Military Embedded Systems

Elements of a deployed, modern net-centric system


May 25, 2010

Haritha Treadway

Eurotech Group

In striving for the U.S. DoD's vision of net-centricity, military embedded designs must optimize size and power consumption, provide fast and effective graphics and visualization, keep commanders and soldiers connected, and provide hardware supported by the Global Information Grid's (GIG's) Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) framework.

But don't forget the key ingredient: the processor, which heightens performance and brings all these elements together. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Albert F. Hunt)

For the past 10 years, the United States Department of Defense has pioneered the military doctrine of net-centricity to achieve effective information sharing in a complex environment. Net-centric warfare aims to achieve a robustly networked force for shared situational awareness, which in turn dramatically increases military mission effectiveness.

Net-centric devices include soldier navigation tools, precision optics capabilities, and radio technologies. These devices rely on robust embedded computers and high-performance, low-power processors. Developing embedded systems for net-centric devices includes the ability to reduce soldier-borne weight, increase mission length, and improve soldier situational awareness and effectiveness.

To achieve these goals, embedded designs have to optimize size and power consumption without making sacrifices in equally important graphics, I/O, and communications capabilities. In addition, software plays a key role in allowing embedded designs to seamlessly and cost-effectively integrate the hardware capabilities with existing infrastructures developed to support net-centricity. Meanwhile, the underlying processor accelerates performance and ties together all these net-centric needs.

Size and power

Size and power considerations are central to the effectiveness of net-centric devices. Net-centric warfare leverages the power of real-time information transmitted over a complex grid of data to make military operations more effective over land, air, and sea. With instant access to data comes the need for soldiers to be mobile and responsive, meaning the embedded devices they operate are flexible, compact, and light, allowing them to move freely and quickly.

In addition to being physically worn or carried on a soldier, embedded devices also operate in vehicles such as UAVs, specialized planes, and helicopters that are space-constrained while still requiring the ability to interface with extensive machinery and other peripherals. As a result, size is one of the top priorities in designing embedded systems targeted for net-centric warfare.

By choosing processors with low Thermal Design Power (TDP), designers can remove the need for bulky fans or heat sinks, thereby minimizing the size of the hardware. In addition, because net-centric devices are so mobile, power consumption is equally important, with a focus on battery operation easily lasting more than 10 hours. To meet these needs, processors with features such as Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Scaling (DVFS), deep sleep, and idle states bring an obvious advantage by managing heat and power dissipation. The challenge is to meet these size and power consumption needs without sacrificing processing and performance capabilities.

Graphics and real-time visualization

As military operations become quicker and more reactive, net-centric warfare relies heavily on sophisticated graphics to provide realistic imagery of situations. 3D visualization and simulations with interactivity are critical in understanding local environments in great detail – not only for the effectiveness of the mission, but also for the safety of soldiers.

Display support is also varying, as shown in Table 1. On one hand, real-time simulation displays must be large with very high resolutions, in the range of XGA (1,024 x 768) to High Definition (1,280 x 720). For devices carried by soldiers in the field, the displays are often smaller with VGA resolution (640 x 480). Dual-display support is also important. Therefore, the key is to pick an embedded processor that has the right mix of graphics capabilities for the specific end application. An ideal choice given the space constraints of embedded devices is a CPU with an integrated graphics engine to allow for small form factor designs.


Table 1: Graphical needs for net-centric warfare depend on the end application.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Connectivity and I/O

While size, power, and graphics are critical, another key to net-centric warfare is the communications and I/O capability of the device. Net-centric warfare relies heavily on sensors, satellite communications, and GPS. These functions will be linked together via the IP-enabled Global Information Grid (GIG), a communications project of the U.S. DoD that connects military entities and operations across the globe to a common networked infrastructure. Figure 1 highlights how the GIG offers an overarching structure for global, cross-platform networking.


Figure 1: IP is used to connect various communication devices (Ethernet, GPS, satellite, and radio) to a common infrastructure via the Global Information Grid.

(Click graphic to zoom)




As demonstrated by the large demand for ruggedized, military-grade routers, Fast Ethernet is also an important way to access IP. However, traditional data buses will still play an important role in supporting traditional military devices and peripheral machinery. An embedded device will have to support the latest in Wi-Fi, 1000BASE-T Ethernet, or GPS capabilities while still preserving high-speed serial ports, USB, PCIe, CAN, and more, making it rich in communications and I/O.

Hardware supported by software

With such an extensive list of hardware requirements, software is critical to bring the net-centric system together seamlessly and effectively. Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is a key element. In fact, one of the tenets of the GIG is to use SOA capabilities to increase the flexibility and portability of applications used in net-centric operations.

The SOA strategy is data-focused rather than hardware-focused. This means more parallelism as information is readily available to several players with access to the grid regardless of the underlying hardware used by each specific player. The SOA approach is very different from the traditional approach, which tended to be more serial, using a sensor or piece of hardware to communicate serially to a data-gathering station that then dissipated the information to another entity.

An SOA framework separates the hardware from the end service or application logic. SOA bundles are more portable and accessible, easily transported from one platform to another with minimal development work. Portability is critical in net-centric warfare, especially as projects like the GIG require devices to be flexible across terrains and operations. Figure 2 shows an example framework based on Java. Here, the advantage is to separate application-specific bundles, referred to as vertical market bundles, from foundation bundles and hardware platforms. This makes code reusable and flexible, allowing for parallelism across platforms.


Figure 2: Middleware allows code to be reusable and portable across hardware platforms by separating foundation bundles from application-specific bundles.

(Click graphic to zoom)




Processor accelerates performance, brings it all together

As mentioned in previous sections, a low-TDP processor is a key element within each component of net-centricity, and also heightens performance. Accordingly, the Intel Atom family offers a highly suitable solution.


The U.S. DoD and its military forces know the need for speed can make or break a mission – and ensure soldier survival. Therefore, a fast processor is integral. The Atom can meet this need by offering accelerated processing speed: CPU speeds up to 1.6 GHz allow the Atom to support the intensive processing requirements of modern net-centric military applications.

Size and power

Embedded boards targeted for net-centric warfare need to be small and low power. Thus, the Atom’s small-form-factor savvy and low TDP facilitate net-centric military applications. Table 2 shows the three variations currently available. Each processor has unique capabilities and is targeted for specific applications. As the table shows, the Z5xxP stands out with 2.2 W of TDP. One of this chip’s features that keeps thermal power low is its thermal monitor circuit, which brings down the temperature when the processor reaches its +85 °C limit. The cooling process occurs with minimal effects on application performance.


Table 2: Comparison of processors’ speed, TDP, and deep sleep/idle power metrics

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




To improve efficiency and minimize waste, Z5xxP also includes a new C6 deep sleep mode that boasts a very efficient power spec of 0.1 W. Table 2 additionally highlights the sleep/idle power consumption of other processors; these features are ideal for net-centric military devices because they eliminate the need for bulky cooling components. The end result is an extended lifetime for the embedded device without concern for unnecessary electrical or mechanical failures.

Graphics and visualization

Despite small size and low power requirements, military net-centric applications still require high-speed graphics and visualization capabilities to get mission-critical information to the warfighter on a moment’s notice. The Atom D510 meets this need, with an ultra-fast 400 MHz graphics engine integrated into the CPU.

I/O and communications

In addition, with extensive I/O support, the military can interface with several devices either wirelessly or through standard means. The D510 is a good example of this, offering speeds up to 1.8 GHz with dual-core capability. This high-speed I/O support meets the processing crunch required by communications, handheld, or radio devices deployed in net-centric warfare.

Software considerations

Atom processors are compatible with an SOA framework and also support hyper-threading to improve performance in multithreading or multitasking applications, which are often required of net-centric military devices.

Embedded systems drive net-centric warfare

Embedded hardware providers can help the United States military migrate to net-centric warfare techniques by making sure their products meet performance needs, provide optimal size and power consumption, enable fast graphics and I/O, and provide SOA framework compatibility. Atom-based products – such as Eurotech’s Catalyst family of embedded modules – meet these needs and are an ideal fit for modern net-centric military applications.

Haritha Treadway is a product manager at Eurotech Inc., responsible for the company’s ARM- and x86-based boards portfolio. She had 10 years of experience as an engineer in the semiconductor industry before joining Eurotech. Haritha received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from Boston College. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Eurotech, Inc. 301-490-4007


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