Military Embedded Systems

The changing "face" of today's military upgrades is more than skin deep


June 20, 2011

Chris A. Ciufo

General Micro Systems, Inc.

The DoD is applying the latest civilian technology to legacy platforms and doctrine faster than ever before, sometimes less than a year after it?s hit the consumer market.

We assemble the articles for each issue of Military Embedded Systems three to four months in advance, and with so much lead-time, things often change. A lot. Contributors get busy and have to drop out, or new technology announcements are so compelling that we sometimes call up companies and twist their arm to spill their guts. This June issue of MES had a lot more churn than normal – which is why you’re receiving it later than we’d like. (Sorry about that!) But as we pulled all the articles together at the 11th hour, we spotted a unique pattern: Legacy systems and methodologies are succumbing to the latest technology trends. We’re not just referring to the normal march of COTS upgrades; instead, what’s revolutionary to me is how “really, really new stuff” is finding its way so darned quickly to the battlefield.

Consider the CWCEC and IDT article about Serial RapidIO and Intel DSP. It was only a year ago in March that Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing privately disclosed to me that their future DSP plans would be oriented around Intel’s x86 line. Core 2 Duos were barely shipping on VME and VPX boards, but the Nehalem-based Core i5/i7 had just been announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I was shocked that the military’s long-standing DSP love affair with the PowerPC could be toppled so quickly. Now, with Sandy Bridge Core i7 SBCs from so many vendors, 64-bit instruction sets and 256-bit Advanced Vector Extensions for floating point are the popular choice for rugged, deployed DSP systems. Wake up, Freescale. Your market is just about gone. But to be fair, we thought we’d balance out the argument by including the article entitled “ celebrates 20 years of advancing Power Architecture technology.” Of course, without Freescale’s AltiVec road map, it ain’t gonna matter much to DoD designers.

Or how about the picture of Dragon Lady on this edition’s cover? The U-2 spy plane was publicly supposed to be a NASA platform – at least, that’s what the Feds told Russia before one was shot down and Francis Gary Powers became a political prisoner of the Kremlin in May 1960. Check out the size of the B Camera that recorded high-altitude images on the U-2. This was a huge improvement over the previous satellite systems that literally took film pictures and ejected a cartridge into space in order to fall to Earth for recovery. (For you young engineers reading this who can’t ever remember a world without cell phones, isn’t the idea of collecting film from space hilarious?) How quaint the U-2 seems today compared to the loiter capabilities of the Global Hawk and Predator platforms with IR/CITV/EW sensor suites … or of the other “blacker” airframes we don’t talk about. America has only been flying UAS platforms for about 10 years (RQ-1 Predator operationally deployed around 2001).

But check this out: Recent reports for soldier-launched UAS ISR platforms under development imply that the video camera in Apple’s HD 720p iPhone 4 is so good that contractors are considering just mounting an iPhone 4 in a quasi-disposable drone. That’s less than 12 months after the iPhone 4 became publicly available. And Apple is unintentionally making other inroads into defense. Alaska Airlines recently authorized use of the iPad as a digital flight bag to replace the traditional paper navigation and flight books pilots carry. Our article “The iPad factor” shows how today’s warfighters – well versed in consumer smartphones, gaming technology, and now tablet computers – are using iPads for embedded, virtual training. It makes perfect sense. Even companies like Black Diamond, noted for their Land Warrior-esque soldier-mounted deployed computers, are using the latest Intel Atom CPUs to bring situational awareness to dismounted soldiers and Special Operations Forces. The Atom processor has only been around for about two years. General Dynamics C4 Systems, on the other hand (literally), is using Android-based PDAs to mount computers on a soldier’s wrist. Android has gained traction in the civilian market only in the past two years. As of April, analysts report that Android phones are outselling all other smartphones.

And finally, in what might be the most interesting use of civilian tech rapidly finding its way onto the battlefield, peruse the article “Using DNA to safeguard electrical components and protect against counterfeiting and diversion.” Although the company Applied DNA Sciences perfected their “encrypted” plant genome DNA for authentication of clothing (think about those fake Louis Vuitton handbags people crave) and even British currency, the DNA can be added to the ink used to mark semiconductor/IC packages. The DoD is all over this technology as a surefire way of combating the growing problem of counterfeit military ICs entering the supply chain. This biotech start-up has only been around for six years, and now they’re poised to do major military service by protecting systems from soldering in gray market or suspiciously procured ICs (like the kind removed from VCRs and PCs by children in third-world countries).

In each of the aforementioned cases – and in the rest of this issue’s articles – pay close attention to the shrinking timeframe between cool new civilian tech and the time it takes before it’s deployed on the battlefield. The face of platform upgrades has changed. If you blink, you might miss it.

Chris A. Ciufo, Editor [email protected]