Military Embedded Systems

Embedded Systems Conference portends COTS' future


May 31, 2010

Chris A. Ciufo

General Micro Systems, Inc.

Military was a surprising market discussed at Embedded Systems Conference, but many companies talked about their defense plans and COTS trends to watch for.

Every year CMP’s Embedded Systems Conference offers a glimpse into technologies likely to find their way onto tomorrow’s battlefield. At the close of this week’s ESC (ending 29 April 2010), there were four key markets that countless vendors emphasized: Android, industrial, medical, and military. Yeah, that last one surprised me, too. Rarely do software, IC, and network infrastructure vendors talk about the military market. But unlikely companies from Mentor Graphics to Dell talked about their defense market plans. After meeting with nearly 50 vendors, here are some COTS trends to watch out for during the next 18 to 24 months.

Smartphones; video

Warfighters want the same rich media and Internet connectivity on the battlefield as they have in their off time. Hence, UAS video feeds, Blue Force Tracking, and moving GPS maps make sense on portable handhelds. And DoD brass wants to give it to them. I discovered at least two contracts – one from the NSA and one from DARPA – aiming to create Android-based and military-secure iPhone-like handsets. Already, companies like Thales offer secure BlackBerries with https and IPsec security. And consumer devices like Apple’s 3GS iPhone make the video experience so compelling that it’s likely all dismounted soldiers will eventually tap into some data stream, somewhere.

Cloud computing and “point-of-the spear” processing

Not all battlefield computers need heavy horsepower. Thin client devices relying on ARM Cortex M3 or QorIQ CPUs connected to fat pipes and rack-mount servers such as AdvancedTCA or 2U rigs from Emerson, RadiSys, or Z Microsystems would be cheaper, lighter, and use less power; they would also still provide access to information from elsewhere in the GIG. This is the cloud computing model first theorized in X-Windows a decade ago. Intel’s MIDs vision maps perfectly to many battlefield sensors and embedded platforms to realize cloud computing. Then again, some devices such as UAS payload sensors or comms jammers need all the performance they can get in the local box. New DSP offerings in Altera Stratix V devices or Xilinx Virtex-6 FPGAs bolted to Core i5 Intel CPUs with Quick Assist bring massive IOPS to low-power embedded platforms.

Fatter pipes

The digitized battlefield needs node connectivity, whether via satellite, mesh networks such as SNAP from Synapse, or an aloft UAS relay station. But routing video everywhere and to everyone requires more bandwidth. Trouble is, current technologies are maxed out, and forklift upgrades are cost-prohibitive. Instead, COTS technologies like JPEG2000 compression, H.264, and deep packet inspection will reduce the amount of data being piped around the battlefield. New CPUs from ARM, Freescale, Intel, and VIA are all optimized for one or more of these data reduction schemes.

Application Life-cycle Management (ALM)

Not a new technology, ALM is moving into defense system designs through offerings such as LDRA’s TBReq and Mentor Graphics’ new ReqTracer. Tools like these collect and track requirements management snippets, making sure that complex, multiyear programs meet evolving specs. Previously, myriad SOW CDRLs were (at best) tracked via complex, iterative Excel spreadsheets.


We mention them often in Military Embedded Systems, yet high-assurance hardware and software are still rare in all but the most classified of comm systems. But with every embedded system now a node on someone’s network, information assurance to protect assets from cyber attack is becoming a baseline requirement. Secure operating systems meeting (or soon to be meeting) Common Criteria, MLS, or MILS are available from Green Hills, Wind River Systems, and LynuxWorks. For data on-the-fly, Mocana provides security assurance.

Safety-critical and MILS

These two terms are often used together but are not synonymous. Safety-critical specs such as DO-178B (soon, C) and DO-254 provide certification that code and hardware behave predictably. The same RTOS vendors listed above offer safety-critical offerings, as does AdaCore with their Praxis partnership. MILS, on the other hand, will soon extend beyond just security. How? RTOS vendors have revamped their hypervisors to provide protected partitions, which now offer the added benefit of running a guest OS in a protected partition. Vendors at ESC including Enea demonstrated how even a retail Windows XP installation could run in its own partition and if crashed or compromised, wouldn’t affect the rest of an embedded system. Partitioned environments also allow legacy operating systems to be moved forward into modern, multicore hardware. Lastly, LynuxWorks demonstrated secure Windows machines where the Windows OS is run atop a MILS hypervisor.

Small-form-factor shoeboxes

I’ve talked about this for years. It’s where a vendor such as WinSystems, ADLINK, Parvus, or others build a custom small-form-factor box with the “right” amount of I/O and processing power for the system. Despite the best efforts of consortia like SFF-SIG, PICMG, or the PC/104 Consortium, DoD designers care less about the card inside the box than about the box itself. And since shoeboxes are inexpensive and available in myriad ruggedization levels, they can often be tossed out during the next tech refresh.

And lastly, more with less

Right now, the industry is girding for reduced DoD budgets as O&M sucks money from RDT&E, despite President Obama’s $708B request (Feb10) versus $690B in FY10. Worse, as SECDEF Gates puts the brakes on underperforming programs, primes expect to have to rejustify many line items. That means funding delays that ripple down to the COTS industry. The good news is: This is deja vu all over again. COTS has always been the way to get the best tech to the front, fast.

Chris A. Ciufo, [email protected]