Big ideas for small places

For decades, modular embedded computer systems have been built using card cages, backplanes, and plug-in boards that perform a wide variety of functions. While it is less expensive to do something on a single board, if volumes are high and there is not much system-to-system variability, card cage-based systems remain popular. Most minicomputers in the 1970s embraced this approach, and embedded systems such as , VME, Multibus, and many more have been successful. But things are beginning to change in many application spaces, including traditionally slow-to-evolve military, aeronautical, and defense arenas.

Military vehicles, for example, have evolved from being primarily for transport to hardened communications and platforms that, oh, by the way, also need to carry troops. Anyone that has ever seen the insides of an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle knows that space is at an absolute premium. In addition to large and heavy armor plating, the number of computer, sensor, and radio systems is increasing with no end in sight. There is hardly any room for soldiers and their gear.

This trend is leading to an interesting re-think of how embedded computer systems for these applications should be designed and fielded. Modularity is still necessary and at the same time development-to-field times are decreasing. Minimizing Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) is a big deal.

I recently spoke with Joseph Primeau, Director of Sales and Marketing at Acromag about this trend. Joe has been in this industry for decades and has seen almost everything that has been done in the embedded space for the last 35 years. In order to best utilize space, provide flexibility, and minimize power consumption, Acromag has developed a range of products around modules that mount on a baseboard that additionally provides connection to or XMC modules, min-SATA and miniPCIe interfaces, and the like. It can be readily conduction cooled, as fanless operation is a must in most vehicular environments. Acromag is using COM Express Type 6 modules primarily, as that size provides a good balance between processing power and expansion capability. A good illustration of their design is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

I asked Joe about the importance of standards in newer military applications, and he said that it is by no means universal, but it is on the rise because open standards offer a wide range of off-the-shelf functions and provide vendor independence. This directly relates to quicker time-to-deployment and lower development costs.

“After reviewing the different standards for CPU modules, Acromag decided that the Type 6 COM Express design provides the best platform for our rugged small form factor systems,” he says. “The physical size was large enough to allow us to provide onboard conduction cooling rails but small enough to fit most places. We also like the fact that the standard is well tested and widely used, which helps multi-vendor compatibility.

“We find that our defense and aerospace customers appreciate the use of a well established open standard in our system as it allows them to assemble the system they want instead of just buying some system that is available but not optimal,” he continues. “Acromag is a strong believer in the use of well-designed and established industry standards and our customers are, too. This is particularly true in the defense and aerospace industry where run rates are small and users cannot afford to design custom products for every system. Standards like COM Express have proven their worth to these customers.”

Be sure to check out the article in this issue by Tom Kelly of , who presents another perspective on the use of COM Express – and – for military and defense applications.

For updates on PICMG specification development activities, please have a look at the PICMG Fall Newsletter. It can be accessed at