Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is your embedded system supplier "board agnostic?"

Posted by John McHale
I know what you’re thinking -- please not another marketing buzz term. I hope "board agnosticism" or "board agnostic" doesn't fall into that category, because I fear I may have accidentally coined it this week at the AUVSI show in Denver while talking to embedded systems designers.

It came up during conversation with Michael Humphrey of APLabs, now a part of Kontron about how they are still going to use Kontron's competitors' single-board computers in the rugged electronic systems and chassis APLabs designed, and not become a Kontron-component only shop.

So I went around the corner and asked the folks at Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems if they were board agnostic too? Curtis Reichenfeld, their chief technical officer, replied "yes, we are board agnostic, absolutely, we give the customer what they want. I love that term by the way!"

I thought oh hell, I just gave the embedded community another marketing mumbo jumbo phrase, like ecosystem, or thought leader. I'm going to see board agnostic in a flurry of press releases the rest of the year, and know I only have myself to blame.

Could be worse, a company could say that their board product is "best of breed"... Ugh. It drives me nuts when I see an electronic chip or software tool labeled as best of breed like it's an entry in the Westminster Kennel Show.

I got one other linguistic gripe before I end this -- whiteboarding. A colleague recently told me we need to back to the office and whiteboard our goals.

Whiteboard is NOT a verb.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I wanna go to UAV school

Posted by John McHale
Journalism school was fun, but how cool would it be to enroll in a college and declare your major as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations? Well you can! L-3 Link Simulation & Training and the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks, N.D., are jointly creating an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) Training Center located on UND's campus and Grand Forks Air Force Base, beginning operations in March 2011.

It will be a non-military educational that provides initial qualification and continuation training for operators of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. All you have to be is a U.S. citizen, according to L-3 Link officials.

It makes sense, as most students coming out of school today find operating electronics, computers, video games, the Wii entertainment system, etc., to be second nature.

It reminds me of -- now I'm dating myself -- of a movie called "The Last Starfighter" from the early 1980s about an alien race that rigs a video game on Earth so that the kid who gets the record qualifies to fly their starships, and they kidnap him to help them win a galactic war.

I don't think it would crazy for the UND or the Air Force to put a video game out there involving UAV operation, and rewarding the highest scorer with a scholarship to the UAS Training Center.

Not as far-fetched as that campy 80s movie...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

AUVSI traffic in Denver steady, but it lacks DC excitement

Posted by John McHale
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI show) in Denver this week had steady traffic, and exhibitors were pleased with the leads they had, but the majority I spoke to said there was more of a buzz in Washington at last year's event.

Organizers of the event said that traffic was up over last year with more than 6,200 as of Thursday afternoon. Last year they said the event in Washington attracted close to 5,500 attendees. It should be noted that the numbers are for total attendance -- including exhibitors and there were 110 more exhibits this year.

Attendees definitely see unmanned systems as a major target for Department of Defense funding over the next few years, but right now there is uncertainty as to which systems will get funding. They put that down to the uncertainty of what the Obama administration will cut.

There were more embedded systems suppliers exhibiting at this show than in years past such as Bittware and Extreme Engineering. Seems like a no-brainer to me as unmanned systems requirements focus on small size, low weight and low power -- right up the alley of the embedded military systems designers. If they're not here, they should be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Manned or unmanned aircraft ... is there a choice?

Posted by John McHale
During diner with a buddy of mine last week -- Peter L. -- I mentioned that I would be at the AUVSI show this week in Denver. Peter is a big military technology buff and likes my job even more than I do, but I was surprised to hear him say we should stop making new fighter jets and focus solely on the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- not an opinion I often hear from those outside the military industry, as fighter jets and fighter pilots are a bit more glamorous than spy drones.

His main argument was fiscal -- UAVs cost less to make and can go places human-piloted planes cannot. I'd add to his list that UAV flight training costs less than manned flight training. Many folks are making the same argument and taking it a step further asking if it is even necessary to have trained fighter pilots flying UAVs.

I've always been in favor of manned missions over robotic missions when it comes to space exploration, but when it comes to the battlefield -- the more unmanned systems the better because quite simply they save lives from the unmanned ground systems that recon urban hot zones to the armed Predator UAV that take out enemy forces in Afghanistan.

However I don't think we should do away with the manned fighter aircraft, they are as essential as the UAVs to success on the battlefield. One of the big themes I'm hearing this week is the push toward manned and unmanned teaming on the battlefield.

It is already happening in some circles such as the VUIT-2 system on Apache helicopters, which enables Apache pilots to access UAV-generated intelligence. UAVs can enter areas, which might be too risky for the fighter pilot to make precision strikes or to provide the necessary reconnaissance before manned aircraft can enter the area.

David, Vos, of Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said during a briefing this week that manned/unmanned teaming should not just be thought of as a military scenario, that it can happen in civilian space too.

Vos also says that at some point planes will be pilot optional -- in other words if the pilot doesn't feel like flying he doesn't have to, the autonomous controls will handle everything -- including emergencies. "Before I'm in the ground I want to be able to get in the cockpit flying to see my mother-in-law, and decide that I don't feel like piloting, so I will read the paper instead and enjoy a cup of coffee."

My friend Peter is right on one point -- UAVs are the future of military airpower and will be essential to every mission -- however they will not replace manned aircraft, but rather make them even more capable, effective, and more deadly to enemy forces.

UAV ground control systems follow-up

Posted by John McHale
Last month I wrote a feature for our print magazine on ground control stations (GCS) for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the U.S. Defense Department's plans for a common GCS that can work with any UAV platform. This week at the AUVSI show in Denver, I had a little chat with George Romanski, president of Verocel, about the efforts he and others are making to build the software architecture for the future GCS.

Romanski said it will use a secure multiple independent levels of security (MILS) software architecture with Linux running on top so to speak. With MILS the secure data will be protected within the MILS architecture.

The architecture will also be certified to the necessary Federal Aviation Administration standards such as DO-178B. The system should be deployed between 2013 and 2015.

I will be doing a more in-depth look at the architecture in the coming months.