Military Embedded Systems

This year's top trends affecting the military


February 23, 2007

Chris A. Cuifo

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

This year's top trends affecting the military

A qualitative look at what may become 2007's most compelling tech stories

A qualitative look at what may become 2007’s
most compelling tech stories

The technology tradeshow season is upon us. In January and February, there are at least five tradeshows that offer a glimpse of what’s in store this year for military technology. From the Consumer Electronics Show, Bus&Boards, MacWorld, and AFCEA West/TechNet to Europe’s huge Embedded World, COTS technology is the backbone of the modern military. From the flying Chinese USB-enabled toys shown at CES in Las Vegas – which show how cheaply UAVs can be made – to the AppleTV at MacWorld that brings IPTV to the masses, much of this technology may ultimately find its way into military use in some fashion or another. The following are some of my predictions for 2007, in no particular order of importance.

Low power
When Transmeta showed Intel four years ago that IA-32 microprocessors could be made to run efficiently at lower power, Intel grabbed some ideas from its Israeli design group, effectively ditched the Pentium 4 CPU, and ushered in what would become the Pentium M (Dothan). With lower CPU frequencies and power and higher performance, Intel (x86), AMD (x86), ARM (ARM7/9/10), P.A. Semi (PowerPC), and others continue to add horsepower while making battery-powered doodads more efficient.

In military apps, saving power means reducing heat, which means less strain on the cooling system. In airborne and manpack applications, less heat also means less weight and translates into longer battery life in portable systems. As iPods, MobiBLUs, Nintendo Wiis, and DishPlayer multimedia devices pervade the civilian entertainment market, low-power technology will rapidly be adopted by military system designers.

FPGAs and reconfigurable logic
To me, it seems the march toward FPGAs in military systems is a no-brainer, obvious trend. But I’m biased in favor of FPGAs because I spend a lot of time researching signal processing applications, which increasingly use FPGAs’ parallelism to solve DSP problems. However, on a broader scale, reconfigurable FPGAs are not yet a foregone conclusion in most military systems. But they will be.

Companies such as Actel are securing rad-hard design-ins with their flash-based FPGAs, and both Altera and Xilinx are conducting SEU studies to show the robustness of their products in radiation situations. Additionally, Altera’s HardCopy variants of Stratix FPGAs will eliminate the last remaining myth against FPGAs: that they might “forget” their RAM-based configuration at power-up. With Lattice increasing their logic densities and including a free LatticeMico32 soft processor – and both Altera and Xilinx ramping production on the densest FPGAs the world has ever seen – look for FPGAs to move out of DSP-only applications and start providing reconfigurability to general military systems. Make no mistake: FPGAs will become as common as CPUs in defense systems.

Built-in hardware and software security
On the hardware side, Intel’s Virtualization Technology (part of the *T initiative) in Core and Core 2 processors and peripherals will allow applications to run in hardware partitions, providing “walled gardens” between code sets. This goes hand-in-hand with some of the partitioned embedded RTOSs such as Green Hills’ INTEGRITY-178 and LynuxWorks’ LynxSecure kernel. These RTOSs allow applications and even other operating systems like Windows or Linux to run in secure partitions on top of an EAL-certified kernel: If one partition “dies” or becomes corrupt, the entire system maintains operation.

On the civilian side, security concerns are driven by viruses, spyware, phishing, zombies, and just plain old theft. Biometric devices such as fingerprint readers in Lenovo, Toshiba, and other laptops secure entire systems from unauthorized use, while Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs) on motherboards provide software authentication prior to code execution. Also, as we went to press, Microsoft announced for sale the consumer version of Windows Vista, which at its core is all about security.

Similar to some of the embedded techniques just mentioned, Microsoft’s new Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) moves code around in memory, preventing hackers from predicting where code will run and (presumably) foiling the classic buffer overflow exploit. With so much happening on the civilian side, these mainstream security technologies (and others) will absolutely roll over into the military market very quickly.

Open standards and trade associations
COTS innovation ushered in multivendor open standards options for military designers, signaling a dramatic reduction in prime contractors’ vertical integration programs and “bespoke” proprietary systems. Today, more vendors than ever are offering up their proprietary ideas to consortia and trade associations in hopes that other companies will jump onboard. The military benefits as new form factors, software modules, and interoperable technologies become available from a larger supplier base.

Some hardware examples in the past 30 days alone include StackableUSB from PC/104 vendor Micro/sys, and MEN Micro’s Universal Submodule Specification (USM) for FPGA-based mezzanine boards. Increasingly, hardware and software organizations and IC groups including the PC/104 Consortium, PICMG, VITA, the Fabless Semiconductor Association (FSA), the VSI Alliance, and the Eclipse Foundation will be called upon to “institutionalize” more open standards. And the military will reap the benefits of more interoperable technology.

Have any other new technology ideas? E-mail me at [email protected].