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The rise of vetronics

How to tie together vehicular electronics, or 'vetronics'

Feb. 20, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By ERIK SCHECTER   |   Comments
Navistar demonstrates the MaxxPro MCOTM vehicle at the Army's Network Integration Evaluation 14.1 in White Sands, N.M. The MCOTM helped run the Tactical Ops Command.
Navistar demonstrates the MaxxPro MCOTM vehicle at the Army's Network Integration Evaluation 14.1 in White Sands, N.M. The MCOTM helped run the Tactical Ops Command. ()
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Ever since the onset of the Global War on Terror, U.S. ground combat vehicles have been taking on more and more electronics, such as battle management systems, sophisticated IED jammers and an array of other things.

However, in the rush to acquire new capabilities, scant attention was paid to how these vehicular electronics, or “vetronics,” were expected to work in concert. Due to the lack of foresight, they don’t work well together at all.

In 2010, the Army initiated the Vehicle Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) standard in an attempt to increase vetronics interoperability, while shedding redundant antennas, displays and other equipment that only took up space and consumed power. Contractors have begun to rally to this banner with open standards architecture, data bus-centric designs and comprehensive kits for new vehicles and retrofits.

The problem with bolt-on solutions

For the past decade or so, equipping vehicles with electronics has tended to be a piecemeal affair, said Scott Cassidy, business development program manager at Navistar Defense, which developed the International MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. “We came up with a great truck. Other companies came up with a great IED jammer. Other people came up with a great night vision sensor,” Cassidy said.

However, this bolt-on approach came at the expense of integrated, networked capabilities. “Everyone had a product, and we kind of put them on the truck, and you had each one in its own box and its own screen, and very few of those things worked together or talk to each other,” he said, noting that the folks charged with networking these systems were always struggling to play catch-up with the latest software upgrade.

John Bryant, senior vice president of Defense Systems at Oshkosh Defense, recalls running up against these sorts of inefficiencies — and more — when he was a Marine Corps program manager for a number of platforms, including the now-cancelled amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Besides the superfluous displays, keyboards and antennas, which crowded out other pieces of equipment, the bolt-on approach also led to systems that operated at cross-purposes and gobbled up power.

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“I’ve been burned by it a few times,” he said.

Often it was a case of too many hands under the hood.An electronics supplier, for example, would install something in the vehicle without first checking with the platform provider or program manager about possible design changes to the interior layout. Later, Bryant would discover equipment “consuming space claim that was allocated to other design changes … and consuming power budget to be allocated to other upgrades.” This resulted in a costly reintegration or, as he put it, “an opportunity to do it twice.”

Moving to a tighter, more efficient network

To consolidate vetronics into smaller, lighter packages and reduce power consumption, the Army partnered with industry and academia to launch the VICTORY initiative. VICTORY sets out to develop common standards for systems, components and interfaces for next-generation vehicles, the aim being to overthrow the tyranny of BYOB — Bring Your Own Box — and induce defense contractors to run their software on someone else’s hardware.

“To do that, you need to have standards,” said Chip Downing, senior director of Aerospace & Defense at Wind River Systems, which produces the VxWorks operating system used in embedded systems.

VICTORY follows in the footsteps ARINC 653, an avionics standard developed in the late 1990s, which helped put aircraft electronics on a diet and save the airline industry money in fuel expenditure. “On the Boeing 787, they consolidated over 100 line replacement units — they are essentially boxes or cards — onto a shared platform. They came from 17 different vendors with 70 different applications,” Downing said.

A major element of VICTORY is its embrace of data buses, and according to David Jedynak, CTO of the COTS Solutions division within Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, that means the proliferation of gigabit Ethernet interface controllers in military vehicles. “Ethernet is ubiquitous,” Jedynak said. “It’s supported in the widest range of devices, from low-cost chips all the way up to the most sophisticated silicon.”

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By contrast, the old MIL-STD-1553 interface chips are slow (only 1 megabit per second), expensive and cannot deliver VICTORY’s stated goal of commonality. “Even though MIL-STD-1553 was developed as an open military standard, today it is the equivalent of a proprietary, legacy standard used only by the military with little or no adoption in any other market,” he said, adding that whatever advantages MIL-STD-1553 once had in terms of timing precision and quality of service, they have since been matched.

The future of vetronics is, therefore, a dual system: CANbus, a well-established standard in the automotive market, to “talk” to engines and transmissions, and Ethernet, to talk to “everything else.”

Better planning for the future

Although the Ground Combat Vehicle is facing a declining budget and an uncertain future, the forthcoming Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), which is scheduled to replace Marine and Army Humvees beginning in 2018, is expected to employ VICTORY, and defense contractors are taking that into consideration. Oshkosh Defense, for example, is currently implementing a still-unnamed open standards C4I architecture for its Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle (L-ATV) offering for the JTLV program.

“We’ve integrated these various kits” — including but not limited to radios, intercom, satellite communications, infrared cameras and shot detection systems — “and their impact on the vehicle right into the 3-D modeling design of the platform,” Bryant said. “We’ve considered the co-site impacts of the various combinations of antennas transmitting on the vehicle.”

General Dynamics C4I Canada provides computing solutions and Smart Displays for JLTV. And General Dynamics officials noted they are putting the newest addition to their Smart Display product line through its paces with other unnamedcompetitive programs.

Designed to consolidate boxes, Smart Displays come with a quad-core computer and Ethernet networking devices, allowing the vehicle commander to run multiple applications at the same time. So, for example, he can link his display to a shot detection system, add his own notes to what appears on the screen and seamlessly move a weapon in the direction of the gunfire.

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“It’s almost like automating certain functions — we’d never automate the lethal function — but you can ready the soldier quicker,” said Andrew Shepherd, products manager at General Dynamics Canada.

The newest display can also do this, plus run secret and non-secret applications without risking a security breach. The company has already begun the certification process with the National Security Agency.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about networked vetronics without discussing the power that undergirds these systems. “Generating a lot of power is expensive, so the alternator on a military vehicle required to run the digital backbone is almost 10 times the size of an alternator needed to run a regular commercial truck,” Cassidy said.

All this puts a huge demand on the engine and fuel economy. So Navistar installed a Transmission Integrated Generator (TIG) from DRS Technologies and Allison Transmission inside the transmission of its new MaxxPro Mission Command on The Move (MCOTM) MRAP vehicle. “With a transmission-based approach, you can create enough electricity to run a small forward operating base,” he said.

Retrofitting - and rescuing - older vehicles

In addition to future vehicles, contractors are looking at legacy platforms to “rejuvenate.” Shepherd notes that a number of retrofit programs are in play, for example, for the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, M1 Abrams tank and M113 armored personnel carrier. “We’re seeing older vehicles, because of costs, living longer,” he said.

Navistar’s Cassidy believes the Army can be convinced not to give away most of its MRAPs and, instead, refurbish them. “They are going to buy all these new vehicles to replace it with upgraded electronics that haven’t been built yet, that haven’t been sourced yet, that they haven’t seen yet,” Cassidy said.

The clinching argument, as the company sees it, is savings: “It actually costs them money to give them away or to scrap them,” he said.

In October and November, the company, in cooperation with DRS, demonstrated the MaxxPro MCOTM vehicle at the Army’s Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 14.1 in White Sands, N.M., during which the MCOTM helped run the Tactical Ops Command.

Likewise, Curtiss-Wright has been marketing its Digital Beachhead, a 5-pound “vetronics starter kit” for older vehicles without “any real electronics.” (It’s already on some Army platforms, but the company won’t name names.) Explaining the kit, Jedynak said Digital Beachhead “enables the vehicle’s automotive bus, network and the user displays to all live on one networked system, sharing a variety of inputs.”

He also said the kit meets reduced size, weight, power, and cost concerns — and that is kind of the whole point of the new networked vetronics.

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