Military Embedded Systems

FACE combats existential threats to advance global competitiveness in airborne systems


March 11, 2021

By Chip Downing, RTI

As the costs of creating advanced avionics software continue to increase and program funding continues to be constrained, a new business and acquisition approach along with a new technology foundation needs to be adopted to maintain competitiveness with near-peer adversaries; in short, everything must change. To meet this challenge, the government and defense/aerospace industry have joined forces to create the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE), which redefines the landscape for developing, procuring, integrating, and maintaining next-generation military avionics platforms. are the days where the United States could tower over all adversaries with unmatched technology projecting global power. Today, our near-peer adversaries can procure and build competitive, if not dominant, systems and capabilities that challenge our best weapons and defense systems.

Historically, the U.S. has built manned aircraft platforms with both a single mission purpose and prime contractor and a fixed set of suppliers. Modifications to these systems had long lead times coupled with high change costs. Regardless, this approach worked well in a world where the number of aircraft types was constrained and the cost of aircraft was modest when compared to the cost of aircraft today. But in our new era of unmanned systems and relatively high airframe costs, this way forward is no longer feasible, especially with multiple near-peer adversaries emerging and evolving faster than we can innovate. This challenge is exacerbated by tightening military budgets and our equipment moving to unmanned, robotic, and autonomous platforms that drive both software and system complexity higher.

MOSA to the rescue

How to compete in this new environment? There are many vectors we can traverse to change this situation, but one vector that has proven to be successful is to build a new procurement and technology approach that creates system capability agility, coupled with a procurement process that does not need to flow through a platform prime contractor.

The U.S. military has now fully embraced a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) that opens up systems and platforms to enable the rapid insertion of the best-of-breed technology from a supply chain that supports both legacy defense and new innovative companies. MOSA is based upon standards, with one of the most successful to date being the work of the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Consortium, a group actively managed by The Open Group standards organization. This consortium – consisting of more than 100 government, industry, and academia members – has created both a technology standard and business approach.

The FACE Technical Standard is based upon a layered architecture. The FACE Reference Architecture defines a set of standardized interfaces providing connections between the five FACE architectural segments (Figure 1). These interfaces are:

  1. Operating System Segment (OSS): The OSS is where foundational system services and vendor-supplied software reside. An OSS UoC [unit of conformance] provides and controls access to the computing platform.
  2. Input/Output Services Segment (IOSS): The IOSS is where normalization of vendor-supplied interface hardware device drivers occurs. IOSS UoCs provide the abstraction of the interface hardware and drivers from the PSSS UoCs. This allows the PSSS UoCs to focus on the interface data and not the hardware and driver specifics.
  3. Platform-Specific Services Segment (PSSS): The PSSS is comprised of subsegments available in a given airborne platform, including Platform-Specific Device Services, Platform-Specific Common Services, and Platform-Specific Graphics Services.
  4. Transport Services Segment (TSS): The TSS is comprised of communication services. The TSS abstracts transport mechanisms and data access from software components facilitating integration into disparate architectures and platforms using different transports.
  5. Portable Components Segment (PCS): The PCS is the application layer and is comprised of software components providing capabilities and/or business logic. PCS components are intended to remain agnostic from hardware and sensors and are not tied to any data transport or operating system implementations, meeting the objectives of portability and interoperability.

[Figure 1 | The five segments of the FACE Reference Architecture.]

Government/industry adoption

The FACE Consortium has existed for more than ten years, has refined its suite of standards to production quality, and is now using the third generation of the FACE Technical Standard, Version 3.1, in multiple programs. Due to the many airborne programs the U.S. Army is fielding for existing aircraft – Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) – the Army is leading this open standards transition by specifying FACE standards and other MOSA standards in new and modified avionics designs. This strategy enables the U.S. Army to leverage the work that is being performed today in modernizing existing platforms: This work can be easily migrated over to Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) platforms as they become part of the fleet.

In a parallel track, the armed services have also moved military-airworthiness certifications to adopt the RTCA DO-178C avionics software safety standard proven in hundreds of commercial aircraft. This move produced an unexpected efficiency by creating commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) certification evidence that can be used in multiple programs and platforms, minimizing the cost for each program. This stands in contrast to the legacy approach of creating safety artifacts for a single platform with one program absorbing all of the costs. The FACE approach, therefore, creates technology-leading software that can be more readily deployed and can also use COTS safety certification evidence proven on other platforms that accelerates time to airworthiness and deployment.

The FACE layered architecture can be directly mapped to industry partners delivering not only FACE Certified Conformant software but also COTS certification evidence, as depicted in Figure 2.

[Figure 2 | FACE-certified conformant suppliers with DO-178C certification evidence.]

Complete descriptions of each FACE Certified Conformant product can be found in the FACE Registry at Because this list of FACE Certified Conformant products changes often, it’s best to check it before making software decisions.

Now military avionics designers can procure FACE software products from an open market and may also procure relevant safety evidence. The availability of having both companion products is driving a new marketplace that lowers the cost of acquisition and accelerates the time to airworthiness and deployment.

FACE acceleration

In today’s world – which has a growing number of near-peer adversaries – maintaining strategic dominance requires a focused effort by both the government and industry that requires all parties to adapt and evolve to meet new challenges head-on. Adopting MOSA and deploying the FACE Technical Standard and business approach has proven to accelerate the inclusion of the latest airborne innovations. In addition, these moves are creating a parallel market for COTS certification evidence that removes program risk and accelerates time-to-airworthiness and deployment.

Chip Downing is the senior market development director of Aerospace and Defense at Real-Time Innovations (RTI). In this position he manages RTI’s global aerospace and defense business. Downing currently serves as chair of the FACE Consortium Business Working Group Outreach Subcommittee and serves as the VP/Ecosystem of the DDS Foundation. He previously served as senior director of Aerospace & Defense at Wind River Systems, and has led organizations at Esterel Technologies (now Ansys), Validated Software, OnCore Systems, and Mentor Graphics (now Siemens).

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