Military Embedded Systems

Top technologies for the warfighter


February 15, 2010

Chris A. Ciufo

General Micro Systems, Inc.

Our third-annual look at commercial technologies coming to a battlefield near you.

What started out as “This year’s top trends affecting the military” in the January/February 2007 Crosshairs Editorial column of this magazine (see article at has morphed into an annual prediction of winning technologies most likely to be designed into defense programs. This year, Military Embedded Systems editors came up with independent lists, compared notes, and whittled it down to our top five technologies and our favorite industry enabler. The list was strongly influenced by the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, showcasing the best embedded civilian, consumer, and commercial technologies. And why not? That’s what COTS is all about. Here’s this year’s list, banded into three broad categories affecting Aerospace and Defense (A&D).

Intel Core Technology CPUs

Like shuttle launches into space, everyone’s gotten so used to AMD and Intel CPU product announcements that they’ve become sort of ho-hum. As one who follows the Intel roadmaps carefully (refer to “Tasty alphabet soup from the Intel Developer Forum”, the nuances from Pentium III to 4 to M and finally Core 2 are interesting in their constant incremental improvements. Sure, Intel’s MMX instructions set the stage for the multimedia phenomenon back with the PIII and the migration to built-in graphics controllers in chipsets. As well, the company’s high K dielectric patents allowed reduced transistor gate thicknesses without punch-through, keeping Moore’s Law and technology marching forward. But the 33 Core Technology CPUs, chipsets, and wireless peripherals announced this January seemed to be the culmination of 10 years of Intel’s best technology flawlessly timed to coincide with a number of converging market factors1.

The Core family consists of Core i7, Core i5, and Core i3 CPUs broken into mobile, desktop, embedded, and wireless subcategories. There are 29 CPUs and 4  Centrino wireless devices; the embedded lineup is shown in Table 1. Not unlike BMW nomenclature, Intel says the flavors represent “good, better, best” versions of the CPUs with enhanced features (but not necessarily clock frequency). Notable technology “firsts” are Intel’s $7 billion investment that resulted in leading-edge, high-volume 32 nm devices all released to mass production simultaneously. Think about the logistics of that for a moment. As well, the Core family introduces a number of new features, including bringing the graphics controller on-chip in some versions, ECC and higher-performance DDR3 SDRAMs (versus DDR2), and a new feature called Turbo Boost. Any one of these achievements is incremental: Taken together, they’ve rocked the market.


Table 1: Intel’s embedded Core processors showing i7, i5, i3, and Xeon versions. The i3 to i7 are sort of like “good, better, best.”

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.8x)




Turbo Boost, for instance, dynamically adjusts the multicore frequency (up to four cores) in Core i7 and Core i5 devices running within Thermal Design Power (TDP) limits. Fully automatic and enabled by the system BIOS, mobile, desktop, and extreme processors will run at faster frequencies (in multiples of 133 MHz) when an application demands it and when excess bandwidth exists on available cores. Available for both single- and multi-threaded applications, the technology hardly seems revolutionary, but Intel benchmark data shows that a sole multicore Core i7 or i5 processor running in Turbo Boost mode can often obviate the need for additional CPUs in a system. This lowers overall Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) and saves costs in demanding mobile, desktop, and server applications.

As of the end of January, nearly every COTS SBC vendor tracked by Military Embedded Systems has announced Core Technology products, including Congatec, Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing (CWCEC), Concurrent Computing, GE Intelligent Platforms, Extreme Engineering, Hybricon, Kontron, Mercury Computer, One Stop Systems, Tracewell, and numerous others. (We’ll do a roundup of COTS offerings in the March/April issue.) To have so many small form factor, COM, VME, and custom system vendors revamp their product lines simultaneously to a new processor is unheard of. The last time I saw this kind of industry sea change was from the Motorola 68020/40 to the PowerPC (PPC).

The Intel devices not only offer amazing general-purpose and graphics capabilities, they do a pretty good job of signal processing (refer to article on page 42). Look for the PowerPC and its AltiVec vector processor to fall out of favor in signal processing; I’d even expect to see EOL notices on some PPC products as Freescale focuses more on Ethernet-equipped SoC-based PowerPC devices instead of CPUs. With on-chip 3D graphics in Core CPUs, there will be less need for ATI or NVIDIA GPUs except in ultra-high-end plug-in devices – but that’s not the sweet spot of the market anymore.

E-books, Android, iPhone … and iPad

Intel popularized the term Mobile Internet Devices or MIDs when it claimed in 2008 that there would be 15 billion MIDs within a few short years. One new category of MID from CES was manifested in the endless parade of e-book readers from Samsung, Interead, ONN, and a pile of other companies you might not have heard of2. From a consumer perspective, e-books might replace books, allow one to carry multiple documents to read on airplanes or in coffee shops, and provide a larger screen from which to send emails than an iPhone-sized LCD. E-book readers by definition have to marry screen readability with sunlight viewing and battery life. As a technology class, they are a proving ground for SWaP, highly integrated System-on Chip (SoC) devices with wireless networking (often based upon ARM Cortex IP or Intel Atom), and new crisper LCDs that maintain their image even when virtually powered off. Some, like the Alex, have an LCD and e-ink grayscale screen.

In the defense markets, beyond the general trend toward SWaP, all programs require embedded training, logistics management through depot sourcing, and maintenance manuals. E-book readers could be applied at all stages of a production program: from initial training, through maintenance, and out to the tip of the spear with warfighters themselves using them to replace bulky C4I laptops now lugged in knapsacks.

Yet it’s Google’s Android operating system that is perhaps the more exciting technology, acting as a catalyst that’s spawning new ideas while making possible rapid time-to-market of new MIDs like Barnes & Noble’s nook, Alex’s twin-screen e-book, or Motorola’s Droid smartphone. As of the end of 2009, Internet sites like engadget and Wikipedia were tracking nearly 50 Android devices. Traditional tech companies such as Mentor Graphics are extending their EDA tool suites into Android development. Mentor purchased Embedded Alley Solutions in an effort to capitalize on how Android’s Linux-based, open-source OS and middleware are likely to crack wide-open the stranglehold of proprietary software. Even companies like MontaVista with their Linux 6 are banking on Android by offering hardware drivers, an application stack, and user interface options.

Lastly, the iPhone – and its just-announced at press time iPad big brother – are probably the best examples of pure civilian technology that is benefitting the warfighter. In September 2009, Apple disclosed that there were 85,000 apps available for the device; by November, Wired magazine reported the number exceeded 100,000. Today, that number is 140,000. The user-friendliness of the iPhone, despite being chained solely to AT&T’s 3G network, makes it literally the next-generation computer for the entire world. Last year’s “cheap laptop” netbook is doomed, says Apple’s Steve Jobs3. Already DoD personnel use iPhones to read “sit rep” reports while communicating with operations centers. Video is easily shared, and AES encryption plus memory-resident databases from companies like McObject make the iPhone – and potentially the larger iPad – a must-have for locations with AT&T coverage. Admittedly, that’s not Iran nor Afghanistan, but iPhone-envy will surely encourage more iPhone-like, Android-based, purpose-built DoD platforms.

Open standards

Our last key technology for the warfighter isn’t a technology at all: It’s the impetus for a collection of products. Indeed, the era of COTS paved the way to breaking “stovepipe” defense systems supplied cradle-to-grave by one contracting team. But custom off-the-shelf software, boards, and systems can still leave the government beholden to a single supplier – albeit not the same prime contractor as before. Open standards, such as ANSI/VITA-1, bring nearly 30 VME companies in competition for military programs, with guaranteed interoperability at predefined abstraction layers. VITA’s latest open standard – OpenVPX, called VITA 65 – switches from a parallel backplane to hundreds of serial pairs for nearly 5 Gbps data rates. Twenty-eight companies have announced plans to build or use OpenVPX. Additionally, in 2009, eight VITA specifications achieved ANSI ratification, signaling their official interoperability status.

Other board-level standards such as PICMG’s AdvancedTCA rack-mount standard are migrating from telecom installations to mostly benign, deployed defense racks in trailers, TOCs, and tents. Server and datacom companies including RadiSys and Emerson are converting their rugged NEMA-rated hardware systems to MIL-HBK-217 specs – another example of COTS open standards benefitting A&D by bringing server-class muscle to the battlefield.

In software, Carrier Grade Linux brings High Availability (HA) to these rack-mount systems, along with the Service Availability Forum’s OpenSAF HA middleware. SA Forum specs for the application interface, hardware platform, and others are being implemented by COTS companies such as GoAhead Software. Interoperable network management software is also being opened up with standards for SNMP and NETCONF, from companies such as GoAhead and Tail-f Systems. Here too, the availability of standards to which any company can create software is giving a real edge to battlefield networks and directly benefitting the warfighter in programs such as the Navy’s Aegis/Common Processing System.

Finally, one of the most unusual open standard specs might be the artificial intelligence Resource Description Framework (RDF). Started as a way of representing Web pages and data on the Internet, RDF works with semantic fusion and Natural Language Processing to convert massive amounts of seemingly unrelated data events into searchable (and most importantly), “relatable” chunks that can be assembled in new ways. Companies like Modus Operandi have won DARPA contracts to take open source data and use it for tactical exploitation. Think about mining blog postings on a bad actor’s website and correlating them with a passport database, or even debit card transactions. RDF allows creating reconnaissance software that promises “never before” tactical information – and thus, another benefit to the warfighter.

1 Factors are: always-on Internet connectivity, long battery-life portability, small-screen high-quality multimedia, increased privacy and data security on all devices – portable or not, aging populations and how to care for them, and worldwide growing demand for access to the Internet.

2 The e-book category is not really “new.” The first high-volume production, dedicated e-book was the Rocket eBook from Nuvomedia, around 1999. Fun fact: Some of the founders of that company went on to found Tesla Motors, manufacturers of the much heralded all-electric sports car available today.

3 This writer briefly owned a netbook last year. Loved the price and the build quality of the Asus Eee PC; hated the diminutive clamshell form factor. The screen should’ve folded back flat, like a Toshiba M205 TabletPC.