Rockwell Collins is reinventing the future of image generation

As every smartphone owner knows, the best and newest upgrade is always just a few months away. Although the technological advances in simulation and training aren’t quite that fast, Rockwell Collins repeatedly finds itself ahead of the curve when it comes to engineering the latest and greatest. The EP®-8100 image generator, launched in early 2015, is just one example.

The first wave of these image generation products have been around since the early 2000s when a company called nVidia released highly capable graphics processing units (GPU) that changed the face of computer graphics in the areas of image generation. A number of companies – including Rockwell Collins – adopted this commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) GPU technology, and continue to apply successive generations of the technology.

Initial excitement of the promise of constantly improving commercial technology has turned to the realization that with constantly improving technology comes constant obsolescence and other life cycle challenges. The COTS GPU-based solutions are based on Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) technology which require a card turn to add features. With the focus in military simulation shifting from rapid update to longer life cycles, Rockwell Collins sought out a new path forward.

“Since 2008, Rockwell Collins engineers have been working to create a new innovative solution with longer life cycle support, more flexibility, and adaptability to rapidly changing worldwide markets,” said Nick Gibbs, vice president and general manager of Simulation & Training Solutions (STS) at Rockwell Collins. “What we found was the power of Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) technology.”

FPGA technology features re-programmable chips and recently, companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Amazon and Google have realized the benefits. Given Rockwell Collins’ head start, this new technology is already available to its customers via the company’s new EP-8100 image generator. In a market where other image generators are based on video-game graphics cards, the EP-8100 is driven by real-time, simulation-specific graphics cards and software designed for real missions.

By shifting from ASIC to FPGA architectures, Rockwell Collins enabled the EP-8100 to extend its acquisition life cycle to up to eight years, as compared to 12-18 months for COTS GPU competitors.

“The functionality also allows us to provide another 15 years of service and repair support,” said Gibbs. “With firmware loaded at boot up, the functionality of the image generator can be modified at any time and can maintain multiple solution baselines – a feature used extensively by many of our largest customers.”

FPGAs allow customers to tailor their solutions to maximize specific areas of interest by trading off lesser areas. High flier, fast jets can focus more on image processing, while ground-based eye points can focus more on close polygon processing. “Out-the-window” channels can focus more on color, while sensor channels focus more on infrared effects. As more training tasks industry-wide shift from live to virtual domains, the simulation effects needed to perform effective training can be coded into software and firmware without a costly hardware upgrade.

Use of FPGA technology enables greater ability to upgrade features and functions without replacing hardware which stabilizes the simulation environment and reduces life cycle costs. Rockwell Collins’ 10-year experience in this area confirms that FPGAs can provide a lower-cost, more targeted life cycle management opportunity in many areas of operations and maintenance.

“As this technology continues to catch on and there is increased demand from consumers of these devices, prices will drop – thus making FPGAs more affordable for small- and medium-volume projects,” Gibbs predicts.

Story posted: November 28, 2016

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