Military demands and designs are having an impact on electronic connector systems

4 mins read

Companies supplying the world’s military face a conundrum; for while defence budgets are, in general, being tightened and projects scrutinised to achieve cost savings, armed forces still have the same requirements for rugged and reliable equipment capable of being used in a wide variety of different conditions.

Interconnection technology is the vital link between the varying electronic components in all of these devices and will encounter huge levels of stress, so developing suitable technology solutions is quite an achievement.

However, despite the contrasting pressures, “Smarter electronics design can go a long way to balancing the conflicting demands for cost-effectiveness and high performance,” according to Ben Green, technical and marketing manager at Harwin. “This can include the use of components which may not carry full MIL specification and its associated price tag, including COTS, CECC parts or AEC-Q200 parts with additional testing.”

The military and defence market has rigorous requirements for electronics systems, subjecting them to vibrations, fretting, varying degrees of shock and wide variations in temperatures.

“As a result, the interconnection systems must have impeccable signal integrity and be able to transmit signals at ever increasing data rates and frequencies, within ever more electromagnetically-polluted environments,” explains Gabriel Guglielmi, VP business development and strategy, Smiths Connectors. “Systems are becoming ever more complex with greater power supply demands and higher levels of connectivity meaning that the humble connector of old is now fast becoming a complex electronic subsystem in its own right.”

“When you talk about the military market in general terms, it is one that can be summed up by the following – smaller, faster, lighter,” suggests Roy Phillips, managing director, Intelliconnect.

He makes the point that improved awareness of environmental factors affecting performance has led to a greater degree of environmental protection of units using waterproofing and ruggedising technologies.

“Clearly, this can be challenging when trying to deal with the ‘lighter’ and ‘smaller’ sides of the equation because, traditionally, ruggedising and waterproofing has meant heavier and larger.”

According to Phillips, the trends towards smaller and lighter equipment are particularly true when it comes to the modern infantryman.

“If current trends continue, within a very short space of time, soldiers in the field will not be far removed from a military version of ‘robocop’.”

Wearable military equipment will certainly enhance a soldier’s capabilities, but it will require connector manufacturers to supply significantly improved connector technologies.

Helmets with sensors and displays – even powered exoskeletons to enable soldiers to carry heavy loads – are under development.

When it comes to wearable equipmentm the number of potential uses is endless – products ranging from wrist watch computers to fully integrated RF networks woven into clothing are also under development

“We are on the cusp of (yet) another revolution within electronics which takes us to new frontiers of technology and application,” suggests Phillips.

“Advances in technology have enabled developers to weave cabling systems which are undetectable from the main fibres into garments, linking the antenna to the relevant devices through cutting edge connector systems.

“Which is another challenge to designers as the methodology of linking the garment with the devices is not an easy one. Several manufacturers including Huber and Suhner, Fischer and Intelliconnect, have or are developing new methods of connecting to and from such devices.”

Future Soldier is a multinational USA/Nato led information exchange designed to use the latest technologies to advance the effectiveness of combat soldiers in terms of agility, flexibility, fighting load, protection, lethality and environmental awareness.

“Future Soldier, in conjunction with programmes such as the UK’s FIST (Future Infantry Soldier Technology) and America’s FFW (Future Force Warrior) programmes means that there is a huge focus on improving the way an infantry soldier goes into battle,” suggests Phillips. “The challenges inherent in designing and manufacturing effective interconnect solutions in a wearable situation are many and varied.

“Solutions are available, such as using high strength plastics to marry robustness with low weight and cutting edge machining techniques to provide ruggedness yet small size.”

When it comes to balancing the need for connectivity with frequent uncoupling, Intelliconnect has developed a radical ‘popper’ type design which, while ensuring the integrity of the connection, enables the user to quickly disconnect it if required.

Green says the growth in wearable electronics will require the development of smaller, lighter form factors, due to the need to get ever more functionality into smaller devices.

One of the biggest problems is maintaining adequate power levels to keep electronic equipment running. In combat, soldiers will not be able to return to base to recharge of replace equipment of batteries.

“They need to be able to carry higher power and more signals reliably and this is very clearly an ongoing requirement. Connectors may only be one part of a system, but they are absolutely critical and must meet the highest reliability and performance standards – field failure is simply not an option,” he explains.

The M300 hi-rel power connector series from Harwin, for example, is a new 10-position interconnect that has been developed in response to customer demand and is particularly suited for use in UAV and robotics applications.

Designed for rugged environments, it is capable of handling currents up to 10A and tolerates temperatures ranging from -65 to 175°C.

“Most importantly, it is highly durable and can withstand twice the number of operations of older generation products,” Green says.

According to Guglielmi, Smiths looks to provide engineered solutions with technology that is well-suited to addressing both the reliability required for mission critical systems, as well as addressing environmental concerns such as shock, vibration, and extreme temperature ranges.

“Smiths’ Nebula Series uses the industry standard PCB soldering footprint ensuring no need to change or modify SATA drive layouts. It has been designed for rugged data storage applications and is able to perform in extremely harsh environments due to the use of Hypertac hyperboloid contacts as the foundation of its high reliability, providing immunity to shock and vibration fretting and offering more than 100,000 mating cycles.”

Similar to the industrial market, the military market demands connectors that are rugged and easy to assemble, but also cost-effective.

Even with modest growth rates, military spending remains a key market in many countries, and although the defence sector has experienced budget constraints, it is a market that continues to drive advances in technology that can also be used in other applications.