Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trading bus stops for credit cards: how far embedded computing has come in three decades

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 27 Aug. 2013. Sometimes I have to stop and marvel at how far embedded computing has come since I started paying attention back in the mid-1980s as I first started out as a trade press reporter.

Those were the days of Cray X-MP supercomputer -- something that literally had benches around it, was taller than a man, and looked a lot like a bus stop. Its theoretical peak performance was 800 million floating point operations per second (800 megaflops).

The Cray X-MP and its successor, the liquid-cooled Cray-2, were considered to be the fastest computers of their day, and their use was confined largely to government research centers for things like nuclear weapons simulation, advanced sonar research, and computational fluid dynamics -- or simulating a wind tunnel in a computer.

There was little, if any, practical use for these kinds of supercomputers for actual deployed military applications. You couldn't fit them on a ship, submarine, or aircraft, and the delicate machines most likely couldn't have withstood the shock, vibration, and other environmental rigors of the field.

There was hope, though. The Holy Grail for DARPA embedded computing scientists was to package one billion floating point operations per second of performance in something deployable. The mantra, at first, was "a megaflop in a shoe box," which evolved to "a megaflop in a coffee can", and eventually to "a gigaflop in a soup can."

Some of the best minds in industry and academia were put to work by research groups like DARPA to make the megaflop-in-a-shoe-box dream a reality.

It would appear their success has surpassed even their wildest dreams. Today we're seeing gigaflop performance on single-board computers and mezzanine modules the size of credit cards that are available off the shelf. We no longer talk about supercomputing, and now describe that kind of technology as high-performance computing (HPC).

Companies like Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions, GE Intelligent Platforms, Mercury Systems, and others embedded computing firms routinely offer today what DARPA computer scientists were only dreaming about a few decades ago.

Not only are today's gigaflop-performance embedded computing devices setting new speed records, but they also are being developed to be practical for a wide and growing variety of applications. The Curtiss-Wright Fabric40 program is only one example of an emerging ecosystem of embedded computing products with gigaflop performance, and the data throughput to keep these high-performance processors fed with data.

I thought about this earlier this month at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington. For what the best and brightest could only dream about years ago, anyone could walk down those aisles at AUVSI and write a check.

Take a look at the photo above of that Cray X-MP, taken in the 1980s. What that check wold buy today would fit in the guy's shirt pocket, and would be more than 10 times the computing power of the supercomputer behind him.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Unmanned vehicle industry stands at the doorstep of a fundamental transformation

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 20 Aug. 2013. The unmanned vehicles industry is in the midst of a fundamental transformation -- one that will see designers of unmanned vehicles that operate in the air, on the ground, and at sea move from a Wild-West startup mentality to a mature, self-regulating business model.

This transformation may not be apparent at first glance. Last week's Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington had plenty of the Wild West on display, such as a plethora of quad-propeller radio-controlled helicopters with camera packs that have become popular of late.

The unmanned vehicle industry has been wide-open for quite a while, but the increasing use of these devices and its inevitable clash with concerns for public safety and individual privacy will bring this phase to a close, and probably sooner rather than later.

We are seeing the first step in this industry transformation with the unmanned vehicle community's embrace of open-system standards-based design. As the industry matures, and as an increasing number of unmanned vehicles are built to operate in public airspace, design standards are necessary to design reliable systems at affordable costs.

Don't get me wrong; I value individual initiative in unmanned vehicle design. The ability to design and build a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) inexpensively, mount it with a small HD camera, and fly it close to the ground is breakthrough technology.

Still, UAVs increasingly must operate in public airspace alongside manned commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. It's unacceptable for UAVs to fall out of the sky and hurt people on the ground, much less collide with a commercial aircraft and kill perhaps hundreds of innocents.

The same issues apply for public waterways and land expanses. Unmanned vehicle designers must ensure that their devices operate safely, reliably, and at affordable costs. All this means industry standards, as well as industry and government certifications.

"This whole industry is becoming more standards-based," observed Chip Downing, senior director of business development for aerospace and defense at real-time software specialist Wind River Systems in Alameda, Calif., last week at the AUVSI trade show.

Downing has been watching the unmanned vehicle industry transformation close-up, as his company has broad expertise in safety-critical real-time software for manned and unmanned aircraft. Safety and reliability, he says is driving change.

"The real industry expansion is using these UAVs in civil airspace," Downing says. "The next generation will have communications among all aircraft," which will involve manned and unmanned aircraft for sense-and-avoid capability.

"All-digital, and all-automated is the next step," Downing says. While some might consider such a step to be unsafe, Downing points out that UAVs, if operated safely and according to established procedures, even might be safer in the long run than manned aircraft.

"There is no reaction time on an unmanned aircraft," Downing points out. The notion of pilot error most likely will be unheard of in future fleets of UAVs.

Although it may represent a cultural leap for the public to accept unmanned aircraft operating nearby manned commercial aircraft in civil airspace, this would seem to represent the wave of future. We will see a day when there are too many aircraft operating in the same airspace for human pilots and human air traffic controllers to handle safely.

We are on the verge of a day when unmanned vehicles will handle their own safety, control, and obstacle avoidance, similar to the way flocks of birds and schools of fish operate.

One day, moreover, we will wonder how we ever had a functioning commercial air transport system that relied on primitive technology like human pilots, human air traffic controllers, and voice radio links.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

AUVSI 2013, one of the biggest unmanned vehicles shows in the world, opens this week in Washington

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 13 Aug. 2013. Unmanned vehicles that operate in the air, at sea, and on the ground never have been more important than they are today. Increasingly dangerous military missions can use the growing number of unmanned vehicles to keep human warfighters out of harm's way.

This week is the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington, which is among the largest exhibitions of unmanned vehicle technology in the world.

Exhibitors from all over the globe will be in Washington this week to show systems and components for unmanned aerial vehicles (UUVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), as well as for the all-important sensor and communications payloads for existing and future unmanned vehicles.

Military & Aerospace Electronics, an AUVSI media partner, will be at AUVSI this week to find the latest technology developments. Watch Military & Aerospace Electronics online at www.militaryaerospace.com for coverage from the show, and keep an eye on news announcements from the show online at http://topics.vpoinc.com/events/AUVSI_UnmannedSystems13.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Washington Post, under Jeff Bezos, could lead the way for media in the 21st Century

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 6 Aug. 2013. I see a lot of public grief today about the upcoming sale of The Washington Post by longtime owners the Graham family to Amazon founder and Internet powerhouse Jeff Bezos.

The "end of an era" seems to be a recurring theme, which is fair, but I see a lot of pundits and reporters crying in their beer over a bygone era, rather than looking forward to what The Post might become under the Bezos ownership.

Those on the political left mourn the potential loss of a stalwart political ally, while those on the right are sensing a potential shift in the world outlook of such an influential U.S. daily newspaper.

Frankly, though, I see neither scenario playing out. The Post is an established media brand, with a loyal, if dwindling, readership. Bezos and those he picks to run the paper day-to-day are unlikely to make big changes right off the bat.

Anything that changes at The Post will come incrementally. Bezos knows how to succeed online, and he'll bring that expertise to The Post. Feathers will be ruffled, of course, but in the end this change in ownership could be a big plus for the newspaper, which has seen its circulation and ad revenue drop steadily over the past decade.

There likely will be a time in the near future when we stop referring to newspapers, and buying an actual print edition will be rare and considered quaint. It's simply not about the newspaper anymore -- apologies to bird cage owners and fish wrappers everywhere -- but instead is about content.

The Graham family, they know newspapers. Bezos knows content. Take a good look at Amazon if you don't believe me. It's long past time for a change at The Post and other newspapers like it.

Bezos has the opportunity to redefine the business model of successful content providers of the future, whom hitherto we have called newspapers, and point the way for media to succeed in the 21st Century.