Military Embedded Systems

OpenRFM: A proposed open architecture to support EW and SIGINT applications


April 07, 2015

Lorne Graves

Mercury Systems

OpenRFM is an affordable, modular open systems architecture that standardizes the electromechanical interfaces and control planes to drive affordability, ease of integration, and interoperability within the radio frequency (RF)/microwave domain and is ideally suited to electronic warfare (EW) applications. Its modular approach and leverage of commercial technology enables scalability, adaptability, high channel density, and exportable features.

Within the defense industrial base, adherence to standards such as IEEE and ISO are nothing new. However, there has been little standards-based activity born purely out of the defense sector; nearly all standards activity emanates from the commercial sector. This situation is not surprising, since much of the work within defense electronics is centered on platforms designed to meet very specific applications, where standards-based solutions are difficult to design, engineer, and develop. This fact is especially true within RF and microwave-based defense applications where, to date, little to no progress has been made in developing open systems architectures that support EW applications.

This void of homegrown standards completely contradicts the Department of Defense’s (DoD) mandate that all systems move toward open architectures in order to lower costs and facilitate ongoing upgrades to essential electronic systems so they remain on the cutting edge of technology. The DoD open systems initiative dates back to November 1994, when the Office of the Secretary of Defense directed that all DoD agencies use open systems and standards for acquisition of weapon systems and programs. The Open Systems Joint Task Force was established to promote open systems and standards around the Open Systems Architecture (OSA). In June 2013, the DoD published the OSA “Contract Guidebook for Program Managers,” which provided the first prescriptive approach on how open architectures should be developed and rolled out for key defense programs. This guide defined an open architecture as “a technical architecture that adopts open standards supporting a modular, loosely coupled and highly cohesive system structure that includes publishing of key interfaces within the system and full design disclosure. A key enabler for open architecture is the adoption of an open business model, which requires doing business transparently to leverage the collaborative innovation of numerous participants across the enterprise, permitting shared risk, maximizing asset reuse, and reducing total ownership costs. The combination of open architecture and an open business model permits the acquisition of open systems architectures that yield modular, interoperable systems allowing components to be added, modified, replaced, removed and/or supported by different vendors throughout the life cycle in order to drive opportunities for enhanced competition and innovation.”

The OSA guidebook specifically defines expectations around OSA for commercial organizations supporting the defense industrial base, while leaving the development of standards to industry participants. Today, throughout the DoD, there is a push toward commonality – using the same equipment, hardware, and software across multiple platforms to reduce operational and training costs, improve efficiency, and combat obsolescence. This push for commonality requires a standardized OSA.

Yet despite the fact that RF and microwave technologies have been part of the underlying fabric of critical defense applications for generations, proprietary systems and technologies prevail, making upgrades challenging at best. RF and microwave components – mixers, filters, capacitors, limiters, oscillators, and digital receivers, among other technologies – have been part of the lexicon for decades. Today, as EW and signals intelligence (SIGINT) applications are ramped up to meet emerging threats around the globe, advanced Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jammers and Integrated Microwave Assemblies (IMA) use these technologies in ways that had never been imagined. An IMA, for example, often offers customized designs for mission-specific applications, which combine the integration of switches and switch matrices, amplifiers, attenuators, filters, oscillators, and other RF and microwave functions.

An open standard for embedded defense electronics

The bottom line is that today’s technologies, while advanced, have not kept pace with the DoD’s OSA directives or the need to provide a standardized way of building, integrating, testing, reusing, and upgrading these systems. In other words, the world of open systems and open architectures has not been introduced to RF and microwave solutions.

Working with the VME International Trade Association (VITA), Mercury helped to form the OpenVPX working group, which built a true open standard for embedded processing within defense electronics in 18 months. The emergence and adoption of the OpenVPX standard means added interoperability, cost certainty, risk mitigation, affordability, and technology innovation.

The difference today is that OpenRFM is not an idea waiting to be developed. Mercury is already building modular, standardized solutions that can be applied to EW and SIGINT applications, and is developing OpenRFM-based products in 3U and 6U VME, VXS (VITA 41), and OpenVPX (VITA 65) form factors. These products are protocol-agnostic and use a common test bed, which reduces development time. (Figure 1.) Currently, Mercury is using OpenRFM on three unique missions with three key customers.


Figure 1: Mercury Systems' OpenRFM wideband IF module with cover.

(Click graphic to zoom)




OpenRFM a tool to counter evolving threats

OpenRFM’s modular, standardized, scalable approach allows prime contractors and the DoD to develop or augment existing applications to counter evolving threats in EW and SIGINT. It enables faster deployment of applications and classified techniques that are the lifeblood of rapidly evolving EW-related programs, which continue to grow in importance as the complexion of our defense base and the missions it serves continues to change. OpenRFM enables existing EW and SIGINT applications to be deployed more effectively and affordably. It can accelerate the deployment of techniques such as “cloaking” the outgoing signal with random noise, and make deploying EW applications more predictable and affordable.

OpenRFM will become a key part of the industry landscape, as it is the best option for meeting today’s EW and SIGINT challenges. OpenRFM combines digital signal processing and advanced RF and microwave into a single system. Most importantly, it aligns with the DoD directives to lower costs and increase the ability to rapidly and continuously upgrade critical defense electronics systems, thereby keeping pace with emerging threats.

A. Lorne Graves is Chief Technologist at Mercury Systems. With more than 20 years of experience designing mixed-signal circuitry and FPGAs as well as expertise in mixed-signal and RF technology, he has served as the business development lead on several key radar, SIGINT, and electronic warfare programs working directly with various defense prime contractors. Before joining Mercury in 2003, he was a senior engineer for a major networking company; prior to that, he served as a Field Applications Engineer for two electronic-component manufacturers. Graves earned his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Readers can reach him at [email protected].

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