Military Embedded Systems

Military avionics designs embrace common standards and TRLs


March 12, 2013

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

The task of improving situational awareness for military pilots in a tough budget climate with little development funding available requires designers to use open architectures and common standards to keep costs down. This trend also has fueled the enthusiasm behind the FACE Consortium, which promises long-term potential savings of billions of dollars by enabling software reuse across multiple avionics platforms.

Department of Defense (DoD) leaders want their pilots to have the best technology possible to do their jobs – whether it is a new touch-screen primary flight display, night vision goggles, 3D flight simulation systems, or even a brand-new aircraft to replace a decades-old platform. However, today’s economic climate will not allow for new fighter jets or helicopters, so military program managers need to compromise and find ways to keep older aircraft platforms flying while still enhancing capability for the pilot.

“Military avionics customers in fixed- and rotary-wing platforms want improved situational awareness and to increase their mission envelope and effectiveness,” says Karl Shepherd, Marketing Director for Airborne Solutions at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, IA. “For the DoD it is all about designing avionics that can reduce the workload of a pilot so they can enhance their decision making during missions. It’s about helping pilots make decisions instead of taking decision making away from them.”

While these enhancements do not require an entire new aircraft, the necessary upgrades can still be quite expensive – not just the up-front costs of new components and systems, but the behind-the-scenes costs such as training and maintenance. Keeping avionics retrofit costs down requires a move toward more commonality and open architecture designs.

Open architectures

“Open architectures provide the military customer with more value for his dollar,” says Robert Waage, Director of Business Development at Elbit Systems of America in Fort Worth, TX. Multiple vendors can be used within one program, which helps drive costs down and enables platforms to fly for decades, he adds. Elbit’s redesign and upgrade of the Apache Block III AH-64D Mission Processor will use an open architecture to accommodate new capabilities as they become available, Waage continues. The Army Apache team wants to sustain and maintain these aircraft until 2040, so they and the Apache prime contractor – Boeing – are creating road maps for future refreshes that leverage open architectures to achieve that goal, he adds. “It is about having market agility and flexibility.”

“There is an increasing requirement that solutions should be based on open, interoperable, industry standards – even though the underlying technology is often less important to military integrators,” says Simon Collins, Product Manager, GE Intelligent Platforms in Huntsville, AL. “Customers are more focused on how the solution meets their functional needs and how they will bring that solution to deployment.”

Leveraging commercial avionics systems for military platforms

Looking to add avionics functionality and capability in an affordable way, military program managers often will look to adapt designs and applications that gained traction first in commercial aircraft cockpits.

“Designing with open architectures when upgrading military avionics platforms is crucial if we want to be able to leverage commercial processors and other components without major obsolescence issues,” Shepherd says. “At Rockwell Collins we have been doing this for more than 10 years using technology developed for commercial avionics and then adapting it for military platforms. A big example of this is our Pro Line Fusion Synthetic Vision (SV) capability – developed for the business jet community and now being adapted for use in military rotary wing applications under a DARPA contract. The work essentially has a synthetic avionics backbone that hosts the SV terrain engine and fusion algorithms. The fusion algorithms process the data coming from the multifunction radar sensor along with terrain and obstacle data to provide an integrated 3D view of the operational environment on Heads-Down Displays and Heads-Up Displays in the cockpit. Real-time sensor imagery can be overlaid as well. The sensors provide real-time imagery, fused with the SV database imagery to give the pilot increased awareness when he can’t see out the window.

“A primary difference between military and commercial SV applications occurs with the military platform’s mission parameters,” Shepherd continues. “We started with a civil-certified version of SV and made the necessary changes for high-resolution terrain data in a 3D environment out-the-window type of display. The initial rotary wing helicopters making use of SV technology will be those experiencing brownout conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan such as U.S. Army MH-60 Black Hawk and MH-47 Chinook helicopters. We see the Marine Corps and Army likely integrating the SV systems into more platforms further down the road.”


Sidebar 1: FPGAs enable security in avionics systems

(Click graphic to zoom)




High TRLs wanted

A tight budget environment may be perceived as one fostering increased use of more affordable COTS equipment since there is little funding available for development, but COTS has different meanings for different people. Some view it as too commercial and therefore lacking in reliability, while others feel that view is outdated and COTS has a proven performance track record. However, there is no proven metric for measuring the reliability of avionics products tagged as COTS, since it is more of a procurement term than a technological one. Instead, military program managers and integrators are turning toward Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) to determine an avionics product’s pedigree for military systems – whether it is COTS or not. “The generals are demanding a high TRL level; therefore, I want and demand a high TRL level – something that has a high proven operational capability such as TRL level 7 or higher,” Elbit’s Waage says.

The FACE revolution

Open architectures, common industry standards, and TRL requirements have all been elements of an avionics procurement evolution driven by a need to better manage development costs without sacrificing capability and innovation. Avionics upgrades have embraced these concepts and seen major cost savings that enabled older platforms to live on for decades. Now branches within the DoD are taking cost-effectiveness to another level entirely by requiring future avionics systems to ensure portability of software across multiple platforms. This initiative has taken form as the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Consortium, and support for it is growing rapidly as DoD officials look for ways to make the funding cuts their civilian leadership is demanding.

“We see FACE – which is an open systems approach for avionics – as a natural evolution of leveraging commercial technology and common standards,” Shepherd says. “It focuses on the reuse of software applications from one aircraft to another – even from one military service to another. Instead of paying each OEM or contractor every time you develop a software component, you can develop once and then redeploy the software.”

“There is quite a bit of activity happening within the FACE Consortium today,” says Chip Downing, Senior Director, Business Development, Aerospace & Defense at Wind River Systems in Alameda, CA. “The membership now has more than 50 organizations – including essentially every major U.S. defense prime contractor. The completion of the Technical Standard for Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE), Edition 2.0 is expected [this month] in March 2013. The FACE Conformance Test Policy, Conformance Certification Guide, Conformance Tests, and the Conformance Verification Matrix Guides should be completed [later this month] with the official release targeted for early Q2 2013. Two major programs have also been awarded requiring FACE compliance to date.”

One of these programs is the modernization of the C130-T, awarded to Lockheed Martin Mission Systems & Training in Owego, NY, by the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command. Under the $30 million contract, Lockheed Martin engineers “will deliver a suite of GFE [Government-Furnished Equipment] and CFE [Contractor-Furnished Equipment] to provide new navigation, communication, flight management, and controls and displays capability,” says John Aebli, Director of Avionics Products for Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems & Training business.

“The new avionics package is built around the latest generation of FACE-conformant Lockheed Martin avionics,” he continues. “The FACE framework enables cost savings by isolating change and variability. More specifically, individual software applications are isolated from the aircraft-specific configurations for controls and displays, other avionics, aircraft systems, and the hardware platform. This isolation enables software migration from platform to platform, as well as third-party application development, which leverages the nonproprietary software interfaces.” Lockheed Martin engineers also will develop and deliver nine initial cockpit kits for the C130-T upgrade.


Figure 1: The Navy’s modernization of the C130-T’s avionics by Lockheed Martin requires conformance to the FACE standard for software.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Enthusiasm for a new standard

“Whenever you talk to military leaders about FACE, they initially react as if the last thing the U.S. military needs is a new standard, and their defense shields go up,” Downing says. “But once they learn how much money can be saved over the long-term, and how much [more] efficient and capable their platforms will be with FACE adoption, they can’t hide their enthusiasm. FACE will potentially save the government billions of dollars in the long run. FACE has created both technical and business guidelines, and combined, both will drive more capability to the warfighter faster. Because the FACE team is getting so many work products completed, everyone can see the results, and this has energized the entire team.”

“It’s really vital for us to be members of FACE,” GE IP’s Collins says. “We see it as an incredibly important organization with objectives that are hugely significant for the industry in terms of application development, portability, reuse, and compliance, together with the inherent time- and cost-advantages of COTS solutions. When it comes to FACE, the customers we’ve been talking to typically fall into two camps: ones who are totally committed to going down the FACE-compliant route in their development and customers who see the benefits that FACE will bring but for now are watching and waiting.”


“The movement behind FACE basically came from the government and DoD being fed up with being charged every time they used software programs in different platforms,” says Robert Day, Vice President of Marketing for LynuxWorks in San Jose, CA. “FACE solves this problem by creating interoperability among software platforms. Applications that have the common FACE API can move among multiple platforms, making it easier to keep legacy products and have them work with new applications and designs.”

“Interoperability is an underlying theme with FACE. Software applications running on a mission computer in a helicopter platform could be reused on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or the UAV system could work on a manned aircraft – all because of the common foundation,” Downing says. “In this way, FACE has a similar utilization model to that of Android, where applications can be used across multiple platforms due to its underpinning architecture.

“The FACE team was smart – they optimized existing standards, ARINC 653, and POSIX to create the FACE technical standard,” Downing continues. “Realizing that there is a broad range of applications in military avionics, the team created four separate profiles – Security, Minimum Safety, Extended Safety, and General Purpose. The Security and Safety profiles are designed to complement Common Criteria security and RTCA DO-178C safety certification environments. I expect that all of these profiles will be able to leverage the existing COTS certification and quality attributes of existing ARINC 653 and POSIX products from a wide range of vendors.” Wind River’s VxWorks 653 Real-Time-Operating-System (RTOS) for ARINC 653 time-and-space partitioned environments is FACE compliant, he adds.

“Most of the avionics funding for the next few years will go toward upgrading and modernizing current platforms,” Day says. “If you don’t have a FACE API, you likely will be left out of new refresh programs coming up. Our safety-critical RTOS 178 product – which has a native POSIX API – is FACE compliant.”

“We have been reflecting FACE activities in our product development road map and are working with a number of software vendors to ensure their offering is compatible with the FACEREF1 Software Reference Platform that we introduced last year,” Collins says. “It’s a platform that features GE IP’s SBC312 3U VPX single board computer and PMCCG1 graphics PMC” and enables organizations developing FACE-compliant applications to reduce risk by using preconfigured, prevalidated, and pretested COTS solutions, he adds.

Green Hills Software in Santa Barbara, CA, which makes the POSIX-compliant INTEGRTY RTOS, also is a member of FACE. The INTEGRITY-178B tuMP multicore operating system was selected for use in their Gen II Mission Computer for upgrades of the U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y and AH-1Z helicopters.