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Next-Gen Processors and Virtualization Cut SWaP Tradeoffs

Next-Gen processors, virtualization in avionics

The Columbia Vertol 234 heavy-lift helicopter is used in emergency response and aerial firefighting operations around the world. The aircraft can carry up to 51,000 pounds of water or other flame retardants to wildfires up to 850 nautical miles away.

Despite its vast capacity, in the design of aircraft like the Vertol 234, every ounce matters. With each onboard system and component, aerospace engineers trade range, payload size, or both, which can be the difference in traveling hundreds of miles to make an additional pass at a fire line.

Computational resources come at the ultimate premium in any aircraft. Size, weight, and power—known as SWaP—often dictate which electronic systems are included, and which ones are left behind.

“You might have a communication system,” says Aaron Frank, Senior Product Manager at Curtiss-Wright, a leading supplier of airborne electronics. “You may also have a separate system performing mapping or mission processing. And you may have additional systems dealing with GPS and radar. Typically, these have all been separate boxes which are put into an aircraft. That’s because each system is developed separately and uses all the available processing power to implement those applications.”

Virtualization technology can reduce these SWaP tradeoffs by allowing multiple independent functions to be consolidated onto one system. But it requires a level of compute performance that has not been easily accessible to avionics engineers until now.

Today, increasing demand for functionality in modern aircraft is driving a critical need for virtualized avionics systems that combine separate capabilities into a single ruggedized and compact computer. New advances in the 11th Gen Intel® Core vPro®, Intel® Xeon® W-11000E Series, and Intel® Celeron® processors (previously known as Tiger Lake H) support these designs, and do so without sacrificing functional safety or determinism.

Increasing demand for functionality in modern #aircraft is driving a critical need for #virtualized avionics systems. @CurtissWrightDS via @insightdottech

Expanding Virtualization on a Single Device

Virtualization and the concept of running multiple applications on a single piece of hardware is not new. In fact, Curtiss-Wright and other aerospace electronics suppliers have used virtualization for years. But it hasn’t been effective in aerospace systems for two reasons:

  • Multicore virtualization adds real-time performance overhead with each additional virtualized core. This negatively impacts functional safety because it limits onboard computers’ ability to respond instantly.
  • Processors for rugged embedded systems typically max out with quad-core processors as the maximum device size for running virtualized workloads in aerospace systems. But four cores do not add a lot of value in virtualized or high-performance embedded computing (HPEC) applications.

The 11th Gen Intel® Core vPro®, Intel® Xeon® W-11000E Series, and Intel® Celeron® processors address these issues in multiple ways, starting with sheer performance enhancements. “Octal-core processors mean that instead of just using virtualization for one or two processes or applications, you can run three, four, five, six applications on the processor and still get very good performance,” Frank says.

The platform also adds significant performance improvements via new instruction sets designed for the complex math operations of signal processing applications like radar, as well as applications where AI and ML is applied in aircraft systems.

SWaP Savings in Mission-Critical Designs

Curtiss-Wright’s single-board computer—the 6U VPX6-1961—was designed around the Intel® Xeon® W-11000E Series processor, which incorporates so much performance in its eight CPU cores that fewer modules are needed per system. This translates into direct SWaP savings, as new capabilities like AI and ML can run simultaneously on the same VPX6-1961 board as other applications, instead of on a separate CPU or GPU card, or a whole other discrete system.

Advanced virtualization features on the new Intel platform are key to executing tasks like AI/ML inferencing alongside mission-critical avionics applications on the VPX6-1961. The hardware-accelerated nature of these technologies also helps offset overhead incurred with virtualized workloads, which even extends to connected devices:

  • Intel® Virtualization Technology (Intel® VT-x) isolates computing activities into separate partitions to improve manageability.
  • Intel® VT-x with Extended Page Tables (EPT) accelerates memory-intensive virtual applications by optimizing page table management to reduce memory and power overhead.
  • Intel® Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (Intel® VT-d) enables I/O-device virtualization to increase the performance of peripherals in virtual environments and enhance security and reliability.

Once implemented, the benefits of virtualization continue presenting themselves on the functional safety front. Because virtualization support is rooted in the Intel processor, it’s easier to robustly partition applications or data running on one core from another. This includes different blocks of legacy code from a formerly discrete system that may already have been safety certified.

This streamlines system traceability and compliance to functional safety standards, which helps accelerate time to market. To further assist in this process, these processors are also backed by the Intel® Functional Safety Essential Design Package (Intel® FSEDP), a TUV-qualified tool for gathering and documenting safety artifacts that span the entire solution stack.

Integrated Technologies Extend Aviation Innovations

Curtiss-Wright has taken full advantage of the gains Intel’s latest CPUs provide, but the advantages don’t stop there.

End users of avionics systems based on the VPX standard may be able to consolidate their equipment today by dropping in the backward- and pin-compatible VPX6-1961 into existing chassis and removing single-function solutions. Because the solution is standards-based and capable of hosting legacy code in securely partitioned containers, compliance headaches should be minimal.

Now, everyone from engineers maintaining legacy systems to designers of next-generation aviation systems have a smooth runway for making every ounce matter.

About the Author

Brandon is responsible for Embedded Computing Design’s IoT Design, Automotive Embedded Systems, Security by Design, and Industrial Embedded Systems brands, where he drives content strategy, positioning, and community engagement. He is also Embedded Computing Design’s IoT Insider columnist, and enjoys covering topics that range from development kits and tools to cyber security and technology business models. Brandon received a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University, where he graduated cum laude.

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