HOUSTON—The VME Industrial Trade Association (VITA), which manages a variety of open standards for embedded computing systems, held its annual Embedded Technology Trends (ETT) conference this week just across the street from NASA headquarters. The overall theme of this year's ETT was "Houston, We Have a Problem." Not because VITA or its members are in trouble, however, but because of steps they are taking to expand the role of standards-based board architectures in solving airborne and space-bound design challenges. Conference topics included discussion of the emerging VITA 48.4 standard for air-cooling of small VPX modules as well as progress in the definition of a space-qualified variation of the Compact PCI modular standard. Marketers also pointed out that the products developed to these standards could serve not just aerospace but wherever ruggedized systems with reduced size, weight, and power are important design requirements, including industrial robotics and transportation systems.
The conference opened, in fact, with an analysis of the industrial systems market by research firm IHS. Mark Watson, senior research manager at HIS, indicated that the market for industrial automation reached $176 billion in 2015. Motors and motor control composed 36.5% of that total, automation control equipment formed 38.2%, and power transmission made up most of the rest. Watson also identified several key opportunities in this market, including Industrial IoT (IIoT), robotics as a labor alternative, and the decentralization of intelligence in industrial control. Further, Watson noted, suppliers to this market are moving to supply services and software as an integral part of their offerings, as commoditization and over capacity are eroding the demand for capital equipment alone.
One of the most-frequently mentioned modular standards was VPX, a replacement for the venerable VME bus standard that replace parallel connections with high-speed serial ones, and its SpaceVPX (ANSI/VITA 78.00-2015) variation that added features essential for spacecraft design. (SpaceVPX received final certification as a standard in April last year.) Ken Grob, director of embedded technology at Elma, for instance, discussed the market forces driving VPX. Grob indicated that increasing use of 10G Ethernet and PCIexpress Gen. 3 on the data plane were stimulating new product offerings, as was growing interest in the IEEE 1508 precision time protocol. In addition, SoC FPGAs and high-performance single board computers (SBCs) for these standards were on the rise. Aitech Defense Systems, for instance, announced a new line of ruggedized 3U VPX products that use a 5th-generation Intel Core i7 processor.
Grob also expected that systems based on the VPX standard would continue to grow in capability. "The good thing about VPX is that it was designed to change," Grob said. He pointed out that there were now ten types of serial interfaces available for VPX backplane connections, including optical. One such optical interface from Reflex Photonics saw introduction at the conference. The LightABLE 40G SR4 is a four-lane duplex optical transceiver that operates at 10 Gpbs over a full -40V to +85C temperature range.
Many of the technical discussions at the conference centered on reducing the size, weight, and power (SWaP) of modular board-based systems. In line with that theme, VITA announced a working group to develop a variation for VPX to define Air Flow Through (AFT) Technology. The proposed technology eliminates the need for conduction cooling through the chassis, thereby allowing use of lightweight alternatives such as plastics. It also allows developers to utilize existing VPX products without modification in an AFT chassis, by simply wrapping the module in a shield that guides the airflow across the module. Curtis-Wright Defense Solutions division immediately announced support for the approach, and demonstrated a functioning AFT chassis using off-the-shelf VPX modules.
The introduction of air flow through (AFT) technology in VITA 48.8 will allow ruggedized modular computing to employ a lightweight chassis made out of plastics, as this demonstration VPX system from Curtis-Wright demonstrates. (Source: Curtis-Wright Defense Systems)
VPX was not the only modular standard in evidence at ETT, though. Companies such as Artesyn discussed its work with Advanced TCA (ATCA) and Aitech introduced a new line of video and graphics PMC (PCI Mezzanine Card) modules. For safety critical systems design, MEN Micro released a CPU board based on VITA 59 Rugged COM Express.
The key feature of all the offerings and discussions at ETT, however, was the use of standards-based modular architectures to solving rugged-environment embedded design problems. Many presenters pointed out that standards-based design yields minimal NRE cost while preserving vendor choice and allowing for rapid system upgrades as new technologies become available, features useful in many applications beyond military and aerospace. "Without the roots of the standards," said Shaun McQuaid, director of product management at Mercury Systems, "you cannot build the tree of extensible systems."
—Rich Quinnell covers industrial control for EE Times. Contact him at email@example.com,