Advances in RF/microwave technologies are driving new capabilities for the armed forces, such as more accurate radars, broadband communication and effective radar deception. However, emerging adversarial threats are challenging the ability to apply these tools across a contested electromagnetic spectrum. Whether using artificial intelligence to better identify radar images generated by digital RF memory (DRFM) or deploying advanced electronic intelligence capabilities, adversaries are pushing the limits of existing spectrum processing systems.
Leveraging the latest commercial technologies while efficiently developing, deploying and sustaining new capabilities is key to maintaining spectrum dominance. In the traditional approach, custom hardware systems run application-specific firmware and software. These “black box” systems have a lengthy development cycle and are difficult to upgrade with the latest technology. To remain competitive, new capabilities must be fielded faster.
This need led to an increased focus around how open architecture systems are built and maintained. Through standards such as OpenVPX™ and SOSA™, off-the-shelf hardware is relatively quickly and easily incorporated into new electronic warfare (EW) systems, shortening the development cycle and simplifying upgrades. These open hardware modules include microwave transceivers, digitizers, field-programmable gate array (FPGA) processors, single-board computers and network switches. However, without standards for the software and firmware, the EW techniques remain tightly coupled to the hardware implementation, reducing the ability to fully take advantage of open hardware standards.
OPEN HARDWARE, OPEN FIRMWARE, OPEN SOFTWARE
The key to a fully open spectrum processing platform is the ability to integrate open hardware, open firmware and open software. Through this holistic approach, the hardware is decoupled from the application-specific software and firmware, minimizing the need to customize an application for a specific hardware implementation.
In the case of EW, this approach is vital to accelerating all stages of the system lifecycle. In the development phase, a system can be prototyped on a standard development chassis. By leveraging commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and a library of software and firmware design blocks, development time is greatly reduced. In the deployment phase, the open framework allows the EW techniques, in the form of a heterogeneous firmware/software application, to be easily migrated from one hardware set to another. Finally, in the sustainment phase, system updates are made by updating discrete system elements without a full redesign.
While there are open hardware standards and some open software standards, little has been done to standardized FPGA firmware, nor combining open hardware, open firmware and open software together to support heterogenous processing applications.
A NEW STANDARD FOR OPEN FPGA FIRMWARE
Industry has historically struggled with full FPGA hardware abstraction, since there is little room for an abstraction layer without severely impacting processing efficiency. However, a partial abstraction focused on spectrum processing applications can provide standardization without the overhead of a full hardware abstraction.
As a significant step toward full FPGA hardware abstraction, Mercury Systems has developed OpenFPGA™, an open framework that enables FPGA firmware applications to be ported from one hardware set to another. OpenFPGA works by taking hardware devices and board support packages and adding a thin wrapper to expose common input, output, command and status interfaces for FPGA resources. This partial FPGA abstraction adds flexibility to deployed systems while minimizing processing overhead.
The OpenFPGA framework enables algorithms—EW techniques, software-defined radio (SDR) and others—to be easily loaded into different spectrum processing systems without making in-depth changes or customizing the algorithms. If the algorithms are compliant with OpenFPGA, the development and deployment of these capabilities are straightforward across disparate subsystems. The OpenFPGA framework provides several benefits to the development, deployment and sustainment aspects of a program, while moving away from solutions tied to specific suppliers. OpenFPGA solutions are rapidly implemented, regardless of the FPGA hardware, and smoothly ported to any hardware device supporting OpenFPGA (see Figure 1).
This architecture simplifies mission application development and provides a hardware-agnostic approach to developing applications. For example, the ability to use the same hardware for different missions opens the possibility of using the hardware as a DRFM jammer, later as a GPS receiver or SDR by reprogramming and executing a different mission application.
Integrating OpenFPGA firmware with existing open hardware and open software standards delivers a fully open platform that accelerates the delivery of the latest microwave technologies and spectrum processing techniques where they are needed most. As new EW techniques become available, they can be ported from a development chassis to multiple tactical systems. As new hardware becomes available, the systems can be upgraded without major changes to the software and firmware applications. Additionally, by decoupling the hardware from the algorithms, third-party developers can design applications to run on various hardware platforms, increasing the capabilities of spectrum processing systems.
THE RAPPID™ SPECTRUM PROCESSING PLATFORM
To deliver these benefits, Mercury Systems has developed the Rappid spectrum processing platform. Rappid combines open hardware, open firmware and open software to provide new options for how spectrum processing systems are developed, deployed and sustained. To demonstrate the power of this approach, compare a handheld GPS receiver to a smartphone. In the handheld GPS receiver, the software/firmware applications are specific to the hardware, and updates are limited and controlled by the hardware manufacturer. With a smartphone, new applications are easily deployed to different hardware implementations, maximizing flexibility and capability.
The Rappid platform consists of the OpenFPGA framework as well as open hardware and open software. The open hardware component includes standards such as SOSA and OpenVPX, and the open software layer adopts existing industry standards to create a solution for multi-mission application development. Integrating technologies such as Docker, OpenDDS, gRPC and hardware-agnostic drivers enable applications to be quickly developed in software and used across many different systems. This flexibility with software and firmware development enables a “develop one, deploy anywhere” solution for application development.
Traditional spectrum processing system design is complex and lengthy. Rappid shortens design time by enabling the developer to bypass steps such as designing custom boards, defining the data/command interconnections and porting custom IP (see Figure 2). Rappid has support software and firmware in the form of device drivers, OpenFPGA, remote programmability and function libraries (i.e., middleware) so system developers can focus on designing and implementing proprietary mission applications.
To reduce costs and further improve timelines, Rappid hardware supports COTS modules from multiple industry-trusted suppliers—the same hardware that primes and government customers are familiar with and trust. The abstraction capabilities of Rappid provide a seamless deployment of applications from the lab to the prototype and then fielded solutions (see Figure 3). Rappid provides a level of abstraction from the hardware for both software and firmware, which simplifies system sustainment and enables new hardware to run existing applications. New development only requires application upgrades to access the new hardware capabilities. By leveraging commercial products from trusted companies, the Rappid platform mitigates the risk of component obsolescence.
MAXIMIZING EW SYSTEM PERFORMANCE
Traditional EW systems support a predefined set of low latency capabilities designed into FPGAs. If a more extensive set of capabilities is required, the system designer must either increase the number of FPGAs or increase the size of the FPGA. Both options are costly and increase the physical size of the system and associated thermal dissipation challenges. Using the Rappid open platform, EW techniques can be dynamically swapped in and out of memory as needed, maximizing system performance without the need for expensive, large and hard-to-cool FPGAs.
Supporting the Rappid platform, many heterogeneous applications are available to reduce system development time. These optional add-ons consist of FPGA firmware and CPU software applications. Rappid enables designers to use these preconfigured and pretested applications as building blocks to accelerate system prototypes and solutions. This library of commonly used algorithms reduces the development effort so designers can spend more time on developing proprietary IP to transform baseline subsystems into unique system solutions.
The ability to rapidly develop and deploy high performance systems is critically important to maintain control of the electromagnetic spectrum. By integrating open firmware standards, open software and open hardware, the Rappid platform provides a starting point for new system designs, jump starting the traditional approach by standardizing the system infrastructure. Systems tailored to specific applications built using this new framework will have dramatically shorter design time. Rappid enables new, innovative ways to apply scalable and standardized technology to the tough spectrum processing challenges, yielding greater flexibility, accessibility and sustainability.
Kelsey Ryon is a product marketing manager for Mercury Systems’ mixed signal group. Ryon has more than a decade of experience in infrastructure and GIS systems and has developed insights into the global businesses. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Athens State University.