Smart cars: How electronics are changing military vehicles
The last 20 years have brought great change to military vehicles of all kinds. First and foremost, the contemporary battlefield has drastically changed the requirement for blast protection with corresponding and compensating adjustments to mobility, payload and range. As well, it has brought the beginnings of a revolution in vehicle electronics. Innovations in navigation, communications, sensing and electronic countermeasures have all made their way, in various forms and combinations, to the front lines – but they may just be the early indicators of a greater transformation.
At BAE Systems, Hisham Awad is the leader of the Future Protected Vehicles project. He spoke with editor Richard Bray about tomorrow’s vehicles – today.
When it comes to the new capabilities offered by electronics of all kinds, do armed forces and defence departments have a good understanding of their opportunities?
I would say yes. The reason for that is that we have taken a page out of the book of the commercial sector. When it comes to vehicle electronics in the automotive market, there have been a lot of strides in conventional cars and trucks. And if you look at things like iPhones and smartphones and also computer games, they have very much taken the modular application approach where you can quickly build on growth with a wide and expanding architecture. That is exactly the model that defence contractors are now borrowing. That allows you to have a common electronic architecture in place at the initial point. Secondly, it really allows you to expand your systems considerably and it makes sure the entire supplier base is working to that architecture to allow the growth. That is essentially where all the clever vehicle design is being done. We’re moving from the old ‘Iron Triangle’ paradigm of armoured and other vehicles to a common architecture of power generation, power management and power distribution. That allows you to develop software and other systems.
Can you break out the benefits of that?
The iron triangle concept looks at the vehicle in three distinct areas – survivability, lethality and mobility. They are all pulling in absolutely different areas so compromises have to be made. The electronic architecture and the modularity allow you, with an application-based architecture, to bring in and remove applications depending on different missions without having to redesign the entire architecture of the vehicle. That means time boundaries are now no longer a problem because you can change the architecture or a new application at the touch of a button rather than going through the traditional design constraints that have been associated with that kind of change over the last decade – or even the last hundred years. Time is a big factor when it comes to be being able to change your application or your modularity on your vehicle quickly.
We’re assuming a high degree of standardization here.
Absolutely. That’s the key. Customers – governments, really – as well as large defence contractors are now engaging with the supplier base on an almost hourly basis, considering that there is a push to standardize architectures in the military domain for vehicles. Again, we take a leaf out of the book of the automotive domain where they have begun to standardize architectures considerably across different companies. Look to what iPhones are doing, where anyone is allowed to create their own apps. If you look at that from the defence market, we are standardizing so suppliers now look to integrators to have a common architecture in place. That benefits customers, suppliers and large defence contractors. And that is really being pushed by the defence contractors.
Are there bodies working on common standards?
There are, but it depends which country you are looking at. For example, the U.K. Ministry of Defense has a standard for an electronic architecture.
Any transnational bodies?
There are, but still developing. The U.K. standards work is also being shared across NATO, for example. Historically, of course, and with most current vehicles for that matter, electronics systems have tended to be stand-alone, so they all required their own boxes and their own display screens, with no real ability for systems to talk with each other. The result is a very cluttered vehicle. The lack of integration accelerates fatigue and degrades battlefield efficiency, and it increases workloads for maintainers. The goal of course is plug-and-play.
An interesting side note is that the electronic technology in marine, air and land systems is starting to converge. Armoured vehicles in particular now need the same technologies as ships and aircraft, which were traditionally more complex. Now they use similar systems. So we are seeing engineers come across from the aviation and naval areas and working in armoured vehicles.
What are the challenges of bringing vehicle fleets to common electronic standards?
Across the air, sea and land domains, the number of discrete vehicles is much higher in the ground forces. The government is typically going to own more armoured personnel carriers than submarines, and more trucks than jet fighters. Due to the number, therefore, governments are going to look to contractors for relatively low-cost options when it comes to equipment replacement.
Because we are now looking at research already done in the sea and air domains, and transposing that to the land domains, you are really able to take some of the quick wins from the research that has been done and put it into the architectures of land vehicles at a fraction of the cost; you do have a common architecture rather than a bespoke architecture, so I think that the days of having a bespoke, less sophisticated armoured vehicle will all be dependent on how you can push through the electronic architecture.
The dismounted soldier has electronics requirements as well as the vehicle. How does the new vehicle thinking work for the wired warrior?
We actually see this as a massive opportunity. The more systems you have now abroad vehicles, the more electrical power they will be consuming. And the more technology that the dismounted soldier carries, again, that requires more power-hungry batteries. Batteries in an armoured vehicle tend to require a lot of space and they take a long time to charge. They also cause problems in terms of mine blast protection, because they tend to be situated on the floor of a vehicle and a mine blast can cause that battery to go up into the vehicle and cause damage. So we are looking at having power within the structure of the vehicle. That allows you to have a very big battery in the armour of the vehicle. If I take the example of soldiers, they will be carrying a lot of equipment that requires charging. The last thing they want to do is get into that armoured vehicle, take every single bit of equipment off and charge them individually. What they want to be able to do is climb in with the rucksacks still on lean backwards and automatically charge all the components from inside the vehicle – exactly the way an iPhone or an iPad can currently be charged.
If many more functions are being pushed forward to the electronics onboard a vehicle, what are the implications for dismounted soldiers?
What you don’t want to do is overload the soldier with too much information that’s not useful and that’s using up too much bandwidth. However, what is interesting is this – where does the line between the vehicle and the soldier stop? If you look at how you want to gain information at the moment, you’ll have quite a large sensor on the vehicle or there will be a UAV flying above that will be sending information back. However, that soldier may be carrying an RFID tag or a smaller sensor that can then provide some really valuable data back to the armoured vehicle. So I think the compromise is not about enough bandwidth but making sure that the right information is being sent across and can be manipulated in the right way, rather than sending too much information that is actually a waste of bandwidth.
The key here is autonomy. BAE Systems came a little late to the unmanned systems world and because we needed a way to get in the contest, we decided to specialize in autonomous systems. We look to a lot of that technology to do processing, in the case of reconnaissance assets onboard, so that you only transmit what is absolutely vital. The point here is that you vastly reduce bandwidth requirements because you don’t have to pilot the vehicles and they don’t send extraneous information back. Under that scheme, humans do what they are good at, which is interpreting information. How does that apply to armoured vehicles? Taking crowd control as an example, we could place biometric capabilities right out at the point of contact, with real information about individuals and crowd behavior going as quickly as possible to the people who need to make decisions. There is no reason that kind of processing can’t be done onboard, wherever onboard happens to be.
Change is never easy. Are there bumps in the road for the wired vehicle?
We think that there are some healthy debates going on, and not just in the armoured vehicle area. Some of them are about taking humans out of the loop. Maybe it’s up to industry to make the case that the role of a fast jet pilot can and should be changed, or that weapons systems should be armed to take autonomous action. Dull, dirty and dangerous assignments more or less identify themselves, mostly by a lack of volunteers – mine clearance or reconnaissance inside buildings are examples. So in some applications, perhaps we need to show that electronics can augment and supplement human intelligence first before we move on to replacing it.
Clearly, a revolution in vehicle electronics will touch many different areas – from maintenance to training to procurement. What areas are defence departments looking at now, as they prepare to take advantage of the change?
One of the differentiating factors between today and tomorrow’s technology development compared to yesterday’s is through-life cost and Defence Lines of Development (DLOD). As part of common architecture and common interface the impact of new technology onto DLOD’s is almost considered negligible. Having the same architecture allows you to conduct a single piece of training for an infinite amount of technology. Standardizing interfaces means that the user sees the same information and skeleton even though it could be conducting a completely different task. The gaming industry has led the field when it comes to improving procurement and reducing training. Consider the different types of games that can be played using one gaming controller and adapt it to the defence market: the benefits not only fall with the technology but the through-life assessment of the technology.
An interview with Hisham Awad of BAE Systems.