Military Embedded Systems

Lowering cost per mile in military vehicles drives vetronics designs


April 18, 2012

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Designers of military vetronics computers, displays, and software say integration and low power are driving requirements for upgrades and new systems.

Nobody likes new car payments. Just as the average consumer wants to make his car or SUV last forever, DoD program managers want their ground vehicle platforms to perform for at least another decade. Maintaining and keeping these vehicles up to date with current technology will be expensive. Success will be measured by how well the cost per mile can be kept low enough without sacrificing capability or performance.

Cost pressures are really driving the innovation path in vetronics, says David Jedynak, Manager – Advanced Solutions at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Charlotte, NC. Cost per mile is a way to measure total cost of ownership of a ground vehicle, including the vehicle electronics, he adds. The cost-per-mile metric takes into account maintenance costs, fuel costs, training costs, and operating costs. The vetronics are just one little part of that, but a very expensive part. So the DoD sees it as an area to reduce expenses.

“Today military ground vehicle integrators are looking at cost, commonality, size, and high Technical Readiness Levels (TRLs), Jedynak says. “For C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] solutions, performance is still paramount because those applications demand cutting-edge solutions. But when talking about vehicle electronics, the key drivers are cost and the ability to have common parts across multiple vehicles, and high TRL levels, which mean the solution is ready to go and a lower risk and there’s little or no Non-Recurring Engineering (NRE). Those are the more important factors right now.”

SWaP-C optimization

“Performance is important for high-end systems such as signals intelligence and battle command, but today, for vetronics it’s all about Size, Weight, [Power, and Cost] (SWaP-C) reduction: cost, commonality, and open standards that don’t require a lot of space are the driving requirements,” Jedynak says. “The desire is to buy, train with, and stock/spare common components.”

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“Minimizing SWaP is the key trend – everyone wants a smaller and lighter subsystem with equal to or greater than the processing capability they already have with their existing subsystems,” says Mac Rothstein, Product Manager, Systems, GE Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, VA. “High-performance computing is also trending up as more and more data needs to be captured and analyzed to give warfighters a clearer and more detailed picture of the battlefield for air and ground vehicles. GE’s IPS5100 and IPS511 subsystems provide a 360-degree view of a vehicle’s surroundings,” he adds.

“Thinking capability first and power last has been a common theme in ground vehicle systems,” says Doug Patterson, Vice President of Marketing at Aitech Defense Systems in Chatsworth, CA. “They are putting counter-IED [Improvised Explosive Device] jammer systems onto HMMWVs [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles] and guess what? The battery and alternator are not big enough to handle all that power pouring from all that capability into the box. It requires kilowatts of extra power, which comes at a cost.”

“At the electronics level, all the new processors such as the multicores, Intel Core i7s, etc., are creating a rise in temperature and the heat has got to go somewhere,” Patterson continues. “So military integrators are saying to embedded suppliers: ‘help us.’ They are pushing for innovation from the board and subsystems designers on this issue,” he adds. Each platform takes a different approach such as using liquid-cooling or spray-cooling techniques inside the enclosure/chassis or box.

Vetronics boxes use up a fair number of watts and when you have a lot of watts in an electronics box, you need a lot of metal to cool it – and a lot of volume is needed for the cooling mechanism, Jedynak says. Therefore, if you reduce the power you reduce the intrinsic size and weight of box and also material costs, he continues. “If we can push lower power with great performance, we get a strong cost reduction and a reduction in total cost of ownership.”

Demands for Line Replaceable Modules (LRMs) are increasing and “we are seeing 3U viewed as a good way to address SWaP and cost constraints,” Jedynak says. “Today, vehicles are overburdened in terms of SWaP: Whether they are tactical vehicles or combat vehicles like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, they are dramatically overburdened because of the addition of armoring elements over the recent years. Therefore, reducing the size of computing elements, reducing weight and power, is a huge imperative today. So obviously, cost goes right along with that. The trend is moving toward commonality and 2-Level Maintenance, which drive us toward a blade-type computer system, i.e., 3U VPX LRMs.”

Commonality and standardization are behind the U.S. Army’s Vehicular Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) initiative. It provides interoperability at the subsystem level. “VICTORY is to subsystems as OpenVPX is to the backplane,” Jedynak says. OpenVPX enables standard card modules from multiple vendors to work together within a chassis and “VICTORY shows us how to compose vehicle subsystems” that can work with each other via common standards, he adds. For more on VICTORY see the Mil Tech Insider column on page 12.

There are upgrade programs right now in initial stages for Bradley and Abrams, Jedynak says. Curtiss-Wright is looking to respond to these opportunities in terms of 3U VPX and commonality as well as SWaP-C optimized devices with VICTORY compliance. “Another important program is the JLTV (Joint Light Tactical Vehicle), which is a very cost-constrained vehicle” that will require low-cost, reduced SWaP solutions, he adds.

System integrators also are thinking literally outside of the box when it comes to managing power, Patterson says. Along those lines “we’ve got an outside-the-box, novel approach for distributing all that computing by putting remote interfaces that are concentrated around the vehicle. What we learned from the cancelled Future Combat Systems (FCS) program was not a waste. We leveraged real-world knowledge and the technology to distribute the computer architectures within the vehicle so that you don’t have to concentrate all that heat/power into one spot. Distributing all of that power around the vehicle makes more sense than concentrating it in one place.

“The distributed computing concept echoes work the Army has done with wearable computing configurations on individual warfighters,” he continues. “On a soldier you can put 60 or 100 watts and spread it across the body and the soldier will never know it, through cell phones, radios, wrist tablets, etc. Soldiers carry cell phones now and are not even thinking about the heat [they’re] generating.”