A presidential election... the continuance or end of deploying troops in Iraq...Phoenix spacecraft landing on Mars...2008 could be an exciting year, so let's take a moment to look at a few trends that could affect the military embedded Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) market.

Trend 1: Miniaturization in the Military

The mobile handset industry has set the standard for "smaller is better." In 2008, we will see more demand for small footprint designs in the military embedded community. This is driven by the increasing tactical needs for battlefield equipment. Intelligence used to be collected in the field and sent back to a central office for analysis and processing, but with the increasing amount of data being collected, front-end processing in a tactical battlefield environment becomes more crucial. It is necessary in order to reduce the amount of data that is stored for back-end processing to lower the amount of time required to process stored data, as well as to enable some real-time decisions to be made based upon the acquired intelligence. Expect to see emerging needs for smaller COTS form factors such as MicroTCA, PC/104+ and COM Express.

Swift Engineering’s KillerBee unmanned aerial vehicle illustrates the need for smaller lighter, more efficient embedded systems.

Since the MicroTCA concept was introduced in 2005, this next generation smaller embedded form factor has been projected for use in military applications. Recently, enclosure vendor Hybricon Corporation announced an Air Transport Rack (ATR) version of a MicroTCA chassis for use in airborne applications. We anticipate that MicroTCA will become more popular as a platform for in-house proof of concept military project designs throughout 2008. However, since the availability of conduction cooled signal processing and other military communication board-level solutions are nonexistent as of today, wide COTS adoption in the military community will not take place until at least the next decade.

Though MicroTCA is much smaller than 6U VME, it is still too bulky for a majority of portable tactical applications. In 2007, we anticipate there will be more proposed standards for militarized or ruggedized versions of portable and modular commercial form factors such as PC/104+ and COM Express.

Trend 2: Royalty Free Operating Systems

Military designers have long been fed up with expensive, license-based Real- Time Operating Systems (RTOSs). It used to be that royalty-free operating systems could not live up to the expectations of many military projects. They were either not "deterministic" enough or lacking in vendor support. With the advent of Linux, the business models of RTOS vendors have drastically changed. There are a number of choices when it comes to real-time embedded Linux and other royalty free RTOSs such as Green Hills' INTEGRITY. In 2008, we will see royalty free RTOSs entering the mainstream as military embedded software engineers become more comfortable with them.

Trend 3: Reusable Code

COTS hardware systems, development platforms, and bus architectures come and go. But software code endures because it can take years to develop. In the past, military embedded system architects were reluctant to upgrade or change hardware because of a lack of software compatibility. To implement newer hardware, software code would typically have to be completely rewritten. Because of this lack of compatibility, many programs were stuck with aging hardware that was quickly becoming obsolete.

With the advent of POSIX conformance middleware and RTOSs, embedded designers can now focus on software algorithm designs rather than searching for legacy hardware. They can upgrade their computing platforms without compromising their code base. In fact, code portability has become a major consideration for new military projects. For example, the Navy Open Architecture initiative includes POSIX conformance as a requirement for COTS product selection. More vendors, such as LinuxWorks, Green Hills, and Wind River have rolled out POSIX conformant RTOSs.

Trend 4: COTS Refresh

The European Union's Reduction of Hazardous Substance (RoHS) directive, which became effective in January 2006, is rapidly being adopted in other parts of the world such as China and even by California here in the US. Although it hasn't been adopted by the U.S. government, it is still beginning to seriously affect the military COTS community. Even though most military equipment is not subject to RoHS regulations today, the components in the equipment are used in both commercial and defense environments. Consequently, most semiconductor and electronic component vendors are feeling the pain of maintaining both RoHS and non-RoHS inventories. To ease this pain, they are gradually phasing out their non-RoHS components, forcing COTS vendors to either discontinue or redesign hardware board-level products.

The RoHS directive has fueled the "COTS Refresh" development effort in the military community. Defense program managers are scrambling to find form, fit, and function product replacements in the COTS marketplace for their long term weapons programs. Many Department of Defense agencies have set up special strategic Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS) Program Offices to tackle component life cycle management issues. RoHS will continue to drive the need for COTS replacement equipment in 2008.

Trend 5: Multi-Core Processing Technology

The Network Centric Warfare initiative is all about "connecting the dots" in a tactical battlefield environment. Disparate information collected in the field needs to be processed and analyzed in real-time. Much of the processing needs to be done in the front-end to filter out an enormous amount of irrelevant data or background noise. As a result, processing power becomes more and more important in newer generations of sophisticated weapons systems.

Multi-processing, Digital Signal Processing (DSP) systems have been widely used in the military for a number of years. However, as processing speed increases, power consumption becomes a significant problem. Multi-processing has become a less viable implementation choice as high power dissipation prevents deployment in a tactical environment.

Thanks to the commercial PC market, low power, high performance multi-core processors have become a reality. However, the PC market does not completely address the issues in the realtime/ embedded community, especially on the software side. A majority of thread-based operating systems used in PCs are not deterministic enough to handle realtime processing applications. With the recent introduction of new multi-core capable RTOSs and virtualization technology, we will finally see a significant amount of dual-core and quad-core processing solutions being used in military embedded systems in 2008.

Trend 6: Creative Destruction Within the Vendor Community

In 2006 and 2007, we saw several mega-mergers and acquisition activities in the military embedded COTS industry. As these mergers and acquisitions settle, the next step for these combined companies is to merge their operations to maximize efficiency. In 2008, we will see more vendors consolidating their product lines. It is likely that they will discontinue products that have low sales volumes and eliminate products that are duplicates across different business units.

As a result, defense program managers will have fewer choices than ever when it comes to COTS products in 2008. They will be forced to either return to the old days of designing solutions in-house or contracting out custom design work. A new wave of smaller embedded COTS vendors will likely fill the gap by undertaking more custom designs.

Crystal Ball

It doesn't take a crystal ball to foresee that miniaturization, royalty-free operating systems, code portability, diminishing material sources, high performance multi-core processors, and mergers are trends that will not only affect the military in 2008 but will continue to hold sway over the next several years. From what our customers tell us, they are just beginning to feel the pinch of the RoHS directive, they are laboring under the onus of non-portable software and license-based RTOS, while at the same time feeling the energy generated by royalty free operating systems and the new, more powerful multi-core processors. In the future, the pinch of the RoHS directive will go away once exhaustive testing has been performed on non-lead solder. We can already see that royalty-free operating systems and code portability are the bases for new weapons programs. Diminishing resources and mergers will lead to a new crop of niche manufacturers and new technologies will encourage miniaturization and increased use of high performance processors.

This article was written by Manville Chan, program manager at Cornet Technology, Inc. (Springfield, VA). For more information, contact Mr. Chan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit http://info.hotims.com/10981-403. 

Embedded Technology Magazine

This article first appeared in the November, 2007 issue of Embedded Technology Magazine.

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