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Flying … off the shelf

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Can the mil-aero industry ensure COTS technologies meet safety and reliability requirements? By Mike Richardson.

In meeting the challenge of lower cost, the mil-aero industry is increasingly using commercial off the shelf (COTS) technologies to leverage the investments and innovations made by technology companies working in other industry sectors. By reducing risk, providing reliable systems and meeting commitments, the mil-aero COTS initiative is based on the premise that defence programmes will benefit from new technology and economies of scale if they can adapt to commercially available components, boards and systems. While this COTS approach has been successful, there is room for improvement and commercial vendors must do a better job of meeting the challenging needs of the military and aerospace market. During the 1960s, the mil-aero industry used commercial products, but soon realised that reliability, quality levels and product lifecycles were unacceptable for the harsh environments in which these devices regularly operated. This saw the introduction of mil-grade products – more expensive and usually a couple of generations behind commercial technology. So the military started looking for ways to find a competitive advantage by using the latest technology products. When the Perry Directive appeared in the mid 1990s, the idea was to have mil-aero OEMs pick up on the best commercial practices, obtain the highest quality for money spent and create better systems with a lower overall cost. Customers could then buy parts ‘off the shelf’ which would be suitable for future aircraft. After all, why use old and expensive components when you can use commercial products?