Military organisations worldwide have a great sense of urgency to modernise their operations. According to National Defense Magazine, there is an ‘innovation gap’ that is putting the soldier of today in peril. For troops to have the best shot at surviving and winning wars, they must carry a collection of equipment that includes, among other things, communication devices, weapons, ammunition and batteries.
The rugged environment in places like Afghanistan, where troops trek miles up into the thin air of the mountains, has made it more imperative that scientists in government and industry find ways to lighten loads that can reach 45 kilograms. The added weight also reduces the amount of food, water and ammunition a soldier can carry. So every ounce of equipment carried must improve communications, agility and lethality for soldier survivability, and contractors must make sure the miniaturisation happens now, not years down the road.
Many ‘Future Soldier’ programmes like the US Department of Defense’s Nett Warrior, India’s F-Insas, Italy’s Soldato Futuro, Poland’s Uhlan 21, Finland’s Finnish Warrior and Australia’s Land 125 have been established to address these very issues. These military organisations pay attention to what they call SWAP – size, weight and power.
Weight is a particularly vital consideration for the dismounted soldier, who typically carries more than 36 kg. The mandate put forth by military organisations is to reduce this weight by 25%. Given that each soldier wears a backpack, body armour, and carries weaponry and ammunition, finding that 9 kg of overall weight reduction requires rethinking the design and packaging of many types of electronic and communication equipment. For instance, night vision, targeting systems, smart phones, GPS, tactical computers and communications equipment could be integrated into a very functional and reliable subsystem, requiring an array of cables, harnesses and connectors. All of this equipment is necessary, so manufacturers must work with component partners to find ways to lose small amounts of weight in each component so they can achieve this 9 kg weight loss.
The miniaturisation of component electronics and connectivity plays a vital role in reaching this goal. Connectors play an important role as they have to be rugged enough to withstand dirt, grime and weather, but should be small, light and easy to use in tense situations. Connections must be made in fractions of a second, and often they have to be made when wearing gloves, favouring push-pull connector designs that lock instantly rather than requiring twists.
Communications devices must work 100% of the time, whether they are radios to talk with commanders or remote control devices for robots that peek around corners and report back electronically. Therefore, designers for military equipment should consider connectivity holistically with the design of their device. This can help them limit the number and size of connectors, and reduce cabling as well.
When searching for the perfect connector for a military application, several factors should be considered, including weight, size, functionality, data speed, sterilisation and waterproof ratings.
Maintaining a lightweight design is extremely important when dealing with portable units. Some connectors provide weight saving of up to 75%, compared to the standard core connectors. For instance, a rugged Fischer MiniMax Series connector without any cable assembly weighs only 14 grams, yet brings 20 signal and 4 power connections to the device.
As part of efforts to reduce the weight each soldier must carry, militaries and their prime contractors are also striving to shrink the physical size of components as well. Highly functional connectors and cable assemblies can be reduced in size by 45% compared with the older connector solutions, and prevent interference between power and signal. The diameter of a Fischer MiniMax Series receptacle is 12 or 10 millimetres, which is significantly lower than any other connector with the same number of contacts. Smaller connectors that maintain functional standards allow designers to shrink the size of their boxes. Even millimetres make a difference to a soldier in the field.
Even so, engineers must be careful about reducing size. Going too small could lead to problems for soldier usability. Many commercially available connectors are too fragile for use by soldiers who are often in critical situations, and others are simply too small to be handled with gloves. The key to selecting the right sized connector may come down to looking closely at the density of the pins and the way the connector protects from interference in the smallest, lightest ways. This pin density allows the connector to be smaller, reducing both size and weight of the device and, just as importantly, the cable solution required.
Ruggedness is an extremely important factor in functionality. Connectors that are being used in extreme conditions should be able to withstand an onslaught of sand, water, chemicals and other exterior factors. They also need to withstand rough use over time. It is important that well-used connectors be able to withstand over 4 Nm of torque, and overmoulded assemblies should withstand 40 kg of pull (break-away) force.
Increasing the density of pins is also important, as this allows a single miniature connector to do the job of two, three or more larger, less compact connectors. The ideal connector can have up to 24 pins and perform several functions – transmission of power, Ethernet, HDMI, etc. – without interference.
Manufacturers have recently made strides toward creating connectors with a large number of pins that function optimally without interference.
Connectors should be easy to mate or unmate even when using gloves, and durable enough to be functional through a high number of mating cycles. This ensures that after a high number of mating cycles, the electronic performance is still the same. Anything less and a soldier risks finding a failure in their equipment, which could be a matter of life and death.
With increasing demands for both power and secure data transfer, military considerations for miniaturisation include the ability to move data quickly and without interference. Data transfer speed is impacted by the connector, the cable selected, and the assembly itself. It becomes more important than ever for designers to give themselves enough time to test connector/cable combinations to ensure they achieve the required data speed.
As connectors get smaller, cable selection gets trickier due to size and assembly restrictions. Suppliers should be able to provide evidence of achieving certain data speeds and supporting protocols such as USB, Ethernet or HDMI, and suggest appropriate cable designs or provide fully assembled connector/cable solutions.
In the harsh, extreme battlefield environment, it is crucial that connectors be sealed, whether mated or unmated, in order to keep out sand, dirt, water and chemicals. Just as important is the ability to clean and often sterilise (ABC principle: Atomic, Bacterial, Chemical) these connectors without damaging them.
All connectors can be sterilised, but not necessarily with sterilisation methods. For example, some can be washed, some can be gamma-sterilised, and others can be placed in an autoclave. If it is known that a connector needs sterilisation, it must be ascertained whether the exact method of sterilisation is acceptable for the miniature solution selected.
Waterproof IP ratings
Most connector manufacturers self-test their products. This means that while the rating ‘IP68,’ for example, might be placed on a connector, the test that the manufacturer used to obtain such a rating might be different than the test used by another manufacturer. Such tests include immersing the connector in different levels of water for different amounts of time. When researching connectors, it is important to question the testing methods, as one brand’s IP68 rating may have been obtained differently than another brand’s.
Military connectors should also be IP68 rated both mated and unmated, reducing the need for protective caps. An IP68 rating for an unmated connector is a distinct advantage to the soldier.
Today’s militaries continue to invest in the latest technologies, and are turning to prime contractors and off-the-shelf suppliers to bring that technology to them. The companies which bring smaller, lighter equipment to the table will be given additional opportunities to prove their devices will work in the battlefield. Paying attention to the connection solution and the latest trends in rugged connector miniaturis-ation will help companies meet military demands and make it into the field.
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