Rugged electronics for extreme conditions

Electronics gets more and more advanced everyday. There is a constant growth in processing power, storage and operating memory, bigger and thinner displays and faster communications. You’ve probably got disappointed many times when your lovely laptop fell off and cracked, cell phone drowned in toilet or other device failed because of some factors. Even low temperature or pressure may stop device from responding. This happens because devices aren’t meant to work in extreme conditions. You can get computer or cell phone with hardened cases sealed from water, but does this make them rugged?

(Rugged integrated system solution MPMC-9350)

Lets look in other extreme side – space. A good example is Mars rover “Curiosity”. You would think that with today’s technologies it could have almost a supercomputer running on board, but actually it’s processing power is less than any modern cellphone. Actually rover has two computers on board where each of them have 256kB of EEPROM, 256MB of DRAM and 2GB of Flash memory. RAD750 CPU runs up to 400MIPS. Any smart phone would beat that easily. So where is a problem? The problem is extreme conditions – low and high temperature, high accelerations during landing, radiation. Electronics must withstand these conditions as once fire them with rocket it must not fail – there will be no human to service any part. So in this case scenario electronics is extremely rugged. Another good example of rugged electronics surrounding us is car electronics. You can find that that it is partially protected from moist and vibrations. Under the hood you can find many sensors that seems to be no so complex but are housed in to metal case with rubber seals.

But there is another area of electronics on earth that should never fail or at least be maximum reliable – that’s military and aircraft electronics. It would be silly to get drone system failure in enemy area or loose navigation during jet flight. Most of military and defense systems tend to be modernized. There is always a game of who has better technology to win a war. Better, faster and reliable electronics always gives an advantage. There are special companies like “CWC Defense Solutions” that specializes on military grade products. They make ruggedized electronic modules that keep aerospace and defense systems spinning. Lets see how rugged electronics look like. For instance Curtiss -Wright Controls Inc. selects best commercial parts available and build rugged electronics modules that withstand extreme temperatures, vibrations and corrosion. Making them rugged means making solder joints reliable and double checked using x-ray. If electronics is sealed, then cooling is another big concern that has to be solved. Processors generate huge amounts of heat so it has to be effective in any hazardous environment. If not air cooled then electronics is conduction-cooled this is where mechanical engineering kicks in ensuring reliable thermal bridge between board and chassis. Selected materials must be selected to withstand thermal, corrosive conditions. There is not much of design concern but more packaging and longevity of life.

Special care is taken when developing software. Extensive testing is crucial. As you know sometimes there is more software than hardware who can fail. This is not mass use electronics and it wouldn’t be possible to manufacture large amounts of rugged and reliable electronics. Practically each manufactured module needs to be machine and human checked, tested in hazardous environments, pass shock and vibration tests in order to get certificate and be ready to be used in the field.

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