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2013 Trends: New Standards, Lower Power, and Rugged

The military’s infatuation with SWaP-C begins to drive non-defense suppliers as myriad markets and applications need better-than-commercial.

When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So it is sometimes with my own view of the embedded market. After spending years associated with several of the world’s defense industries and ministries, I tend to see technology as it might apply to military, aerospace, and other high-rel, mission-critical systems. But as we examined this year’s crop of small form factor (SFF) technologies and trends to create the questions for our annual Roundtable Q&A, the answers from our three participants often indicated a growing awareness of rugged technologies, products, and systems.

Take, for example, the new standards organization SGET (Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies) headquartered in Munich, Germany. Chartered to create open (and freely available!) standards for embedded systems, Kontron tells us about a new ARM-based form factor called SMARC that’s thin and low power enough to apply to UAVs, transportation systems, and lots of other size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) constrained systems. Similarly, PCI Systems describes the new VITA 73 “microATR” standard that’s designed to be rugged enough for deployment on drones yet similarly equipped to the larger VPX board size.

In other areas of SWaP-C, size definitely matters. As the Internet of Things flows out to connect every intelligent device as a node on the global network, M2M products are in most companies’ arsenals. And they range in size from small COM boards, to standard PC/104 and SUMIT boards with a variety of connectivity options such as IEEE 802.15.4 RF flavors…to plain vanilla Ethernet supplying Power over Ethernet (POE) as in many of WinSystems’ products.

It’s also interesting to note the range of processors available in today’s SFFs. A few years ago it all would’ve been Intel-based (and most likely Atom-based). That’s changing. When Kontron announced support for ARM a year or so ago it signaled new choices for designers and the effect of the mobile consumer world on the previously PC-dominated embedded market. Our respondents in this year’s Q&A are using ARM, Atom, Intel Core ix, DM&P, and AMD APUs and Geodes. Not all of these are x86 compatible, of course.

Finally, a bit a surprise was how little affect Android and “touch” has had on most of the embedded applications described by our three respondents. I suppose it’s because two of the companies are “deeply embedded” suppliers whose products don’t “touch” (no pun!) the end user directly. Kontron, of course, provides human-machine interface systems (HMI) and remains involved with capacitive touch screens, Android, and more.

Read on, and learn for yourself what trends affect each of these three important embedded companies. These same trends will likely affect your own design decisions.
Chris A. Ciufo, Editor 

EECatalog: The first question is always about standards…what’s new? Specifically, what’s new with each form-factor organization (PC/104, SFFSIG, PICMG, VITA, etc) and how do they apply to the market?

Jack London is a Product Manager at Kontron.

Kontron: There is actually a new standard in module form factors which has been expressly designed for ARM and SoC technology. SMARC or Smart Mobility ARChitecure was created to provide designers with a low profile, small 82 mm x 50 mm dimension  module for low power applications. The SMARC specification is being supported by the SGET consortium which is specific to embedded market applications.

Claus J. Gross is President of PCI Systems.

PCI Systems: Created under the VITA standards organization, VITA 73 has gained market recognition with a complete chassis integrated in UAVs and other vehicles having tight spaces.The double slot version is superior to 3U VPX featuring a 4-core i7 CPU, 16 lanes of PCIe Gen3 on each slot. The latest custom design for the Navy incorporates a Virtex-7 FPGA and next generation 3.7Gs/sec 12bit ADCs where four independent channels are on one board.

VITA 73 chassis have the highest function-to-size ratio, even compared to 3U VPX. In other standards, VITA 75 is basically a cut-off 3U VPX offering with a very low function to size ratio, and VITA 74 looks like a ruggedized PC/104 system with limited high speed functions available.

Bob Burckle is Vice President at WinSystems.

WinSystems: The current state of the market from our perspective is that we are in an implementation phase of the new recently introduced standards. WinSystems has introduced SBCs and I/O cards built upon the SUMIT connector and SUMIT-ISM board standard using the latest Intel Atom-class processors and high-speed PCIe [PCI Express] peripherals.

With the advent of the lower power x86-based CPUs, WinSystems has made a significant move into power supplies and off power grid computing. We have can power SBCs and I/O cards from batteries, wind turbines, solar panels and Power Over Ethernet [PoE]. This may not be necessarily “new” technology, but a needed implementation for low power, embedded applications for small form factor boards. With applications in military/aerospace, transportation, security, and other fields that need to operate in a remote and often hostile environment, availability of clean and reliable power is essential.

EECatalog: What are the technology trends you’re watching this year, in boards and in end market segments?

Kontron: As board form factors become smaller and more capable, thanks to consolidation of functions into SoC silicon, designers are now seeking ways to implement connectivity and multi-display capability. Market segments for these include digital signage, mobile, and handheld applications in medical environments.

PCI Systems: High speed ADC and DAC applications needing 16 lanes Gen3 PCIe slot connection. These high data rates are also required when GPU chips are used. Also, in the markets we care most about, SWAP is the big issue.

WinSystems: As stated above, low power is a major issue. We are also seeing more inquiries on “green” energy segments and PoE applications. Another trend for our customer base is for long-term product availability. If it is not broken, then don’t fix it and if a product works, don’t redesign it unless major functions and features are required. Our customers are satisfied with the I/O functionality and price point of products using the different variants of PC/104 technology. So we continue to see significant orders for existing designs, plus new designs based upon existing technology (assuming that you can still buy it). We infrequently obsolete any popular products and if we do, we replace it with another that is closely resembles the other’s form, fit, and function. This is not always possible since we are dependent upon the semiconductor manufacturer for their silicon.

EECatalog: M2M (Machine-to-Machine) is getting to be a super-hot buzzword, and SFFs are ideal for end-point nodes. What technologies are you seeing there, and what about comms links and protocols?

Kontron: M2M and IoT (Internet of Things) is a fast growing trend with applications for many vertical markets including Transportation, Healthcare, Industrial and Utilities. OneM2M organization ( is defining the standards for an M2M/IoT service layer that can be readily embedded within various hardware and software products. WWAN, WLAN and WPAN technologies are becoming more and more prevalent for connectivity solutions, while transport protocols such as CoAP and 6LoWPAN are getting very popular for specific applications such as smart grids.

PCI Systems: We have developed a 24 lane optical link that fits into a D-Sub connector size. There is no protocol in the translating engine involved so any signal between 1 Gbits/s and 10.5 Gbits/s can be transmitted.This connection can be used for PCIe Gen3, InfiniBand, 1, 10, 100 Gbit Ethernet and many more applications.

WinSystems: In many applications PoE allows easier implementation of the end-point device; this is exciting with cameras and other intelligent I/O because it really simplifies installation. We are also seeing a SFF SBC communicating with sensors through a variety of protocols including serial, USB, I2C, and wireless protocols. What makes this possible are the “canned” drivers and application programs that can be adapted to embedded applications.

EECatalog: Android is everywhere, especially in touch-based systems. How does this trend affect embedded modules supplied by your company?

Kontron: Embedded technology applications are not usually first to market with new OS implementations due to the nature of their use. However, as Android becomes more popular there is a growing trend towards supporting it in embedded applications even though the predominance of end users still prefer a more traditional Linux- or Windows-based OS.

PCI Systems: We manufacture deployed systems without optical or touch monitors, so this trend isn’t applicable to us.

WinSystems: Android is starting to be discussed but Linux variants and Windows platforms are still used by the majority of our customers. We also see RTOS’s like QNX and VxWorks.

EECatalog: How is Windows 8, Windows RT, and the whole “touch” phenomenon affecting your engineering and product plans? Be specific.

Kontron: The touch phenomenon is making its presence known in embedded applications and is emerging as a “must-have” feature, particularly in the HMI space. For this reason our engineering teams are implementing necessary hardware interfaces and software support to realize this feature.  This includes driver development in software and implementation of different internal interfaces such as USB to support touch screen overlays on displays.

WinSystems: At this point Windows 8 and the “touch” phenomenon have not penetrated the industry segments where resistive touch screens have been dominant.  With new developments allowing capacitive touch screens to be used in applications where water, dirt, and gloves are common, we expect a strong increased use in this [embedded] sector in the next few years.

EECatalog: What’s new in wireless – including 802.15.4, 802.11, cellular, NFC and others?

Kontron: As the LTE networks get rolled out across the US and other regions, many new applications leveraging the high bandwidth and low latency of LTE networks are being developed and deployed. This is being used in combination with 802.11, BLE and NFC technologies at the smart edge node.

WinSystems: We seeing continuing adoption of 802.11 and cellular 3G/4G systems.  We are just beginning to see some adoption of 802.15.4 with several protocol profiles realized.

EECatalog: The processor wars are heating up between AMD, ARM, Intel and others. Which ones have you selected and why?  Also, what about the ease of programming and application porting between platforms?

Kontron: Kontron’s goal is to develop products that address market application requirements, each of which will have different processing capability demands. Whereas one application will benefit from the low power attributes of ARM technology, another application will need high-end x86 multi-core processing where power dissipation is not an issue. Still yet other applications demand high-end HD 1080p multi-display graphics capabilities. For these reasons Kontron partners with industry leaders who develop and produce x86 and ARM technology based silicon.

Programming and application porting between dissimilar machine compute platforms is not as daunting up to a certain level. For example, under Linux each platform will have similar function calls and make use of C compiling, but the pathway splits when it comes to driver development as each technology has different features and functions requiring unique drivers.

PCI Systems: We heavily use Intel because of the high data rates seen by our customers’ applications, connecting 16 lanes of PCIe Gen3.

WinSystems: All have their own strengths and weaknesses.  We are currently using all three mentioned plus DM&P who is targeting a different sector of the market. [Editor's note: DM&P manufactures a variety of x86 instruction set compatible SoC processors which integrate peripherals such as ISA bus, GPU, Southbridge and more. ]

EECatalog: What are the trends in rugged? Can you describe some of the engineering techniques your company has used to deal with heat, moisture, or other environmental metrics?

Kontron: Ruggedized applications present a host of challenges for designers due to the nature of their use in different operating environments.  Kontron has taken steps with some of our module products to ruggedize the product through design and environmental stress screening. For example, selecting industrial-rated components, layout and placement of these components as well as developing appropriate thermal solutions are all necessary to deliver a ruggedized product. Interestingly enough, the lower temperatures can often be more challenging to support vs. the upper temperature ranges. In some cases designers would need to implement such techniques as “pre-heating” a board  or forward biasing current to certain circuits so as to bring them to life prior to their operation to ensure proper system operation.

PCI Systems: The main issue for deployed systems is the ratio of functions per chassis volume. To that end, we have developed a patent-pending 3D backplane design to reduce chassis size. PCI Systems can get the same functions out of a chassis where the competition would need two chassis. We use cold plate cooling, liquid cooling and forced air duct cooling. All chassis are rated IP65 and conform to MIL-STD-810 and other military standards.

Our VITA 73 chassis, called microVPX and microATR , have one third the volume as a 3U VPX chassis from the competition with the same functionality. [Editor's note: Refer to the article on VITA 73 "The smaller VITA 73 Small Form Factor and MicroATR chassis" available in this issue.]

EECatalog: I’m a strong proponent of embedded security – and an “evangelist” of sorts. What are the issues concerning security and safety in PC/104 and other SFFs? What are your customers saying, and how is your company responding?

PCI Systems: We provide patent-pending “mission sticks”; basically rugged sticks that contain mission data and EEPROMs for storing classified content. Our rugged chassis will not work and is useless when the mission stick is not inserted. Also, the mission stick and our high capacity SSD can be physically remotely destroyed if, for instance, a UAV gets lost.

WinSystems: The first step is physical security and to not have access to USB and other connections when unnecessary.  The bulk of security concerns fall into the software arena, where operating systems should be secured with appropriate software and/or configured as read only so they cannot be modified easily by those with ill intent.


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Chris A. Ciufo is senior editor for embedded content at Extension Media, which includes the EECatalog print and digital publications and website, Embedded Intel® Solutions, and other related blogs and embedded channels. He has 29 years of embedded technology experience, and has degrees in electrical engineering, and in materials science, emphasizing solid state physics. He can be reached at

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