3 emerging technologies that rugged vendors need to consider
Rugged IT industry can bet on solid-state drives, wearable screens and powerful processors
As the trend toward more forward deployment of high-end computing and communications develops and users increasingly turn to commercial products to provide those capabilities, the future of rugged computing is clearer. Reduced size, weight and power requirements and the push to outfit troops on the ground with more powerful systems point to the need for certain technologies.
Solid-state memory, for example, would seem to be an ideal fit for the smaller and lighter future rugged systems. Just a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case because solid-state drives had much lower storage capacity than spinning hard drives and were many times more expensive.
That’s not the case today. You can buy 120G 2.5-inch internal solid-state drives for less than $300, and their reliability is well known. That’s still more expensive than spinning hard drives, which go for about $100 per terabyte, but given their inherent shock resistance and durability because they have no moving parts, they fit the rugged movement perfectly.
A lot of the past failures associated with computing systems, such as notebooks — even the rugged variety — can be attributed to failure of hard drives, said David Krebs, director of VDC Research’s mobile and wireless practice.
“If you can eliminate that or reduce it significantly through introducing a solid-state solution and you can do it in a packaging that is slightly less rugged and therefore slightly less expensive, then that’s certainly something that can open doors that may not have been so welcoming before,” he said.
It’s not always that clear cut, said Tim Collins, director of defense and intelligence sales at Panasonic Corp.’s federal unit. Although he claimed Panasonic’s failure rate for its spinning drives is very low, he said that other manufacturers couldn’t get their drives to the point where they could be certified as rugged.
Although solid-state drives have advantages, they’re not infallible. They don’t have the susceptibility to movement and vibration that spinning drives do, Collins said, but they are more susceptible to other elements, such as heat and cold. But it’s a customer-driven business.
“Because customers have asked for it, we are now offering solid state as an option on almost all of our products,” he said. “It’s obvious that the customer believes there is a value to it.”
Screens that are more readable — particularly in direct sunlight — lighter and more energy-efficient are also a requirement for future rugged systems. Because the assumption is that units with these displays will be wearable and in the field, displays will need much higher nits, Collins said.
A nit is a measure of light expressed in candelas per square meter. Notebooks used in office-lit conditions generally need displays that measure in the 200- to 250-nit range. Displays used in direct sunlight outdoors will need to register 1,000 nits or more.
Flexible displays demonstrated at the 2010 Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance On-the-Move (C4ISR OTM) exercises held at the New Jersey Joint Base showed that users could successfully display video from UAVs and the user interface from a battle command software system on an ultra-rugged mobile PC worn in a land warrior vest, said Terry Edwards, director of system-of-systems engineering at the Office
of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and
“The success of this demonstration has led to plans for a more powerful, flexible display prototype with the capability to insert a smart phone” for use in missions, Edwards said. “In the end, it’s all about providing the warfighter with the best possible equipment for accomplishing a successful mission.”
And rugged systems are increasingly taking advantage of general-purpose computing on graphics processing units technology, a hybrid, multicore architecture that allows for much faster processing of the kinds of data used in C4ISR applications.
You can put many of those multicore processors into a single card and then fit multiples of those cards into a rugged chassis, essentially providing supercomputer performance in a relatively small, rugged system. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently partnered with Crystal Group to develop an advanced, rugged signal-processing system that could process 3-D sensor data in real time.
It’s a trend that will definitely continue, said Crystal’s Todd Prouty, but those systems come with certain challenges, such as how to cool them.
“When you have that many cores on cards that are densely packaged, it’s very hard to cool even in a normal office environment let alone in a forward-deployed situation, where the operating temperature can be anywhere between -20 degrees Celsius and 55 degrees Celsius,” he said. “And one thing the warfighter doesn’t like to see is his IED detection systems slowing down because it’s getting hot.”
But given the demands for the kinds of computing power that agencies want to provide to the ultimate end user, rugged systems vendors will need to find a way to incorporate these and other technologies into their products.