Military UAS market ideal for PC/104 and SFF designs

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) are typically smaller than manned aircraft, and as a result often have stricter Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) requirements in their avionics, sensor payloads, and other systems. The lower SWaP requirements – combined with a push toward open architectures and commonality resulting from cuts in Department of Defense (DoD) funding – make the UAS market a perfect fit for and other Small Form Factor () suppliers.

“PC/104 technology is used across unmanned aircraft platforms including command and control, ground stations, and payloads,” says Stephen St. Amant, Director of Marketing at RTD Embedded Technologies, Inc. (State College, Pa.) “RTD has been serving the market for many years and we see PC/104 use only growing in this sector. It is a perfect match of technology to an application because it sits in that spot between [Commercial-Off-the-Shelf] COTS and custom.

PC/104 and SFF products are used in a variety of UAS applications, says G.T. Hilliard, Applications Engineer at WinSystems (Arlington, Texas). Some integrators use the technology for computing-intensive applications such as , while other lower-end applications take advantage of the low power of Atom processors on SFF designs, he adds.   

“While it’s available off-the-shelf, PC/104 is also flexible and scalable due to its stackable and modular nature, giving integrators multiple configuration options depending on their requirements,” St. Amant says. “PC/104’s SWaP advantages also make the technology attractive for military SWaP-constrained UAS platforms.”

A DoD report, titled “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap” – which adds a C to SWaP, not for cost but for cooling – states that the DoD wants to “reduce the size, weight, and power consumption of military platforms, as does the consumer electronics business, because large SWaP-C impedes mobility and raises maneuvering costs.” According to the report, “miniaturization generally enables smaller systems and, when combined with more persistence, often minimizes investment,” weight, and power consumption. The report, a 25-year roadmap for unmanned systems, can be read at http://www.defense.gov/pubs/DOD-USRM-2013.pdf.

The report also foresees the trend toward modularity in payload designs continuing thanks to open standards, because modularity “allows plug-and-play capabilities in joint and combined architectures,” making upgrades easier.

Recent budget cuts have forced a drive toward commonality across DoD platforms; this roadmap confirms that trend, calling for more use of “open standards and interface definitions” to mitigate interoperability challenges with “unmanned systems communication infrastructures.” The report says enforcement of open standards and “government-owned data rights will promote the leveraging of common components and facilitate reuse among heterogeneous unmanned system platforms.”

In other words, suppliers that produce COTS and software are well-positioned to weather the current economic challenges in the military market, and even thrive in the long run, as embedded and open architecture-based computing solutions will likely dominate unmanned system Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) payload development.

While the current military unmanned systems market is a bit flat and should remain so for the near future from a platform level, the DoD will still be spending money to sustain and upgrade these current platforms and their sensor payloads, which means more opportunities for PC/104, SFF, and other COTS suppliers.

“We can have platforms for 10 to 15 years and upgrade the sensors, communications, and weapons systems to meet the standoff detection and ISR requirements and then focus on meantime between replacement for system elements such as communications, EO/IR, and others,” said Ron Stearns, Research Director at G2 Solutions (Kirkland, Wash.), in the fall issue of . “It is a flat market and if flat is the new up, then there is sustainability from a DoD perspective. If you bend metal and make airplanes, it is going to be a tough road; but if you make command-and-control technology, flight controls, communication technology, and sensors, and the business model continues to open up, it could be a time of opportunity for you. The need for ISR is not going away. Even as CENTCOM winds down, ISR missions will be needed in AFRICOM and USPACOM after that.”

While military programs, and DoD ones especially, dominate unmanned system use and development today, that will probably not be the case 25 years from now. Commercial applications, as well as civilian and consumer use of unmanned technology, will eventually surpass that of the military. The roadmap authors say that commercial use of unmanned systems will be good news for U.S. taxpayers because increased commercial use of unmanned system technology could “reduce the price point of these systems for the military.” All of this is good news for PC/104 and SFF suppliers.