Military Embedded Systems

Q & A: Military rad-hard designs for space … and beyond -- a conversation with Sean D'Arcy and Josh Broline


June 20, 2024

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

As space becomes the next domain for weapons and military threats, designers of radiation-hardened electronics are seeing more requirements for greater radiation-resistant components. In this conversation with Sean D’Arcy, Senior Director, Aerospace and Defense/IR HR at Infineon Technologies and Josh Broline, Senior Director of Marketing and Applications at Renesas, we discuss this challenge as well as the hottest applications for military space, the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and if open architectures may be leveraged in spacecraft designs.

McHALE: What are the factors driving military radiation-hardened (rad-hard) designs today? In other words, what are your military customers looking for in this area?

    Sean D'Arcy, Infineon

D’ARCY: Historically, high-value on-orbit space vehicles and strategic programs dominated the militaries’ need for radiation-hardened products. And while that will remain, we are starting to see concerns about various weapons being put on orbit by adversaries and bad actors that may drive an increased interest in higher TID and SEE [total ionizing dose and single-event effects] for electronic designs. A technology change is the move towards phased array for on-orbit assets. There is a limited portfolio of rad-hard components that can support the FPGA [field-programmable gate array] and high-speed converters, especially in power, which is critical for high-value military communications systems.

    Josh Broline, Renesas

BROLINE: Mostly parts fabbed on dielectrically isolated processes that won’t latch up. They continue to prefer parts in hermetic packages sold to DLA [Defense Logistics Agency] (military drawings, SMDs [surface-mount devices].)

McHALE: What is the hottest application for rad-hard electronics? Small sats? Avionics, manned space flight, something else? Why?

D’ARCY: Right now, I personally see us at a crossroads as to what the future mix of radiation-tolerant versus radiation-hardened will be. I encourage people to think about the need for rad-hard not by orbit but by value of function and duration. Small satellites are moving towards shorter-duration missions that allow for rapid upgrading of technology across a constellation while, for example, the high-value assets like GPS are going to remain rad-hard. Over the next 15 years the greatest growth will be in manned space and lunar exploration where mission success is critical.

BROLINE: Currently, we are seeing a huge increase in the number of customers using the AMD/Xilinx Versal FPA in many applications across the board requiring the need for a multiphase power architecture to meet the high-power core requirements of that FPGA (0.8V, 130A).

McHALE: Are you seeing military space system requirements revolving more around the modular open systems approach (MOSA) strategy, open architectures, and open standards? If yes, how?

D’ARCY: My opinion is that we are still a few years away from any type of open standard for military space systems in the radiation-hardened market space. SDA [Space Development Agency] may drive an open architecture to speed payload development, but the large rad-hard programs are very specialized and low-volume, which may take a longer time to move towards standards. An example, again, is the GPS constellation, which is highly customized, and both bus and payload are very specific.

BROLINE: These types of initiatives
are typically wrapped up in the processors/processing architectures and software. For what goes around the processors (power, sensor signal processing, etc.), we typically don’t run into these standards.

McHALE: Reduced cost requirements often mean more requests for COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] components in space. How do you meet this demand while maintaining reliability?

D’ARCY: I see couple of ways to satisfy the need for COTS or automotive parts on orbit. First is that this is the genesis of radiation-tolerant parts where industry tests and qualifies the parts to a lower TID and SEE requirement but still provides an expected level of performance in the radiation and environmental challenges found in space applications. An advantage to having the semiconductor manufacturer do it is that the cost is incurred once not repeated by each payload or bus manufacturer saving cost across the industry. Second is the use of radiation-hardened components in guard systems or critical power systems while radiation-tolerant is used in the non-critical systems. For example, you use radiation-hardened MOSFETs to switch and control power, which allows you to mitigate any power failure due to radiation or environmental effects and, more importantly, power cycle lower-reliability components and designs. Related to this is using a guard card function with radiation-hardened parts to monitor a number of radiation tolerant cards or subsystems and reset them and reload them when required.

BROLINE: Using COTS for space is risky. We’ve radiation-tested many COTS parts and most perform poorly when exposed to TID and/or the SEE environment. Our strategy is to design product specifically for the radiation environment. We also use processes for our wafer fabs that we are confident will give us the radiation performance we need. We then offer these parts on various flows to address the different needs for different programs. One flow specifically created for reduced-cost programs is our rad-tolerant plastic program.

McHALE: How is the government’s long-term plans to increase funding for domestic microelectronics production impacting defense space systems? When will we see the impact?

D’ARCY: This is a critical need for the United States and its allies given the vulnerability, geographically, of a significant part of the semiconductor industry. This is important in all defense applications including defense and needs to be accelerated. I think we are already seeing the impact as the United States and allies (“friendshoring”) continue to understand the risk in the present supply chain. We are seeing major investments that are already seeing more designs being built in the U.S.

BROLINE: There will be an uplift over time in more domestic fab, assembly, and test options. This will certainly take time to become established, but the DoD and supply base will be able to take advantage of those additional options. Whether for the likes of supply-chain redundancy, next-generation technology, or something else, this will help with the robustness/reliability of the supply base over time.

Sean D’Arcy is Senior Director, Aerospace and Defense/IR HR at Infineon Technologies. Josh Broline is Senior Director of Marketing and Applications at Renesas.

Infineon Technologies •

Renesas Electronics •

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