Quad-A Day 2: Looking For More From Less

Rotorcraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are all on display at this year’s annual Army Aviation Mission Solutions Summit here in Nashville.  All these platforms are demanding new capabilities to increase lethality, survivability and improve situational awareness.  But: they are also extremely sensitive to weight.  So, new capabilities must include a concomitant weight reduction or, at a minimum, not add one additional ounce to the platform.  There isn’t a platform customer at this summit that doesn’t want more functionality and ever more performance in smaller computing form factors.  Abaco is showing off some of that new capability at the summit event this week. 

Saving pounds saves dollars

I recall from my days in the satellite launch vehicle industry that weight, and size for that matter, has significant value per pound.  In dollar terms, a pound is worth between $10,000 and $50,000 on a launch vehicle.  Large passenger aircraft can save thousands per flight by removing unnecessary weight.  In the domain of Army Aviation UAVs or manned/unmanned rotorcraft, every pound saved can gain several potentially life critical minutes on station or dramatically extend operational range.

The Eurocard 3U and 6U form factors that support VMEbus, CompactPCI and now VPX, have served the embedded defense electronics community for a few decades now and are core to Abaco product developments.  It is long-proven technology.  It brings open standards interoperability and is still alive and well across many programs and platforms.  And, in fact, the DoD is generally mandating this technology across programs to gain both cost control and modernize interoperability.  3U OpenVPX, the smaller Eurocard standard, is quickly dominating the military embedded computing landscape with its high speed backplane connectivity and the ever-increasing performance of multi-core processors.  Abaco just announced a 3U single board computer with 40 gigabit Ethernet to the backplane.  But this form factor still presents SWaP challenges for many applications and platforms.

Smaller, faster, cheaper

If I can borrow the better, faster, cheaper truism that pervades many domains, but rephrase it as smaller, faster, cheaper - there is something to be said for tackling all three of these.  There are, and have been, smaller form factor industry standard developments over the past few years.  But: none of these developed a real eco-system of suppliers nor broad industry adoption.  In fact, only one of the standards, VITA 74, is moving forward within the VITA (VMEbus Industry Trade Association) ANSI standardization process.  And VITA 74, also referred to as VNX, only hits the smaller and cheaper parts of that truism.  The VNX standard constrains the faster part, and I mean computing performance faster.  And there is still only one supplier. Or perhaps two.

Nobody wants to give up performance.  But: there is always a performance trade-off in smaller form factor computing solutions - and that’s the rub.  How large a processor can you accommodate, how much power can the compute system handle, how much compute performance can the solution accommodate?  The real focus in these smaller form factor solutions is the integrated black box anyway.  What’s inside is not so important so long as the solution presents an open application operating environment, FACE included, and the flexibility to modify and/or upgrade the solution and technology as requirements evolve and grow.  Abaco has eclipsed these performance restrictions with small form factor solutions that deliver reduced SWaP, better compute performance, and improved affordability – smaller, faster and cheaper.  In one instance, well over a TeraFLOPS of throughput in the palm of your hand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Those new systems that set these new standards haven’t yet been launched. It’ll happen soon. Keep checking back with us. 

David French

David is the Director of Business Development for aviation programs for Abaco Systems. He started out his career as a design and systems engineer for space platforms and launch vehicle avionics. Impatient with the sometimes slow pace of new development opportunity there, he directed his energy toward the broader embedded computing universe from telecommunications infrastructure to defense electronics. He still marvels at the challenge and discovery in applied science and technology.

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