VME and CompactPCI Deal Winning Hands for Upgrade Programs

Especially when a military platform simply needs its computing technology modernized, VME and Compact provide ideal architectures for tech upgrade programs.



As the number of “new start” defense programs have fallen off in recent years, there’s been a steady increase in tech upgrade, tech insertion kinds of contracts. Fortunately the embedded computing industry is perfectly suited to take advantage of the many more opportunities to add new technology to existing military platforms. How to best craft an effective tech upgrade strategy varies depending on whether it’s just the processing technology that needs a refresh or whether the interconnect speeds and other capabilities are the issue.

To different degrees, VME and Compact each continue to be very popular technologies for upgrade situations. Using either VME and CompactPCI a new board with the latest and greatest processor, memory and I/O can easily be dropped into a slot that could be decades old. Vendors of VME and CompactPCI are keeping pace by rolling out new SBCs with the latest computing technology each year. Some complications have arisen on the VME side as the some VMEbus interface chips have gone end-of-life. But there again, vendors are providing solutions to keep that functionality available using FPGAs.

Helicopter Computer Upgrade

Even as the number of different embedded computing open architecture choices expand, there are none that boasts the long and successful legacy in military systems claimed by VME. That’s partly because VME has been able to remain backward compatible and facilitate technology refresh in military programs. Even today there are hundreds programs in the military using VME. While not vendors publically reveal all these upgrade wins for VME, some of the highest profile over the years include the Abrams Tank Systems Enhancement Package (SEP) Upgrade; F-18 Advanced Multi-Purpose Display Program; Bradley Vehicle Electronics Upgrade; B-52 Mission Computer Upgrade; Aegis Guided Missile Destroyer Sonar Upgrade; B-2 Bomber Radar Upgrade; Boeing B-1B Bomber Avionics Upgrade; and C-130 Cockpit Upgrade. VME does healthy business as a tech refresh solution in all of these upgrade programs and programs like them.

In another recent example, last summer Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract from Naval Air Systems Command to deliver its next-generation mission computer for Lot 12 of the Marine Corps’ H-1 helicopter upgrade program. The contract called for Northrop Grumman to provide FlightPro Gen III mission computers for the UH-1Y (Figure 1) and AH?1Z aircraft. The period of performance for this Lot 12 contract is slated for October 2016 through October 2017.

Figure 1 Northrop Grumman’s FlightPro Gen III VME-based mission computer integrates advanced mission, weapons and video processing capabilities into a conduction-cooled, high-performance airborne system for the UH-1Y helicopter.

The lightweight FlightPro Gen III VME-based mission computer integrates advanced mission, weapons and video processing capabilities into a conduction-cooled, high-performance airborne system that can drive four independent, multi-function displays. The FlightPro system functions as the central output distribution point for keyset inputs, display data and systems discrete signals. It embeds a ruggedized 6U VME PowerPC-based single board computer. FlightPro interfaces include Fast Ethernet, four serial ports, parallel input/output and built-in-test. According to Northrop Grumman, the system has a standard, partitioned real-time operating system (RTOS) with ARINC 653 and POSIX support. The standard configuration also includes a quad channel 1553 mezzanine card, high-speed serial card, digital input/output module with eight channels of opto-coupled discrete inputs, eight channels of opto-coupled discrete outputs, and 16 channels.

VME Bridge IC Obsolescence

A hurdle associated with VME’s long life is that it faces obsolescence issues in more severe way than alternative technologies. Some but not all VME board designs used the Tsi148 VME bridge chip. When that de-facto VME bridge, available from a single source went going End of Life around the end of 2015 board vendors had to find a way to mitigate the problem. For its part, Concurrent Technologies was among the first early last year to unveil a multi-pronged strategy to address the issue. It launched some brand new VMEbus boards and new bus-less variants last year in time before the end of life deadline.

The VMEbus boards use the Universe-II VMEbus bridge device. The supplier of the Universe II is IDT and it claims the chip will be supported ‘indefinitely’ because it isn’t tied to a specific manufacturing fab. And for the small percentage of system developers using the higher speed VME transfer protocols such as 2eSST, the company offered an extended manufacturing option and has also completed an evaluation of an alternate FPGA based bridge with this functionality. The advantage of an FPGA based solution it that it provides independence from specific silicon obsolescence.

Also going the FPGA route, Extreme Engineering Solutions recently announced several new 6U VME SBCs featuring a Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA-based VME Bridge. These 6U VME products are designed to be pin-compatible with the Radstone/GE/Abaco PPC7D VME IDT Tsi148-based card, and will provide users with a straightforward, disruption-free upgrade path for legacy systems and a solution to End-of-Life (EOL) VME products that included the obsolete Tsi148 VME Bridge.

Curtiss Wright Defense Solutions likewise took an FPGA approach last month announcing its FPGA-based Helix PCI Express to VME64x Interface as replacement for the Tsi148 VME interface (Figure 2). Curtiss-Wright will use Helix on all new VME module designs, such as the soon to be announced SVME/DMV-196 Power Architecture SBC. Helix is also being used to update the design of select current flagship VME SBC products, such as the NXP Power Architecture-based VME-194 and Intel 4th generation Core i7-based VME-1908 SBCs.

Figure 2 The FPGA-based Helix chip provides a PCI Express to VME64x Interface as replacement for the Tsi148 VME interface.

CompactPCI Holds its Own

Although it will never rival VME’s legacy in the defense market, CompactPCI has certainly secured its position as a trusted and mature technology for military systems. Based on the same proven Eurocard form factor as VME, CompactPCI has enjoyed success over the years in industrial control, transportation and defense applications. And while new start defense programs seem to be giving it less consideration in recent years, it still remains strong as a for tech upgrades of legacy systems. Because PCI sees a lot broader use than VME, CompactPCI hasn’t faced the same kind of bridge chip interface obsolescence problems that VME has. PCI, and now PCI Express, is inherent on many processors and their support silicon. Enhancements to the spec like CompactPCI Serial add new levels of bandwidth.

Just like with VME, board vendors continue to roll out products with the latest and greatest processors like Intel Core i7, NXP’s (formerly Freescale’s) QorIQ and even ARM CPUs. CompactPCI technology has been used on board the rotary wing UAV Fire Scout. The UAV’s Vehicle Management Computer (VMC) embeds CompactPCI boards to do all the control computing functions such as flight path, guidance and navigation, stability control and vehicle subsystems control.

A couple years ago the Navy chose CompactPCI single-board computers for upgrades to the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC)-class hovercraft (Figure 3). The Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division reportedly made use of Intel-based CompactPCI SBCs for the LCAC command, control, communications, computers, and navigation (C4N) system. The LCAC C4N system is being upgraded to enhance capability and to mitigate technology obsolescence issues.

Figure 3 The Navy’s Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC)-class hovercraft is using Intel-based CompactPCI SBCs for upgrades to its command, control, communications, computers, and navigation (C4N) system.

No matter which embedded computing architecture is used, industry vendors offer a rich set of product and technology resources to suit diverse needs. PICMG and VITA-the standards groups for CompactPCI and VME respectively-and the product vendors involved in technologies like VME, CompactPCI and more continue to offer solutions while taking component obsolescence burdens on themselves so that their customers need not worry about them.

Abaco Systems
Huntsville, AL
(866) 652-2226

Aitech Defense Systems
Chatsworth, CA
(888) 248-3248

Concurrent Technologies
Woburn, MA
(781) 933 5900

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions

Ashburn, VA
(703) 779-7800

EKF Elektronik
Hamm, Germany
+49 (0)2381/6890-0

Extreme Engineering Solutions
Middleton, WI
(608) 833-1155

General Micro Systems
Rancho Cucamonga, CA
(909) 980-4863

Kontron America
Poway, CA
(858) 677-0877

MEN Micro
Ambler, PA
(215) 542-9575

North Atlantic Industries
Bohemia, NY
(631) 567-1100