Military Gets Flexible About Customization
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
The U.S. military has been creating its own set of technology standards since before the Air Force became its own force separate from the Army. And since that time, companies that wanted to work with defense departments around the world realized they had to dance to a military tune if they wanted the business. Fast forward to the second millennium, and machine vision companies can still hear faint strings of martial music when it comes to defense contracting. But the song is more muted and open to improvisation – most often in the form of smart standards developed by industry instead of coming from the military.
Today, machine vision companies that want military and security business realize that flexibility is important, but the days of responding to every customer need and new spec are pretty much over. In fact, standards such as GigE Vision and Camera Link, developed by trade associations such as the AIA, are helping these companies gain defense market share.
Flexibility vs. Customization
Since World War II, military aircraft have used film, and more recently, digital cameras, to dog fights, bombing runs, and other operations so that pilots, intelligence officers, and strategists can learn from each mission. Through the Vietnam conflict, 60-mm film cameras provided this imagery. But in recent decades, aircraft designers have increased the use of computer systems on digital networks to fly planes, opening the door to digital imaging systems. “Modern aircraft have more network capabilities on board, and they want to have a fully streaming video,” explains Stephan Trost, CEO of AOS Technologies AG (Zurich, Switzerland).
AOS Technologies’ experience with the defense industry illustrates the recent trend away from military customers dictating 100% customization toward standard technology platforms that offer some flexibility for system optimization. “We started from scratch when we designed our first high-speed camera for military flight recording,” says Trost. “Today, we use COTS [commercial off the shelf] sensors as part of several standard platforms, such as the S-EM and Q-MIZE cameras, and then customize the memory, electrical, and mechanical to meet the customers’ needs.”
In addition to the camera’s physical characteristics and need for rugged construction to meet more stringent vibration and temperature requirements common to military applications, Trost says flight recording cameras need high frame rates (usually in the hundreds of frames per second) and excellent gain control to handle changing lighting conditions during flight caused by clouds, position of the sun, and other factors. AOS Technologies puts each military camera sensor through a stringent calibration routine at their factory to make sure each pixel will perform as expected.
EDT | Engineering Design Team (Beaverton, Oregon), which designs and builds Camera Link® frame grabbers, simulators, and long-range extenders, keeps its products flexible by providing popular ordering options, along with an API [application programming interface] that includes library and example source code. This combination fulfills most customization needs.
“Recently, we had a customer who was using three cameras in each reconnaissance aircraft,” explains EDT Field Application Engineer Cliff Hayes. “Each camera was supported by three boards – one to receive Camera Link, one to transmit Camera Link, and one for IRIG time code input so they could synchronize the video from all three cameras. Our all-in-one bidirectional Camera Link board with IRIG support (PCIe8 DVa CLS) allowed them to replace each set of three boards with just one board.” Using EDT’s API and source code, the customer was able to modify the code they had developed for the previous setup and implement whichever image formats they wanted.
In other cases, customers have requested special uses for the specific bits in the Camera Link data stream, but EDT typically rejects projects like these because they would require significant hardware and/or firmware changes.
GigE Vision Standard Brings Video to C4
“It’s really amazing that in 2008, defense contractors didn’t have an appetite for GigE Vision or networked video,” explains John Butler, Sales Manager at Pleora Technologies Inc. (Kanata, Ontario, Canada). “They didn’t fully understand it. Now, defense contractors are soliciting proposals based on the GigE Vision standard interface. The standard helps them get the data into the digital domain for visualization, but also strengthens their bids to primary contractors and defense agencies because they can refer to a common industrial standard in their bids.”
Other GigE Vision advantages include the ability to include both video and communication or control information over the same interface and the low latency, which is particularly important for video streams used in vehicle navigation, for example, where half-second delays or lost image data can be very problematic.
“We’re seeing a lot of retrofit and modernization of existing vehicle platforms, such as armored personnel carriers,” notes Butler. “Some of the existing cameras use analog interfaces – particularly thermal cameras – and they tend to be quite expensive. The desire is to consolidate these cameras in a common interface environment with digital, low-light cameras. So, rather than replacing the analog cameras with a new digital version, we provide them a network-attached external frame grabber that grabs the video and converts it to digital data. Now, instead of point-to-point communications, they can multicast to many locations and integrate it with other data.”
Other factors, such as the use of ARM-based embedded processing with commercial I/O, are also driving GigE Vision into military applications.
“In the past, we didn’t have a lot of success with UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] applications and other reconnaissance applications because the data wasn’t usually viewed in real time and the low-bandwidth wireless transmission meant the video would need to be compressed before transmission,” Butler adds. “ARM-based processing units don’t have proprietary, Camera Link, and other non-standard IT connectors…but they do have Ethernet. So, we’re seeing more demand for our external frame grabbers, which come with SDK and drivers to simplify system design using COTS ARM-based embedded processing. “
Waiting on Budgets, Economy
For industrial imaging companies with the right mix of product, technology, and flexibility, the defense industry has been lucrative and growing. However, recent economic events have slowed the growth.
“Military applications have represented a growing part of our business in recent years,” Pleora’s Butler concludes. “This year has been uncertain, however, as the U.S. national and defense budgets are in a huge state of flux. Hopefully, these budgetary decisions will be resolved soon and the economy will pick back up again. We have a lot of design wins that are just waiting for production funding.”