Unmanned Vehicle Systems (UVS) are reaching new levels of functionality and performance, and it’s not just for air vehicles either. Ground and underwater UVS programs are all taking advantage of the higher-performance computing platforms that are using highly integrated, multicore processors; faster and larger DDR and flash memory; as well as integrated I/O. Additionally, remote I/O subsystems are being implemented to distribute the processing power closer to the sensors and use packetized message passing — with multiple levels of security (MLS) — back to a smaller central vehicle and mission management computer.

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Tyffani L. Davis)

Traditional vehicle platforms had split the vehicle management computing functions (flight surfaces, engine and fuel controls, etc.) and mission management computers due to the overall expense of the computing hardware platforms and the costs to develop the software. Today, however, these hardware functions are being combined and then redistributed around the vehicle, significantly reducing size, weight, power, and cost (SWAPC), due to the density and performance improvements in the underlying processing technology (Figure 1).

From Air to Sea: Expanded Applications

The available computing performance and SWAP-C optimized systems have caught the eye of DARPA and other research agencies, which are experimenting with using wireless in traditional “wire-only” defense and aerospace applications. Other areas of unmanned systems innovation include building upon existing vehicle platforms to extend the function of a single vehicle. For example, a fighter jet may have several UVS synced up to its inflight control center, extending its reach from one large aircraft to include several smaller units that act as a mini army, all working together and being controlled from one location. This effectively extends the amount of airspace one craft can cover (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Military intelligence requirements are growing in scope. Sophisticated UVS are providing a broader picture through enhanced processing abilities. (U.S. Army)

Underwater is another vast area for military vehicles to monitor with a limited number of vehicles. Applying this same “mini-army” philosophy, one large carrier could manage several smaller submersed vehicles that can carry supplies to other sea craft or even stealthily gather intelligence and report the data back to the mothership.

Security Concerns

With the growing electronic density and enhanced communication profiles, UVS are offering a much more extended reach for military operations. But the data being transferred holds much larger security implications if it becomes compromised. So, in addition to mitigating size, weight, and power, many other critical design considerations are brought to the forefront. Data security and mission assurance, as well as signal integrity and reliability, are major focal points to implementing these new, more advanced unmanned systems.

Hacking, jamming/disrupting, or altering any wireless connection handling sensitive military information requires critical considerations, since compromised data can have a major impact on the outcome of the next engagement theater or battleground. So, where is the balance between security and performance, as more data is pumped into these systems and UVS growth continues?

Multicore Is Multi-Beneficial

Figure 2. UVS help cover more areas for enhanced surveillance and security measures. (U.S. Army)

Driving the higher densities of these computing systems are multicore processors. Their inherent ability to increase functionality and performance in roughly the same real estate footprint makes them a natural progression in the evolution of integrated embedded computing. And in a UVS, space is at an especially high premium.

The advent of multicore processors from Intel and Freescale, combined with the use of multicore ARMs in nearly every smartphone, means multicore processors are here to stay. And integrating the memory crossbar switch and caches into the processor silicon eliminated the bottleneck of memory bandwidth limitations, removing it from the performance equation altogether.

Faster and larger memory has fueled more software developer creativity and more functional and capable systems. And underlying operating systems and improvements in portable software architectures have simultaneously advanced to finally start meeting the promises of true portability and application auto-level loading by supporting virtual memory, multi-user configurations, and multi-processing utilizing parallel execution of applications.

Applying this high-speed, multi-core technology from the enterprise to the PC has provided a wide and more diverse tool chain to enable a robust application development environment, which makes for faster, enhanced parallelism. The computing systems align better with one another, allowing for more complex computation to be effectively managed within the system. As data requirements continue to advance, throughput, as well as proper data handling, are critical tasks that must positively contribute to system reliability.

Figure 3. Smaller footprints have equated to higher densities, compounding heat dissipation, which can be managed by smart system design.

Of course, the application will always dictate the processing functionality to solve the initial design problem, and small form factors can carry with them lesser functionality in both performance and I/O. But the need for intensive, high-speed data, in real-time, in areas such as sensor fusion, melding and digital alignment of tactical area maps, camera vision, infrared, radar, or sonar, requires the shear processing horsepower to get the job done in the allotted time needed for the application.

Mitigating Design and Cost Challenges

Because they are growing in diversity and application, unmanned systems generally have a wide, varied mix of sometimes conflicting requirements. To best meet the needs of developers, system manufacturers need to take stock in what end users are looking for and apply these insights in R&D. Once collected, this critical information can be applied to next-gen products and systems designed to meet the majority of current needs and demands using more off-the-shelf products, which bring with them less costly customization.