The Digital Backbone – Developing the Architecture for Enablement of Open Systems

digital backbone

For many years, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has been working to accelerate the development and upgrade to their weapon platforms and vehicles, while lowering the lifecycle costs to maintain and evolve them. This process has involved a strong focus on moving away from purpose-built systems created for a single aircraft or vehicle platform to reusable components and systems integrated in a modular and severable fashion.  

To facilitate this process, the DoD is requiring its industry partners to embrace an open systems approach – creating systems that can quickly integrate capabilities from a variety of vendors into new or enduring platforms to enable the warfighter to stay ahead of
a next generation adversary who is rapidly evolving its capability with scale in both manned and unmanned assets. 

The shift towards open systems is in no way arbitrary on the part of the DoD. Defining and adopting open systems is an important change that the military believes can help overcome many of the roadblocks consistently faced when fielding new capabilities on both enduring and next generation platforms.  

A Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) is a viable way to avoid paying to develop the same systems or software repeatedly for multiple platforms – in effect reinventing the wheel each time the military builds a new aircraft, ground vehicle, or other weapons system. MOSA also enables the rapid addition of new functionality and capabilities into legacy and enduring platforms at a low cost to the military, providing more budget allowances for evolving capabilities needed for future conflicts.  

Finally, MOSA eliminates the common situation known as ‘vendor lock’. Vendor Lock occurs when the government is provided with limited data rights to the systems owned by only one or two companies, and those two companies are therefore the only ones capable of developing or integrating new capabilities and systems for an aircraft. MOSA allows for other companies to supply components of the system, which increases competition drives innovation.  

Open systems and open architectures will open the door for a capability to be created once by the military and then leveraged across the enduring and future fleet. PEO Aviation would pay once for development, and can then port it, for instance, from the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) aircraft to any of its enduring manned or unmanned aircraft that currently comprise its fleet, or vise versa,” explained Dave Walsh, the Director of Open Systems at Collins Aerospace.” 

A digital backbone is one proposed solution for making open systems more of a reality in enduring fleets, future aircraft, and other military platforms. But what, exactly, is a digital backbone, and what can it help customers to do? 

Enabling More Efficient Integrations on the Aircraft
To better explain the concept of a digital backbone we can use an analogy most are familiar with.  When a computer user connects a new printer, or another new peripheral that adds new or updated functionality to their computer, the process is relatively simple. Technological advances have resulted in a relatively straightforward system where simply plugging in a USB cable and turning the device on results in it being connected and autoconfigured.   

This wasn’t always the case, however. Those that have been working with computers for decades remember a time when this process could involve much more effort, time, and cost buying components made from a single vendor, finding/buying just the right connector between the computer and peripheral, and then undertaking a difficult configuration process. 

Today’s modern weapons systems and aircraft are much like the computers of old when it comes to adding new devices and capabilities. Traditionally these products have been developed and optimized for a single application, which makes it hard to reuse from one vehicle to another. This effect is compounded on an aircraft, where things like cooling, weight, and power need to be taken into account, which parameters tend to be unique from aircraft to aircraft. 

As Jonathan Demildt, the Associate Director of Systems Engineering at Collins Aerospace, recently explained to The Modern Battlespace, “…There are many considerations to install a new system in an aircraft. I have to figure out where there is space to put it, it has to be cooled, it has to have power and data connections so it can communicate to other boxes on the aircraft. Many times this is a tradeoff process because resources are at premium on almost every aircraft.” 

Max Taylor, Associate Director of Systems Engineering for Collins Aerospace, elaborated. “When you look at what it takes to add or update new capability in modern aircraft, there are many aspects to consider that are not covered by various open standards such as HOST or SOSA or FACE,” he explained. For example, customers may ask, “Where do we put the new computing module?” or “If the processing cabinet is full, then where does the new HOST compliant card go?” Perhaps the customer is looking to account for additional power draw or provide the proper thermal environment for a new capability.” 

The digital backbone environment is one answer to these problems. It’s the hardware, software, standards, and interface that allow a more complicated version of “plug and play” on platforms – effectively opening the door for MOSA 

Optimizing the aircraft connection points with a focus on adaptability, security and reliability of the platform. “Can we pick standard protocols and connections that everyone is familiar with? Simplify the process to just bringing a box to the aircraft and we’re all using the same plug/interface?” asked Demildt. “Think of the standardization that USB brought, what that meant to rapidly adding new systems to PCs. It’s kind of a similar concept that we’re pursuing with the digital backbone…when I want to add a new box, I can do so dynamically, and more quickly than in the past,” he explained. 

But there’s more to a digital backbone than just a standardized plug for connecting new boxes, and an interface to rapidly and dynamically configure them. Adding new systems to a military aircraft can’t compromise the systems that are necessary for the flight or those more specifically focused on accomplishing the mission. They ultimately must contribute to enhanced mission readiness and combat effectiveness, in some cases, providing platform and mission updates on-route to a dynamically evolving threat. 

“It’s essential to segregate or separate the core functionalities of the aircraft in such a way that a change to the platform – the addition of a new system – does not impact the airworthiness or safety of the flight,” explained Abdul Azeem Khan, a Senior Systems Engineer at Collins Aerospace. 

In the next post on The Modern Battlespace, we’ll look at the two large challenges that needed to be overcome in the development of digital backbone technologies, and how the concepts being developed by Collins Aerospace make the rapid integration and deployment of new systems in aircraft both seamless and safe.

To learn more about open systems in the DoD, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the Whitepaper, “Mosarc™ Avionics Architecture | Collins Aerospace”