Actel Readies New FPGAs for 1006 Debut

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Actel Corp. is hoping a new line of user-programmable computer chips it is developing will be less susceptible to radiation than the company’s previous problem-plagued models.

Representatives from Mountain View, Calif.-based Actel said in an Aug. 22 interview that the company’s new line of field programmable gate array (FPGA) computer chips will be available beginning in 2006.

A defect was discovered in 2004 in the previous model of Actel’s FPGAs. One antifuse was the source of the problems, leading the entire device to fail for some customers, Ken O’Neill, director of military and aerospace product marketing at the company, said Aug. 26. An antifuse is a device that performs the opposite function of a fuse and creates conductive paths between transistors.

Satellites for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., were among those affected by the design flaw in 2004; NASA and NRO officials at the time declined to provide details on which specific programs were affected. Actel offered to replace the chips for customers with newer models at no cost after news of the defect became public.

FPGAs are computer chips which customers can personally program to meet specific needs. As a technology, it competes with application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for industry dominance. Ravi Pragasam, marketing manager for Actel’s military and aerospace segment, argued that FPGAs may be more expensive to buy in bulk, but are cheaper to fix when problems arise.

Actel’s new products are being built to be particularly sensitive to radiation, which is the biggest problem plaguing FPGAs, according to Pragasam.

“We’ve done a lot of testing internally on the past product. This new product will ensure the reliability lessons learned there,” Pragasam said. “We’ve taken what we’ve learned into our experience and used that to develop the FPGA, and done a lot more testing under rigid conditions.”

Actel will release its RTAX4000S, which the company claims has the industry’s highest density radiation tolerance, next year, according to Pragasam. The chip’s radiation tolerance makes it useful on satellite payload systems, such as data processing applications and Earth observation, Pragasam said. Radiation can negatively affect both the chip’s logic and memory-based functions.

“The chance of something happening is highly unlikely for both logic and memory,” Pragasam said.

Actel also is improving its current RHAX250S model of FPGA so that it can be radiation-hardened. Radiation tolerant means that a device can withstand up to a certain amount of radiation without negative effects; radiation-hardened means that radiation should not have an impact on a device’s operation.

The RHAX250S is being built at BAE Systems’ foundry in Manassas, Va., under a contract with Actel for an undisclosed sum. The other new products are being developed with in-house research and development dollars.

The two products are expected to be available for delivery by the end of 2006.

Actel also is developing a radiation-tolerant device that uses flash-based technology, which has the advantage of being reprogrammable. Flash chips do not have to take time to power up, which may only make a 200-millisecond difference when it comes to time, but can have a big impact on critical system functions, Pragasam said.

“There is a lot of interest from government agencies in using flash technology in space,” Pragasam said.

Thirty-five percent of Actel’s revenue comes from military and aerospace clients, according to Ken O’Neill, director of military and aerospace product marketing at the company. O’Neill predicted the market for FPGAs could reach $200 million by next year.