Military Embedded Systems

New aircraft platforms get cut back, opening the door for avionics retrofits that leverage COTS hardware and software


March 07, 2012

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Military cockpits - from helicopters to cargo jets to fighter aircraft - will be depending on open architecture designs and Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) hardware and software to keep them flying beyond the next decade as DoD budgets scale back on new platforms. Meanwhile, industry and government experts formed a consortium to enable affordable, platform-agnostic avionics.

Doing more with less is becoming the modern-day mantra of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) when it comes to funding military technology procurement. As DoD officials reduce spending across the services – especially when it comes to big-ticket platforms like the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – greater emphasis will be placed on maintaining current airborne platforms for at least another decade or more.

No longer will the DoD fund technology development from the ground up. Consequently, the industry is forced to become more cost effective in system designs for avionics retrofits by leveraging common standards and Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) technology that can be used on multiple platforms.

The U.S. financial crisis is not getting settled any time soon, but the world’s not getting any safer either, and the U.S. military will need to maintain and improve its capability during that time, says Mark Grovak, avionics business development for Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions. Newer platforms such as the F-22 Raptor and JSF will continue to face delays and cutbacks, so the U.S. military will have to update the current aircraft fleet to support current and future missions, Grovak continues. This is good news for COTS suppliers, he adds.

“Retrofits and upgrades to current programs are a huge opportunity given the government’s resistance to fund new programs, while asking the military services to do more with their existing equipment,” says Mac Rothstein, Product Manager, Systems, GE Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, VA.

In a lot of avionics upgrades, “we use today COTS processors and many other components,” says Dan Toy, Principal Marketing Manager at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, IA. “We leverage what is being developed throughout the electronics industry. The telecommunications industry has poured huge amounts of money into the development of electronics that are applicable to military avionics systems. We vary away only when we have a unique need that commercial markets cannot provide.”

“Basically we build thousands of processor cards a year and we use COTS chip technology in a Rockwell Collins processor design,” says Brett Tinkey, Program Manager, Rockwell Collins Airborne Solutions. “That’s primarily how we leverage COTS; we buy COTS devices such as Freescale chips and we design around the chipset.”

A typical component Rockwell Collins leverages is FPGAs, Tinkey says. “One of the best ways to effectively meet reduced size, weight, and power requirements is to leverage FPGAs, which enable you to reduce the footprint or size of a product.” In one upgrade, Rockwell Collins engineers were able to reduce the footprint for one processing function from three boards to one 6U VME board by taking advantage of high-performance commercial components such as FPGAs, he continues. Reducing the footprint enables the system to grow and add capability for the military customer, Tinkey adds.

Moore’s Law shows that the trend toward smaller designs with great capability will continue and is why a VME card today versus one from five years ago “has almost twice the functionality and twice the horsepower,” says Doug Patterson, Vice President of Business Development for Aitech in Chatsworth, CA.

Board-level COTS

“At the board level, we evaluate the efficiencies of building the boards ourselves versus buying completed boards from a manufacturer,” Toy says.

“When we build units ourselves for programs that are one-offs, we will go buy and leverage COTS suppliers such as Curtiss-Wright and GE Intelligent Platforms,” Tinkey says. “Cycle time is an issue in this decision process as well,” as COTS suppliers with a good track record can provide boards and cards more quickly than an integrator would. Design cycles are also trending shorter in the current DoD procurement climate.

“The key in being a COTS supplier is that you can get your customer at least 80 percent of the way to their final desired solution with an off-the-shelf product,” Rothstein says. “In reality, the chances of having an off-the-shelf product that meets all of your customer’s I/O, environmental, and mechanical requirements is very high if you offer enough variations of a subsystem to cover most requirements. Customers can use the off-the-shelf solution to begin their software development while we work with them on the final 10 to 20 percent of the modified system.”

A rugged GE Intelligent Platforms system used in avionics applications is the IPS511, which generates 360-degree views for improved situational awareness (Figure 1). The subsystem can process multiple simultaneous analog video inputs for a variety of different video display configurations for two simultaneous video outputs. For more information, visit


Figure 1: The IPS511 from GE Intelligent Platforms generates 360-degree views for improved situational awareness.

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Military avionics integrators “want higher levels of software and hardware integration and reductions in size, weight, power, and cost,” Patterson says. Regarding hardware and software integration, the military customer base wants products that can come from different suppliers to be able to work together in their system, Patterson continues. This integration is the burden of the supplier, he adds.

COTS pedigree is important

Military program managers don’t believe PowerPoint presentations anymore; they want to see real hardware and know that the supplier has a pedigree or past history of success in other platforms, says Curtis Reichenfeld, Chief Technical Officer of System Solutions for Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Ashburn, VA. Technical Readiness Levels (TRLs) are driving government procurements, he continues. Products earn high TRLs for new programs when they have been demonstrated or designed into military programs with similar requirements. Military aviation program managers want to reduce risk on programs by having suppliers with a proven program pedigree or high TRL – in other words a history of successful avionics design-ins on fielded platforms, Reichenfeld says.

Military customers want suppliers that have “history, heritage, and pedigree,” Patterson says. For example, imagine a program where a customer needs a new acoustic sensor for hostile fire detection on HMMWV [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle], he continues. They would have to start from the ground up developing hardware; it would be six months before they had a prototype and another six months to a year before they could ruggedize it to stick in a vehicle to go through hard testing – which is about when the software team would start their development process, Patterson explains. If they leverage COTS hardware that is already qualified, the software team could get up and started immediately, shaving cost and development time, he says.

Sidebar 1: The Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) consortium, hosted by The Open Group, comprises industry and government avionics experts working to manage avionics design costs through open standards and COTS technology.

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Aitech’s rugged COTS avionics offerings include the M595 PMC and M597 XMC cards (Figure 2). Both use the advanced AMD/ATI E4690 Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) operating at 600 MHz with a 512 MB on-chip GDDR3 SDRAM frame buffer. The E4690 works with an integrated, onboard FPGA to support additional video output formats, overlay, underlay, and keying features. For more information, visit


Figure 2: Aitech’s rugged M595 PMC and M597 XMC cards are used in avionics applications.

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Managing the avionics component life cycle

COTS avionics components and systems cut the design cycle and are more affordable but must be closely managed to effectively refresh designs and deal with obsolescence in military platforms that last for decades.

Sidebar 2: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics upgraded the storage capability for the avionics and mission systems on the USAF? HC/MC-130J Super Hercules with the Vortex Compact Network Storage (CNS).

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Rockwell Collins engineers have been leveraging common COTS processors, boards, and other components across Army Aviation platforms for more than 15 years through their Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS), Toy says. CAAS was originally created to refresh variants of the Army’s MH-47G Chinook and MH-60L/M Black Hawk Special Forces helicopters, Toy says. CAAS systems are based on an open architecture approach that leverages adopted industry standards across multiple helicopter platforms, which cuts down technology insertion costs as well as capability retrofits.

CAAS is still going very well for Army Special Operations programs, Toy says. “All of the avionics systems are performing very well and we are beginning to field the second generation of processors.” One of Rockwell Collins’ most recent CAAS upgrades was on the MH-47F Chinook to keep that rotorcraft flying through 2030, he adds.

Because of CAAS, Army Aviation program managers are able to provide a large level of commonality across their fleet of Special Operations helicopters, Toy says. For example, the UH-60M Black Hawk has many of the same avionics display components of the MH-47F Chinook, he adds.

Using one set of cards or boards across multiple platforms “allows us to benefit from economies of scale to manage those common designs,” Toy continues. “We frequently take our approach to develop synergies between various offerings.”

Obsolescence can be managed

Eliminating development costs is not the only reason military customers work with traditional COTS suppliers, Grovak says. Another is that they also want to reduce the total ownership cost of the product. Military systems will need to operate effectively for many years in the field, and the customer needs a strong logistic support plan so they don’t have components go obsolete that cannot be supported anymore, Grovak says.

The most important thing when managing obsolescence is to pick the right components, Tinkey says. “We’re buying a lot of the same parts from our vendors, which will help extend the longevity of our products through a common set of parts in all Rockwell Collins products. The other thing you do is work closely with vendors from the beginning on a life-cycle management plan. It helps that many of the successful suppliers already have product longevity plans in place.”