Tech Success: BAE takes NASA to outer limits

IT solutions in action

Project: Mars rovers

Agency: NASA

Partners: BAE Systems North America Inc., Rockville, Md.; and  Wind River Systems Inc., Alameda, Calif.

Goal:BAE was tasked with providing computer subsystems for the Mars rovers, intelligent vehicles that will travel around the planet collecting soil and atmosphere samples and relaying them to an orbiting satellite. Because an unrecoverable computer crash would constitute failure of the mission, the operating system must be 100 percent reliable ? it cannot break down.

Obstacle:Most operating systems could not be trusted with that level of reliability, yet for BAE to write a bug-free operating system from scratch would be prohibitively costly.

Solution: BAE chose an industrial-use operating system for embedded systems offered by Wind River. Called VxWorks, this real-time operating system is frequently used by carmakers and other manufacturers for no-fail automated assembly lines. Wind River also provided remote diagnostic software for problems that might occur while in operation.

Payoff: BAE delivered computer subsystems that are ex-tremely reliable while it kept costs under budget.

BAE Systems' Vic Scuderi holds a chip used on Mars rovers.

Olivier Douliery

Wind River's OS has reliability needed for a trip to Mars

When your computer resides on another planet, service calls aren't an option. So when BAE Systems North America Inc. needed an extremely reliable operating system for the computational subsystem it was supplying for NASA's Mars rovers, it chose an industrial-strength, real-time operating system from Wind River Systems Inc., Alameda, Calif.

The Rockville, Md.-based BAE Systems NA sold two of its computer subsystems to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars rovers, said Vic Scuderi, manager of space programs for the company's Information and Electronic Warfare Systems division. Those computers were two of 50 computers delivered to JPL over the past five years.

Wind River's VxWorks is the operating system for a BAE Systems-manufactured single board computer, called the Rad6000.

The integrator sees the BAE Systems-Wind River combination as a platform not only for more NASA sales, but also for sales to defense agencies, which have an increasing appetite for space communications equipment. BAE Systems NA is owned by BAE Systems plc, Farnborough, United Kingdom.

NASA's latest two rovers, which launched in June and are due to land on Mars in January, will scurry about the Red Planet collecting samples of rocks and soil and shooting and transmitting photos back to Earth.

BAE Systems' 6-inch by 9-inch computational subsystem "will tell the rover arm when to move and which direction to move in. It will tell the rover which direction to go when it is driving across the surface of Mars, and how to exchange information with Earth," said Mike Delliman, Wind River's lead engineer for the Mars project.

Wind River's software comes with compilers for C, Ada, Assembly and other languages that allowed the programmers to write the rover's specialized routines. The rovers are expected to travel 40 meters, or 132 feet, per day in temperatures that can dip as low as -100 degrees Celsius, or -148 Fahrenheit.

The crucial quality that an operating system needs for this environment is stability, Scuderi said. The software cannot crash. If there are problems, it must be able to be recovered and keep working.

Wind River's VxWorks is used widely by manufacturers who demand constant uptime for automated assembly lines, where even the briefest downtime results in severe economic loss. It is used by carmakers for electronic components that cannot fail, such as anti-lock brakes or transmission controls.

"The biggest thing we can offer is predictability and reliability," Delliman said. In this market, Wind River competes with the likes of Green Hills Software Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Mentor Graphics Corp., Wilsonville, Ore., said Jerry Krasner, head of Embedded Market Forecasters, the market research division of American Technology International Inc., Framingham, Mass. Krasner said the defense market is a growth area in the otherwise flat market for embedded operating systems, which totaled about $409 million in sales for 2002.

These established players are being challenged by lower-cost operating systems, such as Linux and Windows XP and Windows CE from Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Ore. Krasner said. In response, Wind River focuses on the high-end markets, such as space communications, that require levels of stability that Linux and Microsoft cannot yet achieve.

In this market niche, "Wind River is still the 400-pound gorilla," Krasner said. With 1,500 employees, Wind River lost $106.9 million against $249 million in revenue for 2002. The company is searching for a chief executive officer. Vice Chairman Narendra Gupta and Founder and Chairman Jerry Fiddler are temporarily filling the role.

Wind River sells VxWorks with a subscription-based, per-seat pricing plan. With volume discounts, the software can cost as little as $8,000 per copy.

Wind River's operating system was used in NASA's previous Mars Rover mission, the Deep Space One satellite and the European Space Agency's Proba satellite. It is also used by defense contractors for satellite links, radar and image processing and guidance systems.

To Scuderi, the space defense market is a burgeoning one. The conflict in Iraq drew heavily on satellite communications. Space is being defined as a new segment in the battlefield, Scuderi said.

Satellite components must endure extreme temperatures, as well as being bombarded by high-energy particles that are very destructive to electronics.

BAE Systems designed its chip, the Rad6000, and its successor, the Rad750, specifically for this hostile environment. The RAD6000 single board computers usually run between $200,000 and $300,000 each, Scuderi said. BAE Systems has sold units to Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp.

"All the main satellite prime contractors are our customers," Scuderi said.

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Joab Jackson at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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