Unmanned vehicles and the PC/104 architecture

Unmanned vehicles, throughout their long history, have typically been focused around the military and national security industries. The initial use of these vehicles was simple: To remove humans from high-risk situations and go to places where humans could not. In the beginning, unmanned vehicle technology was large, heavy, and not very powerful. However, miniaturization and technological advancements in processor power versus power consumption – as well as advancements in surveillance, communications, robotics, and software – mean that unmanned vehicles became and continue to be the go-to solution for a wide variety of military and nonmilitary operations.

The tipping point for widespread use of unmanned vehicles came during the 1991 Gulf War. Since then we have seen an explosion in investment in research and development, not only in the aerial arena but also for land and sea vehicles. Today we see unmanned fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft, boats, submersibles, spacecraft, vehicles, and throwable robots, with sizes ranging from hand-launched to very large. Current applications include combat, surveillance, research, search and rescue, sports, law enforcement, geophysical surveys, disaster relief, and remote sensing. Additionally, as more emphasis is placed on the use of unmanned vehicles among civilian populations, we can only expect the unmanned-vehicle industry to expand.

UAVs can have numerous subsystems, depending on the application, but central to any of them are guidance and control, communications, power, sensory input, and data-gathering equipment, most often video surveillance. Other subsystems can also include such aspects as robotics if physical tasks need to be performed. Subsystems often need to be able to survive in the harshest of conditions. We can expect these systems to change rapidly as requirements are refined, technology advances, and lessons are learned.

So where does the PC/104 architecture fit into this picture? The short answer: everywhere. What benefits does it provide over other architectures and how is it being used today and into the future? Clearly this is a very large topic, but let me touch on a few aspects.

I have often written about the inherent ruggedness of the PC/104 architecture. In my last article, I talked about how the PC/104 architecture not only carries its own unique stackable features allowing for compact sizes, off-the-shelf and custom configurations, maintainability, and simple upgradability, but it also overlaps with some of the strength of the mezzanine COM and card-cage architectures. This setup provides a truly versatile system-based design, which reduces time-to-market and total lifetime program costs.

These benefits mean that we find the PC/104 architecture being used in many unmanned vehicle applications today and being designed into many future systems. Since the architecture is based on an ecosystem principle of interoperable peripheral modules, OEMs have many off-the-shelf products in the areas of processors, DSP, FPGA, analog and digital I/O, RF communications, serial communication links, Ethernet, switches, routers, motion controllers, video and video capture, GPS, motion sensors, standard/isolated/MIL-SPEC power supplies, battery packs, and storage – just to name a few. In addition, numerous application-specific cards have been created to meet whatever requirement is needed. As these requirements change, as new functionality is needed, and as processing power needs increase while power-consumption requirements decrease, the PC/104 stack inside the unmanned vehicle can be easily updated with readily available products.

For more information visit the PC/104 Consortium website at www.pc104.org.

Figure 1: As requirements change and power consumption requirements decrease, the PC/104 stack inside the unmanned vehicle can be readily updated.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)