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Tom Anderson, VP of Marketing
Tom Anderson, VP of Marketing
Tom Anderson is vice president of Marketing for Breker Verification Systems. He previously served as Product Management Group Director for Advanced Verification Solutions at Cadence, Technical Marketing Director in the Verification Group at Synopsys and Vice President of Applications Engineering at … More »

SoCs in Space!

May 11th, 2016 by Tom Anderson, VP of Marketing

The title of last week’s post was a play on a Mark Twain quote. This week I draw from a more contemporary source: The Muppets. Some episodes of the legendary family TV show featured a skit called “Pigs in Space.” In my head I’m reading “SoCs in Space!” with the same booming intonation used on the show for “Pigs in Space” to lead into a somewhat more serious discussion about the use of advanced chips in extreme conditions.

My prompt for this particular post came not from TV, but from an announcement yesterday that VORAGO Technologies is offering an ARM-based microcontroller (MCU) “designed specifically for radiation and extreme temperature operation without up-screening.” In other words, they ship an MCU that’s ready to use in such traditionally challenging environments as automobiles and industrial controllers as well as, yes, space. That got me thinking about even more complex chips such as SoCs and the extreme conditions they might have to face.

As I read the announcement, I remembered a phone call I hadn’t recalled in years. One of my summer jobs in college was my first exposure to Silicon Valley, working as a microprocessor applications engineer at a small semiconductor company long since absorbed into a bigger one. It was also my first exposure to working with customers and prospective customers, and we never knew what interesting challenge would arise when we answered the toll-free support line.

One day I picked up a call from an engineer who wanted to know whether one of our CPU/MCU products could be operated in an extended temperature range (probably -55°C to +125°C) and how well it could withstand radiation. Essentially he was asking whether we had ever up-screened this part to see if any would meet military standards. I checked with our product engineers and they assured me that no such tests had ever been done and they would not certify anything about the reliability of our products beyond standard commercial parameters.

The gentleman on the phone really wanted to use our part, and he pressed some more. I asked him if he could share his intended usage so I could run that by the product team, and he said that he designed electronics to go into the nose cones of rockets. Of course I knew intellectually that rockets and satellites contained chips but that was the first time I had ever contemplated what type of semiconductor devices might be needed and how they could be designed to work in such extreme conditions.

And so I find myself thinking about that topic again today. Since Breker’s customers tend to be in the commercial world, I know very little about the state of the art in terms of what chips are being used in space or under combat conditions. I did some searches for “radiation-hardened SoC” and found a bunch of academic articles plus a few references to parts from vendors such as Tower Semiconductor and Dynex Semiconductor. I have not yet investigated these links in detail.

I also searched for “military grade SoC” and a few variants, which yielded references to SoCs (including FPGAs) from Microsemi, Xilinx, and Altera (now part of Intel). Again, I haven’t done too much looking beyond perusing the datasheets for the linked products. Clearly there are at least some people out there thinking about what complex chips might be needed in devices that survive blastoff, hurtle through the vacuum of space, and (in some cases) remain in operation for years.

I also searched for the title of this post and found a dissertation from the Technical University of Lisbon with the following statement:

The European Space Agency promotes the use of SoCs in space, and has developed a few for use in its own missions or to accomplish specific tasks (e.g. data processing). These systems include standard processor devices, dedicated processing blocks, interfaces to various peripherals and on-chip bus structures.

I can’t say that I learned a lot in my brief investigation, but I am intrigued. I’d love to hear more about this topic from someone who’s working on these types of designs. It would seem that many of the same arguments driving consumer products, server farms, and networking infrastructure to SoCs would apply to military-aerospace applications as well. Are there any fundamental barriers to making today’s most advanced chips available in space? If you have thoughts to share, please comment, and thank you in advance.

Tom A.

The truth is out there … sometimes it’s in a blog.

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