Military Embedded Systems

Innovations for the warfighter: Small, COTS-based, portable, and platform agnostic


February 20, 2012

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Requirements for platform-independent, portable, cost-effective solutions that leverage commercial technology will drive innovation among designers of future military electronic systems.

During the next 5 to 10 years, the U.S. military will be forced to accomplish its missions with fewer resources as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) initiates major funding cuts. Major platforms will be cut or scaled back and new research and development dollars will also be hard to come by.

Designers of new military systems will need to not only be innovative in improving performance but in managing design costs.

Across the industry, system integrators and suppliers are already anticipating these needs by creating systems that are built with as much COTS technology as possible to save costs and shorten design cycles. They are also designing smaller, portable systems and components that can be used across multiple platforms, as that also saves money.

Let’s look at three examples of where the defense industry leveraged COTS technology in portable systems with small components that can work in air, land, and sea platforms: the Multi-Function Training Aid (MFTA) portable simulation system from Lockheed Martin Global Training and Logistics, the postage-stamp sized MicroGRAM GPS receiver from Rockwell Collins, and the MONAX 4G tactical cellular system from Lockheed Martin.

Portable simulators for any platform

In the world of training and simulation, engineers at Lockheed Martin have developed a portable simulator that can travel anywhere; be assembled in hours; be adapted for aircraft, ground vehicles, and naval vessels; and is completely designed with COTS technology.

“We can take the Multi-Function Training Aid (MFTA) to pilots wherever they are located to use as a refresher or [for] training on a new version of an aircraft software” says Chester Kennedy, Vice President of Engineering at Lockheed Martin Global Training and Logistics in Orlando. The MFTA takes only an hour or two to assemble on location, as opposed to trying to get a full-motion simulator out to different locations, he adds.


Figure 1: The portable Multi-Function Training Aid (MFTA) from Lockheed Martin leverages commercial gaming technology and can train pilots wherever they are located.

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“It does not replace the need for a full-motion simulator nor real flight time in an airplane,” Kennedy says. “However, we were able to take a tremendous percentage of the learning objectives and enable them for training in a more affordable way by simply being able to take the MFTA to different environments.”

U.S. Air Force Special Operations and C-130 aircrews are using it today to train their pilots. The fixed-wing aircraft community was the early adopter of the MFTA, but the system’s application potential is much broader than just aviation, Kennedy says.

“We can bring it out for a variety of airplanes, ground vehicle, and surface Navy applications,” Kennedy says. For the Navy demonstrations, the system has ship controls instead of avionics, he adds.

In a reduced funding atmosphere as the DoD is forced to accomplish its mission with fewer resources, there may be more demand for affordable solutions such as the MFTA, Kennedy says.

Largely because the system is a COTS solution, “We were able to turn around the MFTA from the first prototype request to delivery in six months,” Kennedy says. “The customer didn’t have a hard requirement, just a general need to fill gaps in the training pipeline.”

“For the C-130 configuration, we took the mission computer out of the C-130 cockpit and right into the MFTA,” Kennedy says. “However, the core software runs on a PC that you could buy at Best Buy.”

Not every system will use the mission computer of the flight platform, but every MFTA will have the simulation software running the system, which is the real game changer, Kennedy continues.

“The heart of the MFTA is the Flight Sim software we acquired as intellectual property from Microsoft,” Kennedy says. “It is the COTS kernel at the core of this solution. We put a lot of work at taking the gaming technology and bringing it a new level in realism and simulation to create the enhanced Prepar3D gaming kernel.”

Prepar3D gives “us affordability and the agility” to enable different platforms in the simulator through software without having to build an entirely new, expensive simulator for each application, he continues.

Simulating with a gaming environment fills a gap in the training path by enabling pilots to train while deployed instead of having to take the more expensive route of going off-station to a location that has a full-motion simulator, Kennedy explains. All the functionality and switches do exactly what they would do in an actual aircraft or vehicle, he adds.

“We’ve brought in capabilities that are much more important to a military customer than a gamer-built system would,” Kennedy says. “We built off the foundation Microsoft had that goes back to their flight simulator product. We then sell it commercially and, in an interesting twist on this, anyone can buy it – including our competitors.

“We decided to offer Prepar3D as a COTS product to encourage others to innovate on top of it,” he continues.

The user community can go out and look at it online and enhance it in a variety of ways such as by adding graphic plug-ins for a region of the country, modeling different parts of the globe in high fidelity, and adding weather modules or “aircraft instruments in any kind of airplane you can imagine,” Kennedy says.

“It is a very different business model from what Lockheed Martin has done in the past,” he continues. “However, it allows us to take the best of that development and incorporate it into our product.”

Much like an iPad, it is all about the applications or apps that users create in the open development environment, Kennedy says. “I love my iPad, but wouldn’t love it if it weren’t for the apps or if the apps only came from Apple. It’s the beauty of seeing one app developed, then seeing how I or others can extend it.”

Visit to buy the software and download development kits to create add-ons to the system such as instruments, buildings, and so on.

One GPS for you and your UAV

In the spirit of platform agnosticism, engineers at Rockwell Collins located in Cedar Rapids, IA, funded their own development of a miniature Global Positioning System (GPS) smaller than a postage stamp that can fit underneath a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or be attached to a soldier’s radio.

The MicroGRAM GPS receiver (Figure 2) is a 90 percent reduction in size and an 85 percent reduction in weight from its predecessor, the Miniature Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver Engine SAASM (MPE-S Type I), says Trevor Overton, Program Manager for Surface Embedded and the MicroGRAM at Rockwell Collins. The MicroGRAM has already been provided to AeroVironment for a small UAV application, he adds.


Figure 2: The MicroGRAM GPS receiver from Rockwell Collins can be used on a small UAV, a tactical radio, and even a rifle site.

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“This technology falls into the DoD’s philosophy of combining capabilities into platforms,” Overton continues. “In this case, putting GPS into radios, combining navigation and communications into one device. “

In addition to unmanned systems, “We’ve been talking to several different user communities about potential applications for the MicroGRAM such as rifle mounts, mortar computers, laser range finder devices, as well as the large community of reconnaissance and unmanned aircraft.” Its weight, small size, and low power also make it useful for a large number of radios.

A radio manufacturer is currently interested in the MicroGRAM concept and is getting ready to test it out, Overton notes. However, “We do not have the MicroGRAM on the Rifleman radio,” which is part of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program. “We are trying to get on that platform, though,” he adds.

Inside the DoD, there was a real need for a small, secure GPS receiver, Overton says. The alternative was to purchase a commercial GPS receiver for the task, but the main problem with commercial devices is that they are not secure, as they do not have Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM) capability, Overton continues.

The result was the MicroGRAM GPS receiver, which not only has SAASM capability, but it is secure at the die level as well, he says. The chip inside the receiver meets NSA anti-tamper requirements for any probing that might occur by an enemy agent, Overton adds.

Its design combines the functionality of six ASICs into one, which eliminates die-to-die communication signaling by using only one single die, which cuts down on tampering risk, Overton says.

At the moment, ASICs also are better than FPGAs as FPGAs are not quite as small as they need to be for this application and they still consume more power than is optimal, Overton says.

Smaller and smaller designs are the overriding theme throughout the DoD, Overton says. Requirements are demanding smaller, lighter electronics that consume less power while adding more capability, he adds.

The MicroGRAM is engineered to be low power – as low as four tenths of a watt, Overton says.

“We are definitely looking at even greater size reduction in the future,” Overton says. Size reduction is a never-ending struggle in the embedded community.

Secure smartphones and a tactical app store

Future military outposts will have their own private network with its own app store, enabling U.S. and allied personnel to access a tactical app store with iPads or commercial smartphones, depending on their security clearance level.

Engineers at Lockheed Martin are designing a portable system that integrates the capabilities of these commercial products into a secure solution for warfighters called MONAX (Figure 3).


Figure 3: MONAX is a secure 4G wireless network that enables warfighters to use commercial smartphone and tablet technology to manage their missions.

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MONAX is basically a 4G tactical cellular system, but one that functions within a private, secure network, explains David Weber, Business Development Manager at Lockheed Martin in Philadelphia. Essentially, the network can be set up in places where there are no cell towers and, within hours, a private, secure cellular network is operational.

The system consists of a portable MONAX Lynx sleeve that connects off-the-shelf touch-screen smartphones to a MONAX XG Base Station infrastructure located on the ground or on airborne platforms, says a Lockheed Martin MONAX brochure. The MONAX interface uses a secure RF Link with exportable encryption.

“MONAX is device agnostic,” Weber says. Warfighters can use an iPad or commercially available smartphone like an Android for voice, video, and data transmission, but to connect to the MONAX network will require having the proper security protocols, he adds.

For example, U.S. Marines and NATO personnel can all bring their own unique smartphones and still access the network if they have the proper clearance, Weber continues. Once connected, their device will access a VPN tunnel that is encrypted, he adds.

Just as iPad users go to an app store for personal and business uses, MONAX users will also have access to a secure, tactical app store that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Weber says. The apps, which could be tactical maps or other mission-specific information, are developed for or rehosted on a smartphone, then approved for and made available to warfighters in the app store, he adds.

“MONAX uses a layered approach to security, but another reason it is secure is that we use nonstandard commercial frequencies,” Weber says.

The solution has a mobile device management feature, which enables users to set secure access policies, Weber says. For example, if the Marines want NATO allies to only have access to a certain level, they can set policy and push it out to the phones, he continues. MONAX also can be set to give different security access based on rank, with a general having access that lance corporals would not, Weber adds.

The MONAX network is capable of interfacing with tactical radios like devices within the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), Weber says. Radio users would just have to enter the VPN tunnel, he adds.

MONAX was just made available for sale this year and is not being used in the theater yet, but is being evaluated in different exercises, Weber says. The Marines have tried it out already and found it very user intuitive, he adds.