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Army aims to simplify electronics in combat vehicles

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 21, 2015) -- The large number of radios, computers, and other boxes inside tactical vehicles, in addition to the unique wiring for each system, makes it difficult and costly to perform maintenance and replace outdated gear, according to Army researchers who aim to remedy that through the Hardware Convergence program.

"What we are working on is solving the problem of too many single-purpose boxes being put in vehicles that are there to provide the capabilities that the user requires," said Shawn M. Mathews, team lead for tech plans and programs at the Army's Communications Electronics Research Development and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

A hand rests on a black box with blue sub-components slid into it.
A 3D printed mockup of the of the Hardware Convergence program chassis with blue modules was on display during DOD Lab Day at the Pentagon, May 14. The chassis is designed to standardize wiring for electrical devices in tactical vehicles.

Mathews displayed a solution to the problem in the Pentagon courtyard during a D0D Lab Day there, May 14.

He had a plastic box at his display -- not the actual hardware he proposes, but rather a 3D printed mock-up of the solution. About the size of a tool box and with heat-dissipating fins on the side, it has slots on top where a user can slide in what looks like computer hard drives. But they aren't meant to be hard drives. Instead, each device is an entire computing platform or radio that is designed to replace any one of the much larger equivalents that are already inside combat tactical vehicles.

Instead of each vendor providing their own wiring harness and wiring to connect to the vehicle, they instead provide only the necessary device, and configure it to use government-designed, standardized wiring.

"What we are defining under this hardware convergence program is the government set of standards and architectures, to standardize, simplify, and collapse all those capabilities from independent platforms into one computing platform," Mathews said.

By using a standardized central location to insert technology into vehicles, redundant power supplies and systems can be eliminated, Mathews said. One example of that is GPS.

"At one point we did a survey and found five different GPS systems feeding five boxes," Mathews said. "They are all redundant, performing the same function. Each box needed that function, so it provided its own."

With the RF Hardware Convergence program, there will be one GPS onboard a vehicle, and every other system that needs it can get access to it -- so they won't need to bring their own to provide a solution.

In April, Mathews said, his team ran a successful demonstration of their system at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

For that demonstration, five vendors came in to provide five capabilities built to government standards so they would be compatible with the hardware convergence project.

"We have shown they can work together," Mathews said. "They can all compete for different capabilities to go on the platform. But it also protects their intellectual property, their

'secret sauce' on their system. What's on these cards? We don't necessarily need to know. That's how the vendors do their thing. That's what makes them special. As long as they can plug in and adhere to the standards we define, they can be integrated into the system."

William R. Taylor, division chief of the Cyber Offensive Operations Division at CERDEC, said the RF Hardware Convergence program isn't limited to just combat vehicles. It could also benefit dismounted Soldiers as well.

"With a single card, you could use that as a dismounted manpack system," he said. "Say you had radio functions you wanted to host, you could use that as a single system. It's scalable, from the Soldier to a vehicle."

Taylor said the Army may move forward with solicitations for the system in 2017. Until then, he said, the Army must ensure that the system does what it is intended to do -- reduce infrastructure and gear onboard a vehicle -- but at the same time doesn't inhibit functionality of any of those systems.

"We are proving that we can build to those open standards and specifications without degrading performance within each of those functions," he said. "That's really the research and development aspect -- proving we can get to a common set of standards and architectures without degrading the functionality of each of those domains that were purpose-built in the past.'

Taylor said ultimately, the RF Hardware Convergence program will reduce cost, complexity, maintenance and training for the Army.

"It also gives us the ability to do tech refresh in an easy way," he said, in that replacing or upgrading technology will involve a card swap instead of requiring a vehicle to go to a depot to have the entire system, including wiring, removed and replaced.

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