Sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) applications are on the move. Instead of the large platforms used by theater-level operations, military and defense organizations are seeking for small, rugged ISR platforms for the front line. The challenge in designing such systems is that the radar, signals intelligence, and electro optical/infrared capabilities of ISR systems require abundant, high throughput, low latency real-time processing power.


Until recently, these real-time throughput requirements could only be met by dense populations of specialized signal processors. These processors would be configured with unique fabric architectures using interconnected switches and shared memory buffers to work in concert on complex ISR algorithms. The processor density generated extreme amounts of heat and demanded specialized, complex cooling techniques.


Modern multi-core Intel® processors change the rules. They deliver tremendous processing performance per Watt with cores that communicate via low-latency data paths. These processors power a full range of rugged single-board computers (SBCs) for defense applications. Supported by popular operating systems and a wide choice of software development tools, the SBCs lend themselves to efficient, and cost-effective, application development. In the 3U OpenVPX* form factor they can be deployed on severely space, weight and power (SWaP)-constrained platforms and ruggedized to operate in harsh environments. The heat generated by each individual processor can be efficiently dissipated and spread across a system chassis.


The recently introduced VPX3-1258 SBC from Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions is a very high performance SBC that uses a 4th generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor that is fed with data via high throughput fabric connections based on PCIe Gen3. The processor’s accompanying Platform Controller Hub (PCH) provides a wide range of I/O interfaces including Gigabit Ethernet, RS-232, RS-422, GPIO, USB, and SATA.


A 3U system populated with these SBCs can rival the performance of large, older 6U systems, delivering nearly 2 TFLOPS of floating point computing power. Each quad-core processor contributes 307 GFLOPS from its Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions 2 (Intel® AVX2) processing units and 352 GFLOPS with OpenCL support from its integrated, on-chip GPU. (See “Tackling Defense Apps by Harnessing the Intel Core i7’s Integrated GPU” by Curtiss-Wright for how this is done.) Such performance meets the requirements of many ISR applications (Figure 1).


3 Board diagram.JPG

Figure 1.A modern 3U system based on Intel® Core™ i7 processors meets the requirements for many ISR applications.


Applications built for this system design can use industry standard middleware (such as OFED, OpenMPI, and Shared Memory Driver) to take advantage of PCIe accessible memory buffers, moving data efficiently between processors in a tightly-coupled fashion, regardless of their location within a system. Such middleware reduces the complexity of ISR application development, speeds deployment, and supports software reuse.


High Performance Building Block

The VPX3-1258 SBC is currently Curtiss-Wright’s highest performance Intel® Core i7 processor-based 3U OpenVPX small form factor processing engine (Figure 2). The rugged COTS board makes the perfect building block for use in compute-intensive ISR applications deployed in SWaP-constrained platforms. Its processor delivers 2.4GHz quad-core (8-thread) performance supported with up to 16 GB of dual-channel high-speed ECC-protected DDR3 memory.



Figure 2. Curtiss-Wright VPX3-1258 SBC.

This is also a platform with a future. It features support for a “seamless” upgrade path between older and future Intel processors to support customers’ long-term technology plans. Built-in support for “drop-in” processor replacement enables the VPX3-1258 to speed upgrades to the 5th generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor that will replace the 4th generation Intel® Core™ processor this year (select SKUs are already on the market). This new processor will deliver more GPUs for use as floating point math accelerators and other parallel processing functions.


In the meanwhile, the VPX3-1258 as currently configured delivers exceptional performance using the 20 cores of the Intel® HD Graphics 4600 GPU to the pump out the 352 GFLOPS cited earlier. To support this processing power with high throughput data movement, the VPX3-1258 uses high-speed PCIe Gen3 connectivity. The VPX backplane supports 8-lanes of configurable PCIe fabric, offering NTB ports and powerful direct memory access capabilities. The PCIe fabric enables 16 GB/s data communications from board to board across the backplane.


No Need to Build Your Own

For those looking for a complete ISR platform using these SBCs, Curtiss-Wright offers the MPMC-93335U 3-slot embedded subsystem. It employs advanced packaging techniques to provide a rugged enclosure that measures a compact 250 cubic inches, yet is able to operate and survive ambient temperatures of 71°C using baseplate (fanless) cooling (Figure 3). This enables the system to harsh deployed ground vehicle environments and many other military and aerospace requirements.



Figure 3. Curtiss-Wright MPMC-93335U subsystem.

This chassis meets or surpasses MIL-STD-810 qualifications for military equipment and DO-160E environmental conditions for airborne equipment. The system passes environmental tests for temperature, altitude, shock, vibration, fluid susceptibility, voltage spikes, and electrostatic discharge, plus resists external EMI and minimizes emissions. The well-sealed chassis protects SBCs from external environmental conditions such as dust, sand and humidity.


Take ISR Anywhere

For more on using Intel processor-based COTS SBCs for small to mid-size ISR systems, I recommend reading the white paper from Curtiss-Wright that inspired this post. You can also find more OpenVPX SBCs and 3U chassis in our continuously updated Solutions Directory.


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Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions is a General member of the Intel® Internet of Things Solutions Alliance.


Mark Scantlebury

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor), Intel® Internet of Things Solutions Alliance

Associate Editor, Embedded Innovator magazine