Thought leadership interview with Chris Rappa, chief technologist at BAE Systems’ FAST Labs
Maintaining technological superiority over potential adversaries is an ongoing challenge for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). BAE Systems’ FAST LabsTM research and development (R&D) organization focuses on accelerating advanced technology innovation for America’s defense community, and the company’s Defense Electronics R&D unit applies that focus to electronics, optics, and advanced materials to create multi-function systems.
To discuss the latest in advanced defense electronics, we sat down with Chris Rappa, chief technologist at BAE Systems’ FAST Labs.
What are advanced defense microelectronics and why are they important?
Chris: When we talk about advanced defense microelectronics, generally we are talking about high-end custom technology. Our customized military-hardened systems leverage commercial microelectronics whenever possible, but even the most cutting-edge commercial technology requires significant time and resources to make them defense-ready.
Think of it this way, you want to develop a communications device with similar functionality to a cell phone but hardened for military use. By the time you bought the latest phone off the shelf, customized it for a specific application, and hardened it, it would be a generation or even two generations behind the latest commercially available model and would cost considerably more.
We want to work more closely with commercial device manufacturers to leverage their investment, insert DoD requirements, and where possible, co-develop the technology so we can produce an easily and quickly customizable solution.
As to the importance, look no further than the comments by U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu. In her memo that outlined DoD’s critical technology priorities, she not only named microelectronics, but also emphasized their importance, noting that they’re “a critical piece that’s in everything.” We at FAST Labs also view microelectronics as a key enabler for our technology priorities, including electronic warfare, autonomy (artificial intelligence and machine learning), and cyber technologies.
What is the biggest challenge in developing this technology?
Chris: The good news here is that the biggest challenge is one we can overcome. It’s really about creating relationships and business agreements to bridge the gap between commercial technology and DoD requirements.
Our customers have exquisite requirements, but they buy in relatively low quantities, and can’t wait a decade for solutions. Commercial electronics manufacturers on the other hand have the benefit of large investment budgets, high production volume, and other economy-of-scale advantages.
The commercial industry builds and designs top-quality technology, but it is not completely applicable to DoD applications without significant post-manufacture customization. We want to piggyback on the commercial industry’s investments, and partner where applicable to influence technology roadmaps to match the outputs to what we need for our customers. This collaboration and early customization in the development phase will benefit the commercial industry by opening up new markets and will result in better, faster, less expensive solutions for our customers.
This may be an over-simplification, but let’s say you need to develop a racecar with stringent safety requirements. You could spend lots of time and money to build one from scratch. Or you could spend a little less time and money buying a stock car off the lot and making modifications. Or, ideally, you could partner with the premier sports car manufacturer to co-develop a model to your specifications using the most advanced and current commercial technology as the base. That last example is the most efficient and where we are heading.
What is next and what is BAE Systems’ FAST Labs doing in this area?
Chris: We are developing new processes, procedures, and even business agreements geared toward closing the gap between commercial microelectronics and highly sophisticated and customized DoD requirements.
These advances range from new fundamental materials, applications of commercial processes, ways to increase capabilities in smaller and lower-power systems, and ways to teach old hardware new tricks with better software. We’re also making the systems more secure by building security and cyber enhancements into the core of everything we do.
While there is a lot going on in the background, you can see some of the work being done in our recent announcements including our agreement with Intel and our collaboration on radiation-hardened electronics. Expect to see more partnerships with commercial providers and bringing on more people into the ecosystem.
Going forward, you’ll also see advances in cloud-based and software-defined systems, significantly faster time-to-market for high-end custom capabilities, and radiation-hardening and cyber-robustness as a standard feature at a competitive price point.
Simply put, we are here to serve our military customers, and they are looking for more capabilities from systems occupying less physical space. We have to increase performance while maintaining or decreasing footprint across all aspects (size, weight, power, and cost).
We are seeing major shifts in how our customers are solving their problems, as well. For example, many unmanned aerial vehicles compared to a single manned aircraft, many satellites versus a few, many unmanned underwater vehicles instead of a single, larger ship. As the quantity of vehicles grows, the demand for electronics also increases.
Anything you’d like to add?
Chris: It is worth noting that it is not just about what we are building with microelectronics. Even the best electronics are nothing without the right software. All of our advanced electronics developments are paired with related developments in new software. Our software-defined systems are designed to be open and flexible to run self-contained solution packages from any source, whether developed by us or others.
At the end of the day, our primary goal is to support the warfighter, and next-generation microelectronics are the key. Advanced defense microelectronics allows us to embed computing right behind the sensor (meaning faster processing) and put less stress on data links. By changing the architecture to rely less on central nodes, we can push information analysis and decision-making to the tactical edge, allowing soldiers to carry fewer batteries and planes to consume less fuel. This cuts costs and enables more platforms to be fielded to make warfighting more robust overall.
Because of the focus on this field and the growth at BAE Systems, we have plenty of great opportunities to join our growing R&D team.
Those that are interested in exploring opportunities can search careers at https://jobs.baesystems.com/fastlabs.