U.S. Army Eyes Big Savings With Small Chip Investment

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BOSTON — U.S. Army officials are hoping that a relatively small investment in the development of a new computer chip for satellite ground terminals will reduce the cost of future terminals used by U.S. troops around the world to access communications satellites.

The M132 processing chip handles a role in X-band ground terminals that has traditionally been performed by racks of expensive equipment, according to Rick Dunnegan, lead technical integrator for the Superconducting All Digital RF Technology project at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) in Fort Monmouth, N.J.

The Army has invested several-million dollars in the development of the chip since the work started in 2000, according to Jack Wong, CERDEC’s contract officer representative for the project.

The chip was developed in concert with Hypres Inc., an Elmsford, N.Y., microelectronics firm. The Army also has leveraged similar work in this area funded by the Air Force and Navy, he said.

The military’s X-band ground stations today require racks of demodulation equipment to process data from super high-frequency communications signals, Dunnegan said. According to a CERDEC news release, a ground station can require 56 converters, each costing about $28,000.

Using the new chip to replace the converters could help reduce the cost of a future ground station by more than $1 million, Wong said during a Dec. 6 interview.

The Defense Satellite Communications System provides troops with X-band satellite communications signals today. That constellation is slated to be replaced by the Wideband Gapfiller satellites beginning in the middle of 2007. In addition, Xtar LLC of Arlington, Va., also markets a commercial X-band satellite service to military users.

During a Nov. 28 experiment conducted at Hypres’ facilities, a video of a military training exercise was passed from one computer to another, using hardware that emulated an X-band communications satellite. The receiving computer, which featured a modem equipped with the new chip, successfully received and processed the video, Dunnegan said.

The Army is planning to conduct another demonstration of the chip at Fort Monmouth, in early February, Dunnegan said. That test will feature a ground terminal equipped with the chip receiving data sent through a satellite operated by Xtar, he said.

If that demonstration goes well, the chips could undergo modification to ready them for production, Dunnegan said. The current version of the chip was not designed for mass production, and changes could be made to make it less expensive to reproduce, Wong said.

It is too early to tell at this point whether the Army would choose to use the cost savings associated with the chip to buy more ground terminals, Dunnegan said. The Army operates approximately 80 terminals today, each of which is capable of transmitting and receiving information. Each terminal has 48 transmitter converters, each of which also costs about $28,000.

The Army could find further cost savings by using a chip to replace the converters used to process the X-band signal during transmission to the satellite, according to Kashia Simmons, a CERDEC spokesman. That issue has not been a part of the work on the M132 chip with Hypres, but could be addressed in the future, he said.

The chips could be ready for incorporation into Army ground terminals for use on the battlefield in about five years, though that may be an optimistic projection, Dunnegan said. Companies building X-band terminals have already expressed interest in using the chips, he said.

Hypres already has begun working on a similar chip for replacing the expensive conversion equipment in ground terminals used to communicate with Ku- and Ka-band satellites as well, Simmons said.