The impetus for the Quantum3D product lines acquisition, in one word: "Synergy" - Q&A with Ray Niacaris, Director of Operations and Sales at IData Visual Systems Inc., a subsidiary of ENSCO Inc.Story
October 12, 2011
ENSCO put together a deal to acquire Quantum3D's IData and IGL 178 product lines and associated employees. The merger was announced earlier this year, shortly before Military Embedded Systems talked with Ray Niacaris, Director of Operations and Sales for the newly formed IData Visual Systems Inc. subsidiary of ENSCO Inc.
Editor's note: Started in 1969 by Dr. Paul Broome, ENSCO is an S Corporation based in Falls Church, Virginia with 600 employees and a focus on national security. Of the company's five divisions focusing on transportation, security, and aerospace and defense, the Innovative Systems Solutions division found that it was often synergistically running into the product IData by Quantum3D. ENSCO put together a deal to acquire Quantum3D's IData and IGL 178 product lines and associated employees. The merger was announced earlier this year, shortly before Military Embedded Systems talked with Ray Niacaris, Director of Operations and Sales for the newly formed IData Visual Systems Inc. subsidiary of ENSCO Inc.
We know that ENSCO provides scientific and engineering technologies for aerospace and defense, among other industries, but why buy Quantum3D’s IData and IGL product lines?
NIACARIS: In a word: synergy. As we moved more and more into certification projects, it became apparent to us that we needed much more certification expertise. And the IData product line needed to add tactical digital moving map products and ENSCO had that technology in house, but not a vehicle to bring that technology to market. The IData product line was the vehicle to accomplish that. Finally, we had essentially the same customer base, so it would be a seamless integration effort with existing IData customers.
What exactly is ENSCO buying?
NIACARIS: ENSCO purchased all the IData intellectual property and all the IGL intellectual property. They also took over all existing customer support agreements and open NRE projects, in addition to all hardware, computer resources, marketing materials, customer databases, trade-show material, and anything else that was associated with the IData and IGL products. ENSCO also took on Quantum3D employees who were dedicated to the IData and IGL product lines.
What is the IData product line, and which problem(s) does it solve in the avionics industry?
NIACARIS: The IData family of products addresses the HMI needs of the avionics industry. Unlike most tools that create an executable file that needs to be linked to the target system’s software to create a contiguous executable, IData has an executable library, fully certifiable, that processes data and comprises HMI behavior and graphics. This data can be dynamically downloaded to the target system in real time, while the target system is fully operational, thus negating the need to shut down the target system.
And the IGL product family addresses another set of common issues related to embedded cockpit displays: namely heat, power, and obsolescence. IGL is a software-based GPI that supports the Kronos ES/SC subset of the OpenGL standard. Much of the graphics display work can be accomplished with IGL, such as the primary flight display. IGL is a software library, fully certifiable, that runs on the target system, processes OGL commands, and drives the frame buffer. It can be used in conjunction with a system GPU or run stand-alone. In a partitioned memory application, it can isolate the graphics display tasks and allow different FAA certification levels to be on the same display. Since IGL utilizes CPU cycles to perform its functions, the need for a separate GPU chip and its associated power and heat issues are eliminated. Even more importantly, since IGL is software, it can easily meet the 20-year product life-cycle requirement.
Who/what are the competing solutions to IData?
NIACARIS: With the IGL product line, there really is not a directly competitive product. IGL mainly competes with hardware-based GPUs (chips). In that respect, IGL cannot support all of the functions at the same performance levels that a GPU can. However, for a number of avionics applications, IGL can perform the required functions at the desired level of performance.
Although none of the competition uses the architectural approach of IData, their offerings address the same issues/design problems that IData does. Among these companies are Presagis: VAPS xt, Disti: Glstudio, Altia: Altia Design (mainly focused in the automotive market); Esterel: SCADE Display. I have noticed an increasing desire by manufacturers to use tools, but issues arise when programmers who developed the custom application decide to move on and the knowledge behind that custom implementation moves with them.
What about code reuse?
NIACARIS: There are many applications written with tools no longer supported, and customers are faced with what to do with legacy software. One of the first HMI tools on the market was VAPS. Many applications were written using this tool, and customers would like to have a way to import those legacy applications onto a new platform that provides them a future and increased capability and performance. IData actually has an importer that can read a customer’s data files created with a tool like VAPS and convert them to the IData tool set. Recent migrations have resulted in a minimum of a 2x performance increase as a result of the re-hosting. Still other customers have found it rather easy to just redo the display applications in IData.
Since IData does not generate code, but rather data that renders an engine on the embedded target system, the identical HMI design can be used on a multitude of target systems of different capabilities because the target system will use its graphical and CPU resources to display the HMI design and behavior. In other words, one need not be concerned about the target system when doing the HMI development.
Talk about some of the latest market technologies, and how they affect IData and why.
NIACARIS: Our business used to be driven by technologies developed by the gaming industry, and that is still the case to a certain extent. However, what used to be a simple cell phone is no longer the case. The use of a cell phone to make calls is often considered incidental, rather than the key component. It would be a real challenge today to find a cell phone that just makes calls. The challenges of these mobile devices are many, but chief among them is power or battery life. This market in many ways is now driving our industry.
Until a few short years ago, a multi-touch MFD was out of the question and a touch panel was rare, with the preference still being bezel buttons. We are now seeing 3D panels that do not require special glasses, and we now need to write applications that rely on touch and multi-touch GUIs. Android is now considered as a development platform that we are required to support. It seemed to happen almost overnight that EFBs were being built on top of iPad technology, and that product itself was only introduced a year ago. The complexity of the graphics required in cockpit displays requires more and more powerful GPUs, and these GPUs need to be around to support 20-year product life cycles, or be so driven by standards-based design that applications can move seamlessly from one hardware platform to another. Those tools that can address that portability will survive in the years ahead.
HMI tool vendors need to form strategic relationships with hardware vendors and RTOS and middleware vendors to ensure that they are all working in concert to drive new technologies and provide the very best solutions for user/machine interactions.
What do you see the future holding in this area of HMI tools, safety-critical software, and so on?
NIACARIS: As we move forward toward advanced cockpits, we can be fairly certain the future will yield new ways to provide the aircraft pilots complex data about their surroundings in an instantly recognizable format. That format will most likely take the form of some type of graphical display. The trick will be presenting that information in an easy-to-comprehend manner and in a timely fashion.
IData Visual Systems, Inc. is currently working on a concept called “combined vision systems.” This is a complex concept that requires combining high-speed sensor technology with high-performance, real-time visual data capture (i.e. satellite imagery), synthesized terrain data, real-time weather data, radio identification data, ground-based situational data, and other types of data still yet to be identified. These data need to be combined in a single display to create a synergistic awareness to the flight deck far beyond the levels of information displays currently in use. Each data feed can fill in or enhance the data present from other sources including, of course, the view out of the flight deck windows and the pilot’s inherent knowledge of their surroundings.
What advantages will ENSCO’s acquisition of IData provide to the embedded industry?
NIACARIS: To begin with, ENSCO has primarily been a service-based company, while IData has been focused on products. As the products produced by IData evolved more and more into the realm of safety-critical design, it became readily apparent that it must “staff up” to engage in that type of business. However, ENSCO already had the staff, reputation, and track record to provide the type of support necessary to pursue that business. Today IData Visual Systems can support fully certified cockpit display programs.
Additionally, although IData has capability to overlay weather data in its IData HMI product, until the acquisition by ENSCO, IData did not work with sources of weather-related expertise. ENSCO has an extensive weather research group and supplies weather data to NASA as well as a major airline.
IData has not been engaged in the rail industry, yet ENSCO has been working with the rail industry for many years. In fact, a quick visit to the ENSCO website yields many areas where ENSCO’s established businesses can benefit from the use of IData products and vice versa.
Ray Niacaris is Director of Operations and Sales at IData Visual Systems Inc., a newly formed subsidiary of ENSCO Inc. He has more than 35 years of experience in real-time embedded systems and computer graphics. Ray has degrees in EE and CS from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he graduated with honors. He has completed advanced studies in product design and held the position of Studio Professor at the Illinois Institute of Design. Contact him at [email protected]
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