Meeting SWaP & Rugged Computing Requirements

February 18, 2022

Military and aerospace applications have long demanded SWaP optimization. Now, the increased use of AI and robotics have engineers and manufacturers doubling down on the importance of small form factors, specifically for rugged computers.

What is SWaP?

SWaP refers to the size, weight, and power of a device, specifically an embedded computer. Although SWaP optimization can be desirable across industries, it is particularly relevant when considering military or aerospace use. The goal is to achieve the lightest and most powerful system within the smallest footprint. Oftentimes allowable weights and/or dimensions are clearly specified and must be adhered to for the overall program to be successful. Performing within SWaP parameters does not allow for performance or reliability to be compromised.

“One UAS (Unmanned Airforce Systems) customer states that every pound they can eliminate from their combat UAS platform saves them approximately $60,000 in cost for their vehicle. For an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) mission platform, it’s calculated that it costs $30,000 to add a pound, or inversely saves $30,000 to eliminate a pound.”

Mike Southworth, “Using SWaP-C Reductions to Improve UAS/UGV Mission Capabilities,” Aerospace & Defense Technology

What is a Rugged Computer?

Rugged computers are specifically engineered and designed to operate reliably in harsh environments where they may be subject to extreme temperatures, moisture, pressure, shock and vibration, power variance, and other factors. Engineers carefully select components that not only have the ability to withstand these extremes but also give off minimal thermal energy. High-retention connectors and locking fasteners are often incorporated as tactics against intense shock and vibration. As part of the certification phase, rugged computers can be subjected to testing for temperature, humidity, and condensation resistance; particle contamination resistance; water intrusion resistance; and shock and vibration.

How Can You Achieve SWaP Optimization and Rugged Performance?

By leveraging PCIe/104 and COM Express technology, embedded computer engineers and manufacturers are able to provide custom, application-specific functionality that addresses processor and I/O requirements. These approaches are particularly conducive to meeting compact design challenges as PCIe/104 stacks vertically while COM Express allows for the board size to adapt horizontally to meet footprint restrictions.

Once the COM specifications are met, processing needs can be addressed so that the design can be purpose-built, up to achieving high processing capabilities for performance at the edge. Robust I/O configuration allows for peripherals to connect to the primary system controller, increasing versatility and allowing for future adaptations.

Selecting a partner with extensive, proven experience becomes even more vital when not only SWaP metrics are at play but when environmental conditions are a primary influencing factor. More components in less space generates more heat and less available flow. Component selection and placement, as well as power estimation, are early steps in the thermal management process. Fans are presented as a common solution for heat dissipation: however, they introduce moving parts and increase the opportunity for failure. Designers of rugged, high-reliability electronics look to other methods to remove heat from the system including heat sinks or heat pipes, as well as mechanical enclosures that employ conductive materials and fins or rods along the device exterior.

SWaP optimization is a desirable methodology to apply to any system design. Though the combination of SWaP and rugged can be challenging, it is attainable through partnering with an experienced provider to evaluate your specifications and design to meet requirements.

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