Green Trucks, Tanks and Networks

Confession up front – this is my first attempt at a blog. I will try and not come off as too much a curmudgeon, but it’s a role I’m growing to like – it can be fun.  But more seriously, I’ve been around this industry long enough to have a good sense of perspective of the progress we’ve made in Interconnect. I started in field sales with a large defense interconnect supplier during 1982. A lot has changed and a lot of things have remained the same.

I want to talk about military vehicles – trucks and tracks painted green.  Why should we at Molex be interested in this segment? I am only counting the USA market, but the US armed forces have upwards of 300,000 tactical vehicles – ones specifically designed for military end use, both wheeled and tracked (and no, not every tracked vehicle is a tank and not every truck is an MRAP). In any event, from an interconnect point of view we don’t need to worry too much about the platform – the interconnect performance requirements are really the same.  The interconnect density has increased by orders of magnitude since this blogger was wearing a green suit & boots to work (another life). I believe the most complicated electrical device on a truck was the turn signal switch.  There were rudimentary fire control systems in the tanks of the day, but they were stand alone and the radios of the day were strictly voice communication. There were crew intercom systems but data networks were just lab experiments at the time and computers were pretty much of the mainframe variety. Connectors supporting these applications were strictly mil spec circulars – Mil-C-5015 and Mil-C-38999.

Let’s jump ahead thirty years.  Network technology today is embedded in almost everything we do. So it’s no surprise that military vehicles are becoming ever more network intensive. Most new vehicles today are being equipped with at least two separate networks. One being concerned with vehicle health and maintenance, based on the Can bus technology developed for the commercial vehicle world. Depending on the implementation, periodic reports are sent automatically on a vehicle’s status via data link or are downloaded by maintenance personnel. These systems are being used for predictive maintenance to prevent breakdowns by looking at component trends. An example is a fuel pump – it may be within specs, but the last three reports show a steady down trend in fuel pressure – the analysis software picks this up and issues an alert so maintenance personnel can address the problem before failure.

The other network – is the operational or mission network. It’s the one that links the vehicle’s mission computers, data links, radios, vision systems, navigation and other systems directly involved in mission matters. The network technology used is Ethernet. At this time most systems are 100megabit systems but GigE is making an appearance and will be the standard for vehicles currently on the drawing board. The battlefield is becoming data intensive with HD streaming video, UAV sensor data, vehicle tracking, etc. There is even advanced development for driverless vehicles that would rely on HD video recognition to follow a route – it could use 10 GigE.  Fighting vehicles are networked via data link to ensure each vehicle’s position is displayed to the others – perfect situational awareness.

These applications are all here now and are being adapted to current vehicles although there are issues of power and actual space for the systems.  New vehicles will be designed to support these systems from the ground up.

So what’s the opportunity for interconnect?  Well, first –guess what?  Those connectors that were used thirty years ago – they are still with us.  Why? Well up to now, they were adequate. Analog signals and low speed digital signals worked just fine with a 38999 and the system designer could be assured of continuing support/availability.  Plus, the end users were comfortable with the design.  With the advent of gigabit speeds, issues are beginning to appear.  The standard mil circular was not designed for high speed.  If you use special contacts it starts to eat a lot of panel space. If you move to a ruggedized RJ-45 then the space issues raise their head.  The Molex Ultra-Lock® or Brad® Micro-Change® M12 designed for Cat6A performance is an excellent alternative with a compact size combined with a rugged, IP69 environmental performance.  We also have the Direct-Link® 750 and 780 Ethernet switches that allow a system sell.

There are other significant opportunities especially in the area of power, RF and even wireless – how about Bluetooth in the crew compartment with wireless headsets?

All of these potential applications will require very stringent environmental performance as well as be mechanically rugged. I can tell you first hand that there is no limit to the amount of abuse provided by a tactical vehicle environment. We used to have a saying that the equipment needed to be “Marine Proof.” Very few things could meet that test.  The bottom line is high electrical performance plus rugged environmental performance is what this market demands. In many cases today, the interconnect is light on one aspect or another – it needs both.