfiguration to handle evolving and future requirements. Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) initiatives are leading to new standards that address SWaP-C and physical interface interoperability at the module level.

Demers, congatec: I’d like to see the extended use of Computer-on-Modules for SWaP-C designs, as they offer further valuable features besides SWaP-C benefits. For example, one of our UAV customers in the field of 3D landscape modeling scales his processing performance by a simple module swap in line with the applications’ different payload needs. Look at the consumer market and consider utilizing standards from this sector, such as MIPI-CSI 2 cameras for vision based situational awareness. In a rugged design, this technology is predestined for larger scale applications. We have implemented hardware acceleration to support this on our Intel® Apollo Lake based SFF boards to increase performance per watt.

Persons, Artesyn Embedded Technologies: Artesyn has had significant success with UAV Ground Control Stations. Programs are adopting the PICMG open system standard AdvancedTCA® (ATCA®) because of the integrated high-speed central switching and high performance dual Intel® Xeon® Gold packet processing blades with 12 hyper-threaded cores and up to 384G of DDR4 memory per slot. The ATCA standard supports a variety of configurations from two to 12 server blades in an integrated and managed system. Artesyn has ruggedized variants of these chassis to support harsher shock and vibration requirements typically seen in afloat and trailered ground control stations. Though large, ATCA technology includes a number of inherent efficiencies that help reduce power, size and weight.

Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: Because unmanned systems are even less tolerant to failure than manned equivalents, we’re convinced that our strategy of having our main research and development facility tightly coupled with our in-house manufacturing and test is a boon—enabling us to create products that are suitable for this type of environment. All our boards are inspected to IPC-A-610 Class 3, the highest level, so that we minimize failure rates and maintain consistency.

Patterson, Aitech Defense Systems: The more widely adopted use of neural networks—based on a networked systems-of-systems—will continue to press the concepts of autonomous systems forward. Although this will take the man out of the battlefield, it must keep the man-in-the-loop when it comes to the authorized use of lethal force—if, and when, that decision must be made.

Working like the brain, these systems can self-adapt to proceed in logical steps that help increase object recognition and threat detection using sophisticated pattern recognition in a multilayered, neural network approach. It enhances system intelligence and efficiency by allowing images to be identified more easily, while assigning context to the image itself for an even deeper understanding.

Bertini, Velodyne LiDAR: We would like to see LiDAR sensor manufacturers adopt more serious quality and manufacturing programs. For instance, there are very few LiDAR manufacturers whose manufacturing line is ISO 9001:2015 certified, which we view as a best practice. We also see a great need for the development of standards for testing LiDAR from groups like NIST and ASTM. Adherence to testing standards allows the technology to mature and become more widely adopted.

When that happens, our sector for LiDAR sensors on unmanned systems will look much different. Currently, there are roughly 10-20 viable LiDAR manufacturers who will eventually release a gen 1 product. Over the next few years, and with investment in solid-state technology, the barrier to entry will be much higher. Only a few market participants will be able to invest in silicon, and the market will consolidate.

Nanduri, Intel Coorporation: The commercial drone industry is constantly evolving with new applications that provide businesses and operators with cost saving efficiencies from automating inspections of utilities, refineries or infrastructure, to survey and mapping for construction. In 2018, we will see a greater focus on automation of data capture, and, more important, data analysis. This will unlock the ability for greater analyses of large data sets captured entirely by drones, allowing businesses to reduce operational expenses by predicting maintenance needs.

“The new SOSA initiatives are fledgling but are altering the landscape of rugged electronics. With the military’s shift towards modular, open standards-based hardware and software, the industry needs reliable methods to quickly test hardware components across different platforms. Utilizing reference development platforms will enable system developers to cost-effectively test and validate a wide number of hardware configurations, and still keep pace with the growing need for interoperability.
As SOSA, CMOSS and HOST drive new payload, timing and switch profiles, reference backplanes will need to address the new backplane topologies. Our participation within the VITA standards groups are influencing these new backplane and switch technologies, so the new designs contribute to the standards.”
–Ken Grob, Elma Electronic

Why should potential customers turn to your company for solutions if concerned about uncertainty in the unmanned systems space?

Buxton, VersaLogic Coorporation: Uncertainty can take many forms, one of which is associated with supply chain risk and volatility. In particular military programs have long life cycles and the costs of re-design to replace end-of-life embedded solutions can be high. The answer is a combination of company stability and long product life cycles. VersaLogic has been around for 42 years. The company has a philosophy of developing highly engineered products combined with conservative business practices. The result is a dependable long-term product supply. We employ a wide range of techniques and programs to provide long product life cycles. Careful design and parts selection enables VersaLogic to manufacture most products for 10+ years, and formal life cycle extension programs can extend that to 15 years or more.

Thompson, Abaco Systems: Customers value: our unswerving commitment to open architectures and industry standards; the scalability we build into all our solutions; and the upgradability that is designed in from the outset that allows easy and cost-effective technology insertion in response to changing, and often more challenging, demands.

These three key attributes mean that customers don’t find themselves at a “dead end,” and the value of their investment is protected to the maximum extent possible (especially in conjunction with Abaco’s long term support programs). The VP430, mentioned previously, is a prime example of this: it is designed to allow customers to respond and adapt as new electronic warfare threats emerge.

As mentioned earlier, Abaco’s investment in cutting edge technologies, cooling techniques and safety-certification artifacts serves to reduce time, cost and risk for the integrator. Also, the development of our ImageFlex software significantly reduces our customers’ software effort in the development of applications for EO/IR platforms and autonomy and is unique in its ability to do so.

Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: Many of the attributes required for products to be suitable for use in the unmanned systems space have a direct correlation to those required in many other adjacent spaces. In particular, SWaP-C and long life cycles are as important for many manned defense deployments as for unmanned. The same is true for our product security offering, which was driven by the general needs of the military and defense market over the last five years. This now includes a Smorgasbord of features allowing the customer to select the correct ones for their needs.

Ramirez, ADL Embedded Solutions: ADL Embedded Solutions, Inc. specializes in creating board and system building blocks that make it easy for customers to adopt a COTS solution, add custom features as dictated by the end-user application, and update the design as requirements and conditions evolve over time. This is all part of our product management expertise, which has been honed in the military and defense environment and is now being leveraged in the industrial and unmanned space.

Patterson, Aitech Defense Systems: One thing we pride ourselves on is reliably helping our customers plan for the future, and unmanned systems is the next stage in the evolution of rugged military electronics. We keep our focus on continuous technological innovations and we offer a 12-year (minimum) lifecycle management program, meaning the programs we work on, and systems we develop, will provide the long-term value that the military and defense industry needs. In the end, this saves our customers—and taxpayers—money while enabling the smarter battlefield.

Persons, Artesyn Embedded Technologies: We have a proven record of supplying equipment to many different military programs that require high performance products and require extended life cycles for those products. Customers attempting to deploy systems in the field need to be able to rely on a supplier who can develop innovative, open standard products and support those products for the life of the program. Artesyn has been doing that for over 35 years and as an example, we, as Motorola Computer Group, were involved with the original VMEbus standard and to this day have a commitment to continue to support the standard until at least 2025.

“The aerial data captured by UAVs is a means of advancing the digital transformation of almost any business. By capturing the digital information of physical assets, the creation of software replications can then be used in critical business planning, simulations, analysis and execution. Potential customers turn to Intel, not for flight planning, not to fly a drone, but to help better manage their data for business transformation. Intel Insight Platform is a comprehensive, cloud-based platform designed specifically to simplify and accelerate the process of asset digitization — helping customers demystify the process and extract information that will help inform critical decisions. It provides a ready-to-implement, fully-integrated approach for companies that want to create, store and analyze the performance of their worldwide assets.”
–Anil Nanduri, Intel Coorporation


Demers, congatec: Let me first clarify: The main concerns come from the end users and not our potential customers designing unmanned systems. Having said that, autonomous vehicles are highly mission critical applications, and we take care that our platforms are tailored for our customers and end users as well. Let’s take autonomous airborne and cosmic systems as an example, where the hardware has to be hardened against Single Event Upsets (SEU) caused by cosmic radiation. This cosmic radiation also influences systems down on earth. Much less, of course, but it is a viable issue. For highly secure systems, we therefore offer processor platforms that provide high SEU resistance even at sea levels. Where required, we can extend our platform offering with high-availability design principles such as redundant Computer-on-Module configurations to enable single failure tolerance designs with Arm and x86 Qseven or SMARC modules. So, we do all we can to deliver custom computing cores for such high-availability applications including BSPs that have already proven their reliability in many mission critical applications.

Bertini, Velodyne LiDAR: Along with Velodyne’s industry leading 3D LiDAR sensors, our customers also have access to our complete ecosystem of integrators. Bringing a 3D LiDAR solution to market often requires the involvement of multiple companies. Velodyne’s network consists of everyone from small custom robotics houses to the largest automotive contract manufacturers in the world. If you have a good idea for implementing 3D LiDAR, Velodyne can help connect the dots and bring it to life.

Grob, Elma Electronic: We have a multi-pronged approach to addressing customer needs. First, we invest in initiatives that matter to our industry: signal integrity modeling and testing capability, thermal simulation and testing capabilities, high-speed board design and manufacturing capabilities as well as enhanced mechanical design and fabrication capabilities. Next, we evaluate customer requirements on all levels, so we can plan and develop new technology that allow us to respond to market demands. And, we’re active in several open standards committees, so we can participate and collaborate in strengthen the embedded ecosystem.

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