Electronic complexity in automobiles has increased rapidly, making testing these electronic sub-assemblies very challenging. Aerospace electronic engineers have their own unique testing needs driven by requirements for long operating life, high reliability, and hostile environmental conditions. In this interview, Keith Moore, CEO of Pickering Interfaces, which offers modular signal switching, simulation, and software for use in electronic test and verification, discusses the unique challenges facing testing engineers in aerospace and the solutions provided by Pickering.
Tech Briefs: What are the unique challenges in the space testing market compared to automotive testing?
Keith Moore: What's different about space versus automotive is reliability. The cost of failure, particularly for a flight vehicle, is incredibly high, so an enormous amount of effort needs to be put into validating launch vehicles and the systems that support them from the ground – particularly for extreme temperatures, vibrations, and everything else that could occur in space.
The other area where space is different from automotive is burn-in. Whether it's a flight vehicle or ground station equipment, the customer can do a lot of burn-in testing to prove the reliability of their product before they use it. They can use commercial off-the-shelf LXI/PXI products from Pickering.
Automotive is also about reliability, but you don't need the sheer levels of robustness and proving that you need for space. A particular aerospace manufacturer is shining at the moment by reusing their space vehicles and using commercial products. We're quite a significant supplier to them with our PXI switching & simulation products.
For us, a lot of our automotive business is in simulation, and the systems are not as complex. If you're simulating a dashboard or braking system, it is pretty complex but not to the level of parts for a satellite or launch vehicle.
Tech Briefs: What types of applications within the space industry do your products address?
Moore: One is testing payloads. The payloads today are quite complex. For satellites in space, power consumption is critical. You want extremely low power consumption, so you need to make very sensitive measurements of the power drain on those vehicles when they're in space. We have reed relays that can reliably connect very low currents and voltages to instrumentation, whereas conventional relays do not. Pickering specializes in relays suitable for switching incredibly low-level signals, so those kinds of applications feed very naturally into looking, for example, at battery drain on a space vehicle.
A recent product we launched is a resolver simulator used by one of the major aerospace manufacturers – we believe it is used to simulate the gimballing (or positioning) of rocket motors. When you see their vehicle take off, the position of the motors moves slightly as it's going up or coming down again, so they need to simulate that very quickly in a very fast loop, and they use our products to help with that.
With our products, because they are card-based, they're very scalable, so you might be testing something relatively small – maybe a microscope light – or something much bigger. With our solutions, you could scale them up by simply plugging in more modules. With some of our resistance simulators, we can simulate temperature accuracy down to 0.01 °C, pushing the barriers on accuracy.
We have standard architectures – LXI, PXI – and a range of microwave switching products within these architectures because the communication from these satellites is in the microwave area. So when those signals come down, you need to distribute them. We also design custom microwave switching systems to customers’ specifications, as many applications have unique requirements.
Tech Briefs: What are Pickering’s unique differentiators?
Moore: We work closely and particularly quickly with customers to define our products and applications that exactly suit their requirements. Being agile is essential because space companies are moving quickly. For us, working with some of these newer space companies is great because it doesn't take three years to see a project through – it may take a couple of months to see it all the way through.
We've got a deep knowledge of our products, particularly switching. We've been doing it for over 50 years. We do all of our own engineering and produce pretty much everything in-house. We really control the product, that way we can also offer long-term support. We don't just design and manufacture products and then suddenly, when the sales fall below certain levels, kill them because they’re not making money. We’ll still make them, even if they’re made in very low quantities, many years after standard production is finished. That's quite an important differentiator because, for some customers, they need to know that if they put a satellite in space – it could be up 20 or 30 years – they can buy more test kits to maintain what they've got in the future. We don’t have to tell them that the kits are based on computer chips that are obsolete, so we discontinued them. We don't do that.