Business & GA, Commercial

The Pulse of the Databus Market

By Charlotte Adams and David Jensen | May 1, 2001
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This year looks good for avionics databus technology in the United States. Numerous products will ship in the first six months. The Mil-Std-1553 market holds its own, with new aircraft programs and planned upgrades. Databus suppliers are studying technologies such as Ethernet and fibre channel to supplement the workhorse 1553 interconnect in future avionics systems.

Avionics Magazine recently surveyed several leading U.S. databus developers. The industry’s activity level in the United States continues to be high as new products are introduced and planned. Our discussion of recently introduced databus products does not claim to be exhaustive, however, given the number of suppliers and their product volume. We also talked to industry leaders to determine market trends.

More for 1553

We found that companies have experienced a greater emphasis by military customers on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions, fueling the development of PC-based 1553 products such as 1553 PCMCIA and CompactPCI (CPCI). Companies continue to package 1553 in a wide range of technologies.

Ballard Technology, based in Everett, Wash., for example, has kicked off a BUSBox product, using the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port found on the back of most new PCs. The book-sized unit gives 1553 customers a portable databus analysis and simulation tool. Each unit can offer two bus protocols, including 1553, ARINC 429 and others.

Meanwhile, PowerCom of Huntington Beach, Calif., is introducing both 1553 and ARINC 429 busses with a USB interface this month (May). Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based National Hybrid, too, is eyeing a USB product to complement an existing portable 1553 terminal that connects to a computer’s parallel port.

Excalibur Systems’ newest entry in the databus field is a series of 12 high-density modular test cards, four of which have been introduced so far. These cards cover ARINC 429, Mil-Std-1553, RS 232/422/485 or combinations of these technologies. "The [new] cards will be compatible with our older cards for 429 and 1553," says Mark Blisko, president of the Elmont, N.Y.-based company.

National Hybrid recently introduced a 1553 current source transceiver and plans a 1553 multiprotocol terminal component with built-in PCI bridge. (PCI is a commercial-standard PC backplane bus.) Meanwhile, Data Device Corp. (DDC) plans a 1553 chip by third quarter 2001, featuring an added PCI interface. The Bohemia, N.Y.-based company says it will introduce a PC-104 1553 card by mid-year.

According to Mike Hegarty, DDC’s product manager for databus interfaces, the company also plans to introduce CPCI 1553 and 429 cards by June. Compact PCI versions of 1553 are in demand because CPCI combines the best of both worlds–the rugged Eurocard format made popular by the VMEbus (versa-module European) and the advantages of the ubiquitous Windows/Intel platform.

Condor Engineering has introduced a multifunction 1553 PCMCIA card this year. The company, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., also released 1553 products for VMEbus and VXIbus formats. These products are targeted for the military market.

Since the beginning of this year, SBS Technologies of Albuquerque, N.M., has unveiled CompactPCI boards with up to four channels of 1553; PMC (PCI mezzanine card) boards with two channels of 1553; PMC ARINC 429/575 cards with eight receive and eight transmit channels, and single-function 1553 PMC cards.

Max Technologies, too, has introduced a mezzanine module. It comes with eight general purpose, discrete lines and optional eight channels ARINC 429.

And Systran Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, has introduced fibre channel and serial FPDP (VITA 17.1) host bus adapter (HBA) products. The fibre channel HBAs operate at both 1 and 2 gigabits per second (Gbits/s) and the Serial FPDP HBAs transfer data at 1 and 2.5 Gbits/s.

Eye on the Future

The many new products for Mil-Std-1553 are not surprising. "I still see 1553 strong for 10 to 15 years," comments Howard Ross, PowerCom’s director of sales and marketing.

Nevertheless, the databus industry clearly is keeping a keen eye on programs that drive new technology. Respondents to our survey were largely in agreement that the programs driving change most are the Airbus 380 in the commercial market and the multinational Joint Strike Fighter and U.S. Air Force’s F-22 in the military market. Other programs mentioned are the U.S. Army’s Comanche helicopter and upgrades for the C-130, F-16 and F/A-18. The new-aircraft programs have the edge, however. "With a clean sheet of paper, it’s easier to consider all potential solutions," says Ralph Barrera, Systran’s head of technical marketing.

Much interest exists in Ethernet networks, driven by Airbus Industrie’s jumbo A380. "Everybody is huddling around Ethernet as a common standard," says Earle Olson, account and industry manager for aerospace with Tyco Electronics of Menlo Park, Calif. In the third quarter of 2001, Tyco expects to release a quad-axial contact frame for high-speed copper Ethernet applications. Looking ahead, Tyco Electronics also has introduced a generic optical expanded-beam insert built to ARINC standards.

Bill Ripley, SBS’s director of sales, concurs and foresees the "Ethernet momentum" driving development of AFDX [avionics full duplex switched network], a technology his company is currently "investigating."

Engineers also are looking at fibre channel as "the next possible adjunct to 1553," Hegarty says. "Fibre channel has the makings of an avionics standard."

In agreement, PowerCom’s Ross says he believes the Joint Strike Fighter program is perhaps "the program to watch because they’re using fibre channel on that aircraft, and that might lead to a standard."

Blisko cites the importance of fibre channel’s application in the F-22 and reports that Lockheed Martin "is talking" of installing the technology in F-16s, which indeed would represent a sizeable market.

A continuing need for a low-speed interconnect still exists, Hegarty says. But fibre channel could provide high-speed interconnect for video and infrared (IR) sensors. "We could see hybrid systems combining 1553 and high-speed fibre channel technology, especially for retrofits."

Systran’s Barrera adds that there are "two promising protocols for fibre channel: virtual interface [VI] and 1553 over fibre channel."

Everyone also wants a faster 1553. National Hybrid introduced a 1553 multiprotocol terminal component last year capable of operating at up to 4 MHz. The company plans to drive ahead to 10 MHz in the next few years, says Roy Nardin, director of product development.

Databus technology suppliers see an increasing demand for COTS. "With the limits placed on the military budget," says Barrera, "the commercial market will be the prime developer of technology." The popularity of COTS, in turn, spurs demand for PC-based Compact PCI and credit card-sized PCMCIA modules.

Ballard 1553 PCMCIA cards are included in a radio firmware loader package for Air Force transport-class, squadron-level maintenance operations, says Kevin Christian, Ballard’s customer services manager. "In the old days, it would have been a big green proprietary box called the ‘ANLQ-XYZ.’ Eventually it would have given you a 1553 connection to the radio."

The Army also is expected to use COTS 1553 products in its ground maintenance equipment for the service’s Comanche helicopter.

Databus industry officials list various challenges facing the industry.

"The issue of obsolescence is the No. 1 challenge," Hegarty contends. "The life of commercial silicon chips is very small." It is an issue to be addressed as the military moves towards COTS in a bigger way.

Ripley argues that the primary challenge is "getting the user community and manufacturers to agree on standards and protocols," as existing hardware technologies are utilized in the avionics marketplace.

Excalibur’s Blisko sees a manufacturer’s "staying power" as a major challenge. "With the market changing so much, you can’t just have a good product," he explains. "You have to make sure the customer can count on you."

Some Disagreement

Barrera anticipates still another, technical challenge. "Besides keeping up with technology and making it work in the military environment," he says, "the greatest challenge will be to provide the tools necessary to accurately simulate and test the new systems."

Is the databus market likely to expand or consolidate? Here there is disagreement.

"Growth and expansion" are expected in the 1553 area, says Pete Visconti, National Hybrid’s director of sales and marketing. Mil-Std-1553 is not only on new aircraft programs and upgrades, but also on space programs and military ground vehicles. In the 1553 software arena, "users have requirements that are not being met," he says.

"Fifteen fifty-three may enjoy a vibrant future in the satellite world," adds Christian. Military and commercial communications satellites are expected to sustain demand into the future.

Ross foresees Mil-Std-1553 used in commercial airplanes, "providing the price is right." But the PowerCom executive believes that "from a 1553 viewpoint, there will be fewer [databus] companies, because many won’t have R&D funding to keep up with the technology."

Barrera also foresees consolidation, but for a different reason. "With the smaller military budgets, it would be hard to keep many competitors alive." And he adds, "There will continue to be consolidation, with smaller companies being acquired for their technologies."

Perhaps SBS’s Bill Ripley’s forcast comes closest to the truth, however. He says, "We expect the field to remain pretty much the same."

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