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Capitol Hill offers hope for MIL/aero industry

Military technology has advanced significantly since the time of Ulysses S. Grant, but budget concerns are timeless. Over the course of the U.S. Civil War, the national debt ballooned from $64 million in 1860 to $2.68 billion in 1865.1 Government funding continually falls short of what’s needed to maintain systems readiness. As this article goes to print, U.S. lawmakers and top military officers are mulling the possible effects of sequester cuts.2 However, at the same time, the Obama administration has just submitted a defense budget that would exceed Budget Control Act caps by $150 billion from 2016 to 2020, with $35 billion slated for 2016.3

Andrew Smail, product and solutions marketing manager, Software & Modular Solutions Division, Keysight Technologies, voiced optimism. “Political actions on Capitol Hill before the 2014 holiday break are beginning to signal a positive note for the MIL/aero business,” he said. “We expect funding to be allocated and distributed slightly earlier than it has been over previous years. Furthermore, other countries have learned to live with the reality of reduced defense budgets. This is in stark contrast to the decades-old behavior of planning for bigger budgets and making erratic adjustments for budget reductions when funds were not available.”

Smail added, “Consistent with the reductions in defense discretionary spending, the MIL/aero industry has reduced planned purchases of a variety of weapons systems and equipment over the last three years. We now see movement to accelerate the schedules for developing and buying new or upgraded systems to ensure technological superiority over potential adversaries and a shift to a smaller, more technological force.” What’s needed is what Smail called “a culture of affordability.”

Cutting operational cost and capex

And of course, cost will always be a key factor. Reggie Rector, senior product manager for automated test at National Instruments, said, “Many of the challenges that engineers and companies in aerospace/defense are facing today are the same ones they have wrestled with for years—reducing operational cost, reducing capex, and ensuring readiness levels. These challenges are amplified by DoD budget cuts and increasing demands for new technology insertions. To differentiate in this market, we’re noticing that engineering teams are adopting and building upon COTS synthetic instruments in lieu of vendor-defined instrumentation and subsystems.”

Rector elaborated on why modular instruments have become the de facto standard for MIL/aero ATE systems. Because testers can live for 10, 15, or 25 or more years, “…technology insertion and obsolescence management become critical.” With PXI, when an instrument reaches the end of its lifecycle, a form, fit, and typically function (FFF) replacement will be available, minimizing disruption for the entire test system. “Likewise,” he added, “to plan for new technology insertion, engineers can simply ensure more PXI slots are available in the rack and introduce new I/O when necessary without re-architecting the entire rack, including validation and documentation.”

Smail at Keysight emphasized the role modular instruments can play in meeting MIL/aero test needs for more channels, higher frequencies, wider bandwidths, and higher I/O rates. “Modular provides an inherently flexible and scalable architecture that can adapt as customer needs change or new measurement techniques are adopted,” he said. “Many of these changes can be easily made through simple license key upgrades.”

Mike Dewey, director of marketing at Marvin Test Solutions, also cited benefits of modular instrument systems—particularly PXI. “We continue to see increased interest and adoption of the PXI platform enabling a reduced footprint for the MIL/aero market including flightline, intermediate-level, and depot-level applications,” he said. “We also see continued and expanded use of COTS content and products, often meeting MIL Specs (hardware and software), by the MIL/aero market.”

Instruments in modular form factor

As for specific modular products, Keysight, in addition to offering a wide range of traditional instruments, provides modular instruments in PXI, PXIe, and AXIe form factors, including switching matrices, DMMs, oscilloscopes/digitizers (Figure 1), vector signal analyzers, digital stimulus/response instruments, arbitrary waveform generators , digital-to-analog converters, and signal generators. “Many of these products serve a wide range of aerospace/defense applications including EW, radar, and avionics test,” Smail said.

Figure 1. M9703A AXIe 12-bit high-speed digitizer/wideband digital receiver
Courtesy of Keysight Technologies

Rector at NI noted that his company offers more than 600 PXI instruments, operating from DC to 26.5 GHz, and nearly all of them find use in aerospace/defense applications. “One example is our new 26.5-GHz vector signal analyzer, which includes a user-programmable Kintex-7 FPGA,” he said. “Aerospace/defense engineers can target the instrument to be a best-in-class real-time spectrum analyzer with industry-leading 765-MHz bandwidth or implement custom pulse-measurement to make the instrument a world-class radar test head. The versatility of software-designed instruments like the PXIe-5668R provides a unique value to aerospace/defense engineers not only in meeting new technology demands, but also in emulating niche legacy instrument features for obsolescence management and TPS migration.”

He added, “It’s very clear that modular architectures provide the flexibility to adapt to changing and evolving test needs. We find this particularly true with digital instrumentation and more specifically, with user programmable FPGA products. FPGA-based products provide multiple levels of flexibility.”

Specific modular products from Marvin Test Solutions include the company’s family of FPGA modules and performance digital I/O modules. “We see these modules used in a wide range of applications including avionics test, LRU test, and custom bus emulation as well as for legacy test system replacement,” Dewey said.

Figure 2. GX5296 high-performance digital test instrument
Courtesy of Marvin Test Solutions

The company’s most recent digital test offering, Dewey said, is the GX5296 high-performance digital test instrument in a 3U PXI form factor (Figure 2), allowing users to develop test solutions that have a very compact footprint for both depot/factory and field applications. “We also offer our family of ruggedized PXI platforms, which allows end users to create specialized test solutions for field/flightline test applications,” he said.

The annual Autotestcon show (renamed Autotest for its September 2014 version in St. Louis) affords test and measurement companies an opportunity to showcase their MIL/aero test products. David Owen, business development manager at Pickering Interfaces, cautioned that the test and measurement market changes slowly because the installed base represents a significant capital investment. “There is some discussion about the U.S. military’s MORA (Modular Open RF Architecture) initiative, but it is very preliminary,” he said. “So we need to watch and comment and potentially innovate when possible.”

Owen explained, “All Pickering products are COTS, so we have no product that addresses only MIL/aerospace.” He added, however, that MIL/aero customers “… will purchase our higher end products to get better performance and longer life.” And regardless of market, the company has continued innovating with several new products since the Autotest timeframe. A recent example is the Model 60-553 high-density LXI switching matrix (Figure 3), a 1,024×4 dual bus, one-pole matrix in a compact 1U full rack width enclosure. The product has been designed specifically to support high relay closure counts to optimize its use with a DMM or source meter for checking for insulation problems between a single contact and all other contacts on the UUT, requiring the closure of up to 1,024 crosspoint relays. The 60-553 LXI matrix is available with Pickering’s Built-in Relay Self-Test diagnostic test tool, which provides a quick and simple way of finding relay failures within the matrices.

Figure 3. High-density LXI switching matrix
Courtesy of Pickering Interfaces

Owen summed up Pickering’s strategy. “Pickering sells one platform that combines several other standard architectures,” he said. “We use PXI modules in an LXI (LAN) interfaced chassis, the principle advantages being easier control at a distance, removal of the need for interface cards in the controller (LAN is present on all controllers), and web-based access to the PXI product. The PXI products are identical to those used in a PXI chassis, but our LXI chassis supports only Pickering Interfaces products.”

New and highlighted products

A December special report 4 provided information on a range of products presented at Autotest 2014 last September for military/aerospace test applications. Among the highlights for modular products, ADLINK Technology touted its new PCIe-PXIe-8638 high-performance PXI Express remote controller, enabling remote control of any PXI Express system directly via PC. VTI Instruments highlighted turnkey systems (hardware/software) for mechanical test as well as PXIe and LXI switching products. JTAG Technologies featured a JTAG/boundary-scan hardware interface product compatible with the Virginia Panel Corp. (VPC) QuadraPaddle mass-interconnect system connectors. The JT 2147/VPC is a signal-conditioning module that allows ideal-world connections from JTAG Technologies’ PXI and PXIe DataBlasters to the VPC connection system. MAC Panel highlighted its new APEX connector, which addresses customers’ demands for ever increasing signal integrity, reliability, and ruggedness in modular test systems. Astronics exhibited its lineup of PXI, LXI, and VXI instruments with a focus on the T940 Freedom VXI digital instruments.

And Teradyne introduced its Spectrum HS functional test system, which is designed around Teradyne’s High Speed Subsystem (HSSub). The Spectrum HS is aimed at circuit boards, assemblies, and boxes requiring digital-bus, mixed-signal, or real-time test. At the time of the release of the HS, Dan Walsh, marketing manager for Teradyne’s defense and aerospace division, called it “…the first Spectrum system centered on PXI-based instrumentation, which is rapidly emerging as a preferred means to address current and future analog and digital functional test requirements.”

In addition, Teradyne announced in November that it has acquired substantially all of the assets of Avionics Interface Technologies, a provider of equipment for testing state-of-the-art avionics data buses. The Avionics Interface Technologies (AIT) business will operate as an independent division within Teradyne’s Defense and Aerospace business unit.

AIT offers a series of testing solutions for both the commercial aerospace and defense industries, including MIL-STD-1553A/B, MIL-STD-1760E, Fibre Channel, ARINC 429, ARINC 615, ARINC 615A, and ARINC 664p7. The company supports hardware modules for PXI, PCI, PCI Express, VME, and VXI platforms.

“AIT’s products complement Teradyne’s line of bus test instrumentation, allowing Teradyne to provide complete test solutions for today’s avionics systems,” said John Wood, vice president and general manager of Teradyne’s Defense and Aerospace business unit, at the time of the acquisition.

“The combination with Teradyne creates unparalleled technical expertise in databus testing, which will strengthen our products and support,” added Bill Fleissner, president and general manager of AIT. “AIT will continue to offer our products to simulation, test, and embedded applications, and combining with Teradyne will allow us to provide more comprehensive solutions to all of the customers we serve.”

Beyond modular

It’s important to remember that you can adopt a modular instrument format without ruling out integrating traditional instruments into your MIL/aero test systems. As Owen at Pickering put it, “Our modular instruments work with bench instruments, and the drivers are almost identical. Our bench LXI switching systems therefore work well with modular standards and, where appropriate, offer easy migration and no compatibility issues.”

And Dewey at Marvin Test Solutions said, “Virtually all of the systems we develop and deploy either have the capability to interface with conventional rack-and-stack systems or we incorporate Rohde & Schwarz instruments. For most of our depot/factory test systems, we employ R&S user power supplies as well as a high-performance scope. The former are needed to supply sufficient power to the UUT, and the latter is used for troubleshooting the UUT.”

When asked if their modular instruments can work with traditional rack-and-stack instruments, both Smail at Keysight and Rector at NI chose the response, “Absolutely.” Rector explained that PXI instruments can communicate via standard buses such as RS-232/485, GPIB, and LAN. He added that tightly synchronized instruments within a PXI chassis (implementing a phase-coherent MIMO system, for example) can share a reference clock with a non-PXI system to create a highly synchronized mixed ATE system.

And Smail at Keysight commented, “Some instruments, such as higher power DC supplies, may not be available in a modular form factor. Rack-and-stack may provide the absolute highest performance in a given instrument type. R&D applications may demand the highest level of phase-noise performance for a vector signal analyzer, but manufacturing applications may need the highest measurement speed. Other applications, such as MIMO, require multichannel solutions, and this is where modular excels.”

Smail added, “PXI, AXIe, and benchtop instruments can be configured together in one test solution, tied through a common software architecture. The different form factors offer different benefits that can complement each other. AXIe, with its higher power/cooling and larger board size, is perfect for leading-edge, high-performance instruments. The older, more-established standard, PXI, has the advantage of a much wider breadth of instruments to choose from.”

Elaborating on software, Smail said, “Keysight provides application software that can be used with its traditional benchtop instruments as well as its modular instruments. This ensures measurement consistency and a common user experience regardless of the instrument form factor selected.” He said Keysight’s software applications supported on modular instrument systems include Signal Studio, Waveform Creator, 89600 VSA software, and X-Series measurement applications.” In addition, he said, “Keysight’s philosophy is to support software platforms most commonly used by its customers,” including third-party software applications such as MATLAB and NI LabVIEW.

He said, “Keysight believes that one size doesn’t fit all.” Consequently, he concluded, Keysight’s “… multiple platforms (both modular and rack-and-stack) share a common software development architecture as well as a common measurement science.”

The flexibility should prove beneficial to test-and-measurement companies and their MIL/aero customers despite the machinations of the politicians on Capitol Hill.

References
Gordon, J.S.,“The High Cost of War,” Barron’s, April 9, 2011.
Bennett, J.T., “Military Chiefs Warn Anew About Sequester Cuts,” DefenseNews, Feb. 2, 2015.
Eaglen, M., “For the Pentagon, What’s Past Is Prologue,” U.S. News & World Report, Feb. 23, 2015.
Nelson, R., “Vendors build on Autotest momentum,” EE-Evaluation Engineering, December 2014, p. 14.

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