Profile: The Cutting Edge of Electronics

by












  Space News Business

Profile: The Cutting Edge of Electronics

By TURNER BRINTON
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 16 June 2009
03:12 pm ET






Marshal Ward

Vice President of Electronic Solutions

BAE Systems Electronics & Integrated Soultions

In the space world, BAE Systems is best-known for producing electronic satellite circuitry that can shrug off bombardment by electromagnetic particles above the Earth’s atmosphere. But the third-largest defense company in the world has spent decades developing electronic warfare systems for ships and aircraft, and it is hoping this expertise will pay dividends as the
United States
develops space systems that will have to operate in a contested environment.

BAE Systems’ Electronics & Integrated Solutions business serves the military, civil and commercial space markets with a range of spacecraft components from radiation-hardened computer chips and memories to fully integrated sensors. The company builds the focal plane arrays for the U.S. Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites and supplies a similar technology for the infrared seeker aboard the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptor.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in March was the 500th satellite to carry a BAE Systems computer, and important national security satellites such as the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites rely on the company’s hardware as well. Space hardware sales accounted for some $250 million of BAE Systems’ $34.4 billion in revenue in 2008.

The harsh environment of space is the limiting factor that has kept satellite onboard processing power and memory far behind that of consumer computer technology, but technological breakthroughs are closing that gap, explains Marshal Ward, a retired Air Force major general who runs BAE Systems’ space business. For example, BAE Systems recently began taking orders for a new chalcogenide-based random access memory for spacecraft that the company says has a density four to 16 times higher than competing non-volatile memory technologies. The company is also hard at work developing spacecraft electronics based on carbon nanotube technology that Ward says could be a game changer for size, weight and power considerations. BAE Systems estimates it is three to six years away from releasing products that utilize the technology.

With recent events including the on-orbit collision that destroyed an Iridium satellite underscoring the need for improved space situational awareness and space protection, BAE Systems is positioning itself to provide the necessary capabilities to
U.S.
government and commercial customers. Among the technologies BAE Systems hopes to leverage in this regard are sensor suites it developed to alert military pilots when their aircraft are being illuminated by radar or laser targeting systems. The company recently demonstrated a prototype radar warning system for spacecraft developed under a $6.3 million Air Force contract, and several of the large space prime contractors have expressed interest in the sensor, Ward said.

Ward spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.

How are spacecraft electronics changing, and what are the biggest technological challenges that you face?

Think about it like the consumer computer model: We went from the big mainframes that IBM had to the small laptops everyone uses today that are very powerful. The same construct has occurred with satellites, as we’ve gone from large behemoth satellites to being able to do more things with those large satellites or do the same things in smaller and lighter-weight constructs with less expensive launches.

To do that, we’ve had to change the geometries of electronics. You can’t just have a large board and lay out the wires like you normally do with a large processor. You’ve got to find ways to shrink them down, and that’s what we do here. We work a lot with nanotechnologies, finding ways to make the geometries so the integrated circuits are very small. By doing that, you’re able to take advantage of it requiring less power, and you get a lot more processing power in any given space.

One of the difficulties in shrinking the geometries is the resulting susceptibility to the harsh environment of space. At a certain point, even a single proton can cut across these nanotechnology circuits. So you have to design the circuit to protect it in that kind of environment, either by using a different kind of material or a different design that cannot be shorted out just by proton radiation. So there’s a couple things we’re working here, one is carbon nanotube technology and the other is a material called chalcogenide. Both of these are new materials that are impervious to radiation.

How much of your business is commercial?

A relatively small percentage is commercial. We’ve provided computers and application-specific integrated circuits to companies like Space Systems/Loral and Orbital Sciences. The way we came up as a company, our focus really was on the military, but now we’re really going through a change, recognizing that the military depends on commercial satellites for communications and imagery. So we’re starting to open the aperture to talk more with commercial houses that need the kinds of electronics we provide.

What factors affect your business unit’s revenue?

We track with the investment in space, both classified and unclassified. So while the defense budget may decline, and the space budget might decline too, the space budget is very large, and the capabilities that are provided by space I don’t think we’re going to walk away from. I don’t think we will stop having a GPS or weather satellite capability or communications from space. What we want to do is find more efficient ways to do it, because the demand isn’t going away. Therefore, if the budget stays steady or decreases, we’ve got to find more innovative ways to provide the same capabilities for fewer dollars.

Because we are a provider of components and computers and subsystems, we can sell to anybody that has a mission. When the big primes compete for a space program, one may win and one may not, but we have the components that no matter who wins will want. So our business is pretty steady state as long as we have a space industry and as long as the government has a need for space systems.

Are you confident you will be able to increase your market share?

The market in which we’re playing is about $40 billion a year, and the things that I build are only a small part of that. Sitting here at 1 percent of the market, we can double our size a lot easier than other companies can, and we’re a long way from being saturated in the market. So we’re investing in the right kinds of technologies to meet the need, as opposed to chasing the need when it gets there. I expect even in a declining market we will be growing.

What and where are the new opportunities?

BAE Systems has a unique position as the nation has come to realize the importance of space situational awareness. If you look at the core of what we do in our electronics systems line of business, we have 50 years and of tens of millions of dollars of investment by the government in doing electronic warfare for air, land and sea vehicles. We’ve developed the kinds of capabilities to sense what’s going on in the environment around you and to be able to maneuver and take defensive actions if the platform is being threatened. Now we can move that same technology to space. It’s just a matter of how much the government wants to invest to protect its satellite systems.

We are also hoping the hosted payload trend continues to catch on, as we see opportunities to build for the government payloads for weather, communications or situational awareness that will fly on commercial satellites.

In the markets you serve and hope to serve, where does your stiffest competition come from?

The space industry is like a neighborhood where you go and have pick-up games every day. One day you go and get picked by a team, and the next you’re picked by a different team. I would say we have no pure competitors. The same company I compete with today is my best buddy the next day on the next team. So we tend to get together on missions depending where our strengths are. I enjoy working with all the companies, and our feeling is if someone else can do a better job for the government, then they should get the job. So we’re going to keep working until we’re the best.