Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Will model-based design make prototypes obsolete for the Military & Aerospace Industry?

Before computers could run complex programs the only way to know something would work was to build a prototype and test it. If the prototype worked: great! If not: back to the drawing board. There was science behind designs and engineers obviously got a lot done using blueprints, diagrams and complex formulas, but in this day and age a new form of design has become a powerful force.

Model-based design, having models in programs be the center of design rather than physical documents and prototypes, emerged in an effort to lower program costs and allow for tests to be done without spending the large amounts of money required for prototypes.

The obvious benefit of model-based design is that, with programs that include environmental variables (wind conditions, shock and vibrations, altitude, etc.) you can test a model without having to spend the time or money involved in putting together a prototype. You can even use different levels of abstraction. Need to make sure a certain part is working correctly? Just run the model of that part through a series of virtual tests. Want to test the entire project? Run a model of it through a series of virtual tests.

I spoke with John Friedman, Information Marketing Manager at Mathworks Inc., a company which has created popular engineering programs such as MATLAB, about model-based design. Before model-based design there was a saying, "'It [the design process] can either be faster, cheaper or better quality,'" said Mathwork's Friedman, "With model-based design it's a place where you can move the needle in all three areas."

The best part about model-based design is it has not finished improving. As computers grow more powerful, so too do the models and the tests they are put through. While physical tests are still necessary, model-based design allows for many flaws to be caught before money is spent on costly prototypes or production models for tests.

Model-based design has not yet fully removed prototypes from projects. Simulations aren't yet accurate enough to account for every little variable, but if Moore's law holds true we may just reach the point where we go straight from models to production without a cost increase. Wouldn't it be nice to have a test environment where the only money you're spending is on electricity?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a holiday that far too many people take for granted as simply another three-day weekend. While everyone is out enjoying barbecues I'd like to take a moment to remind you as to what the holiday is really about: honoring the sacrifices made by the men and women who have given up their lives in service of our country.

There have been times in the history of the United States when we did not appreciate our troops. Our soldiers were called murders, baby killers and a plethora of other terrible things. It is a sad time when people who are doing a selfless duty, whether you agree with their mission or not, are berated. Whether you support or oppose the current conflicts we are involved in, whether you think our military strength should be increased or decreased, no matter what your religion or stance on any subject is, supporting the people who fight for our country should not be open for debate.

Memorial Day should be a time to honor those who paid the ultimate price, those who served our country but did not get to fully enjoy what they fought for.

Let's take a moment today to remember why we have the day off. Enjoy the day and the freedom we have, but remember all of the people who aren't with their families because they were making this day possible.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The haunting bugle call Taps is 150 years old this summer

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 24 May 2012. This summer marks the 150th anniversary of one of the best-known bugle calls ever -- the haunting tune played at thousands of military funerals every year known as Taps.

The tune first was played during the American Civil War in July 1862 at Harrison's Landing, Va., in the aftermath of a series of disastrous Union defeats at the hands of Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Buglers from all walks of life are marking the 150th anniversary of Taps, including an event earlier this month at Arlington National Cemetery in which many buglers formed to play the melancholy melody together.
Creating the tune were Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and his bugler, Private Oliver W. Norton, of Erie, Pa.

 It was part of normal Army routine to play bugle tune or solo drum tap at the end of the day to signal lights out. Butterfield didn't like the Army's lights-out bugle call at the time, and composed a new tune more to his liking.

Soon after Butterfield first had Norton play the tune in the demoralized Union Army camp in July 1862, buglers from other units picked it up, and before long buglers all over the Army were playing what would become known as Taps at the end of the day.

Until then one common way to signal the end of the Army's day was for a solitary drummer to play three taps on the drum for lights out. Soldiers knew that drum call as taps, and extended the name to Butterfield's new bugle call, which ever since has been known as Taps.

July 1862 at Harrison's landing was a bad place at a bad time for the Union Army. The Union's Peninsula Campaign, which had sought to take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., had ended in defeat after the Army of the Potomac had been forced to retreat to the safety of Harrison's Landing after a major series of engagements known as the Seven Days Battles.

Defeated, the Union Army was preparing to board ships on its way back to Washington. No one knew the war would last another three years. At Harrison's Landing it was hot and muggy, disease was rampant in the Army ranks, and morale could not have been lower. It was from this that the Taps bugle call emerged.

There is a popular myth, now debunked, that Union Army Capt. Robert Ellicombe at Harrison's Landing heard the moan of a Confederate soldier who lay mortally wounded. Ellicombe, the story goes, crawled through gunfire to pull the wounded soldier to safety. When he reached his own lines, however, the soldier was dead. he discovered a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

To his horror, he realized that the dead solder was his own son. In his dead son's pocket he found a series of musical notes written on a piece of paper. A bugler played those notes, the story goes, and that tune was Taps.

Sorry, but not true. That story evidently was concocted in the 20th century by creators of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Butterfield and Norton are the actual creators of Taps.

 In one of history's ironic twists, Taps is perhaps best known for being played at Arlington National Cemetery at notable funerals like that of slain President John F. Kennedy. Taps was written in the wake of big military victory by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Before the Civil War, the land that is now Arlington National Cemetery was owned by ... guess who? You got it; it was the estate of Robert E. Lee.

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Navy's solid-state laser weapon

It looks like the Navy is building another weapon right out of the sci-fi genre yet again, this time with a solid-state laser that can disable boats and shoot down aircraft. That's right, lasers that can shoot down aircraft and damage boats.

High-energy lasers have been used directly for many purposes, they can disable missiles, rockets and mortars, but this time they're going for a more direct route. The reason given for this weapon is the Navy wants to stop small boats and aircraft without having to use bullets, an admirable goal.

The Navy has a long history of doing work in the field of directed energy, where they have managed to produce kilowatt-scale lasers that can be fielded offensively rather than the traditional defensive roles lasers have served in the past. This is not just wishful thinking either, two previous demonstrations have shown the laser disabling a boat and shooting down four different test unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Whether or not the laser will be safe if targeting a person (or at least safer than the alternative, bullets) is unclear, but whatever happens with the Navy's current program it will make a mark on military weaponry. Will future naval battles be the colorful stream of lasers we've come to expect from Star Wars? Probably not (most lasers we use aren't even visible), but it looks like we're marching towards a future where solid projectiles may not be the only method for a soldier to deal with threats.

Monday, May 14, 2012

High-performance embedded computing (HPEC) gaining market traction, but its definition remains elusive

Posted by John Keller

People warned me that when I reached a certain age I'd look out at a once-familiar world and see nothing that I recognized. Well, it's happened. Acceptable social behavior today is a shock and a mystery. Popular music sounds like noise, and the most recent covers of Time and Newsweek, well don't even get me started.

One of the biggest jolts of all, so far, involves the embedded computing industry that so many of us have come to know and love for what seems like forever.
Embedded computing for military embedded systems used to mean single-board computers. It wasn't that complicated. We knew we were talking about the same thing -- even when mezzanine boards, VPX, high-speed switch fabrics, and even what DARPA calls 'cyber-physical systems' entered the conversation.

Now? Well, I'm not so sure.

I started to feel somewhat off-balance when companies like GE and Intel stopped talking about embedded computing altogether, and substituted the new term 'intelligent systems.' People tell me the names mean pretty much the same thing, but you never know when new definitions might sneak in when we're not looking.

Now there's a new term on the block, and I think it's got plenty of people just as confused as I am. Here it is: high-performance embedded computing, or HPEC for short. Okay, it doesn't sound all that frightening. Look at those words; doesn't the name sound straightforward enough?

Well, you'd think, but I guess not. In fact, I have a feeling that little acronym, HPEC, is going to define the marketing wars for a good while in that ... business, you know, where at one shining moment in the not-too-distant past we knew it as the embedded computing industry.

Sshhhh. Better not say that too loud, or we'll get the same kind of eye rolls as when someone refers to the 'information super highway,' or the 'TV set.'

So what's high-performance embedded computing mean, anyway? Well, I think it depends a lot on who's selling it. Remember COTS, short for commercial off-the-shelf? Everyone remembers the debate over what COTS meant. Heck, we used to have whole TRADE SHOWS to debate the term.

COTS in its day meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but the best definition of COTS I ever heard is "whatever my customer says it is." I have a feeling HPEC is headed the same way.

Here's where I think we are now in the HPEC-terminology wars. The early pioneers -- Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions, GE Intelligent Platforms, and probably Mercury Computer Systems -- are looking at a fairly narrow definition -- one that closely resembles their cutting-edge technology, and that, not surprisingly, their marketing departments have a shot at controlling.

For these companies, high-performance embedded computing closely follows what the IT industry has come to call high-performance computing, or HPC. It has to do with parallel processing techniques for running complex application programs with large clusters of processors. Some say it only applies to systems that function at speeds in excess of 1 trillion floating point operations per second (teraflop).

This is the kind of high-speed cluster computing used in military embedded systems for complex digital signal processing involving complex sensor processing in applications like radar, sonar, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence.

More to the point, this definition involves software more than it does hardware. Large clusters of parallel processing computers are becoming commodity items in this brave new world of ours. Some of the biggest challenges have to do with programming these large computer clusters to run complex algorithms quickly and reliably.

The real thing that makes HPEC different from HPC is the packaging. High-performance embedded computing is packaged to be small, rugged, and lightweight. It doesn't take a data center, but might fit aboard a ground vehicle or unmanned aerial vehicle.

But then what does HPC mean to the rest of the embedded computing world? For companies like General Micro Systems, Extreme Engineering Solutions, and many others, HPC simply means embedded computing that is more high performance than average.

Let's face it, most of the embedded computing industry isn't going to let GE, Curtiss-Wright, and Mercury get away with controlling the debate over HPEC. Anything those three companies can do, well they can do it too. They believe that, and their challenge is getting their customers to believe it, too.

But the Big Three HPEC companies won't take that lying down. I suspect their marketing departments, as we speak, are on the verge of an entirely new term to describe what their design engineers do best. I can't wait to see what it's going to be.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Did I say $114 million mistake? I meant $351 million.

Hopefully these sorts of updates don't become a regular thing, it's awfully distressing. Anyways, once again we see more money vanish into the rabbit hole that is the F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter Program (JSF) program. It's more of the same, a $237.7 million contract "for changes to the configuration baseline hardware or software resulting from the JSF development effort."

But wait, there's more. This time the concurrency cap is getting increased, the concurrency cap being the threshold at or under which the contract has to incorporate government authorized changes. Yep, that's more leeway. I don't think Lockheed Martin is to blame by any means, so the cap should be raised, but it's awfully disheartening to see something written into the contract just in case it costs even more than it already has.

I'm really hoping this doesn't become a recurring theme with the F-35 program.

One thing worth noting about this particular modification is that $222.6 million of these funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. These mistakes have already cost a whooping $351 million, is taking away money if it takes a long time really worth it? Could rushing not be a problem that's making these changes necessary?

Interestingly enough, the F-35 JSF program has seen quite a bit of testing done. The F-35 has completed night flights, night refueling, conventional takeoffs and landings, formation flights, the whole 9 yards. There have been hundreds of flights, so what is going wrong that is costing this much extra money?

Well, I've got my abacus ready for if there are any more contracts, and I'll keep on calling program officials until they let me in on what's going on. Check back often for more updates!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Continuing the conversation

The purpose of these blogs is to facilitate discussion and share our opinions with you. As you may have noticed our comment section is currently down, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't make your opinion heard!

I've received emails commenting on my blog, and it's worth saying that comments don't go unappreciated or unanswered. Responses let us know you're interested in what we're writing and help us tailor our articles and blogs to focus on what you want to hear about. Even if you're just popping in to offer a differing opinion it lets us know that we can look further into an issue, we might even publish your comment as a guest blog (with your permission, of course).

Not sure how to contact us? Under the advertise tab in the top right of the site you'll find the "Editorial Contacts" button, give it a click and you'll find the email addresses of John, Courtney and myself.

So go ahead and let us know what you want to hear about and how you think we're doing. Of course, the comment section will be up soon and I'm hoping we'll get more comments once that happens. We're here to write for you, not to hear the sounds of our own voices!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lockheed Martin experimental stealth surface vessel to be scrapped after yielding valuable technology

Posted by John Keller

The Lockheed Martin Sea Shadow, an experimental surface vessel that helped design modern warships with low radar cross sections, is heading for the scrap yard after nearly 30 years of surface. The black dual-hull ship, built in the 1980s under a shroud of secrecy, has served its purpose and will be auctioned for scrap this week.

Despite its undignified end, however, the Sea Shadow, which tests showed was nearly invisible to radar during sea tests, has led to radar-evading design technologies that have gone into the Navy's newest Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), as well as into new models of the Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

The notion of radar-evading stealth technology perhaps reach its zenith in the 1980s before the close of the Cold War. Lockheed Martin had designed the super-secret F-117 stealth attack jet, and then company experts turned their attention to developing surface warships that might likewise be nearly invisible to radar signals.

The result was the Sea Shadow, a spaceship-like test vessel that primarily was taken to sea for testing at night, and was built and stored in a secret submersible barge near San Francisco, which cloaked the vessel from orbiting spy satellites.

The Sacramento Bee ran a terrific story last weekend by Matt Weiser entitled Scrap heap may be last stop for secret slice of Navy history, which gives a detailed account of the Sea Shadow's development and testing.

Take a look at the photos that accompany stories about the Sea Shadow and then compare it to versions of the Navy LCS. See all those funny angles in the ship hulls and superstructures? That's key to the design's ability to evade radar signals.

Radar detects targets by bouncing radio waves off the targets and measuring the reflected return of the radio energy. The best radar returns come from right angles. Notice that the LCS designs don't have too many of these. The angles of the LCS vessels, as well as radar-evading aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are designed to scatter radar energy, rather than provide clear returns. It's not fool-proof, but it can be quite effective.

The Sea Shadow test vessel reportedly was able to sneak up on Navy warships at night without being detected until very late in the game. It this had been an armed enemy ship, U.S. aircraft carriers might have been in serious trouble.

Now the testing is all over. It's a pity the Sea Shadow couldn't become part of some museum's collection, but so far it is not to be. Its legacy will live on, however, in the designs of modern warships.