Future equipment programmes to benefit from study
QinetiQ has been awarded a £1.9 million five year contract by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Research Acquisition Organisation (RAO) to assess the potential vulnerabilities of high tech components within military equipment to naturally occurring radiation. The study will allow the MOD to manage the likely impact of exposure to naturally occurring radiation earlier in the design and development cycle, thereby future-proofing equipment programmes and avoiding problems that could have time and cost implications later. QinetiQ will support the MOD to define robust standards and policies for equipment and component suppliers.
Military equipment is increasingly reliant on commercially sourced components, such as high-density memories, gate arrays, processors and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Unlike many components designed specifically for military use, such commercially available components are rarely hardened against radiation exposure. Therefore, understanding how this modern equipment performs in a range of environments is highly important to the military in order to minimise the risk of low reliability and to design out problems early on in the development of new equipment.
It is increasingly realised that naturally occurring radiation can cause reliability issues for the advanced electronics used in a range of systems operating at high altitudes, including aircraft, unmanned systems and missiles. Even natural radiation at sea-level has the potential to cause problems for ground based equipment. In certain circumstances, exposure to radiation can cause component failure which in turn can cause problems at system level.
Drawing on decades of experience of studying naturally occurring radiation, including four years of flights in Concorde and flights on NASA’s Space Shuttle, QinetiQ will provide the MOD with tools to accurately predict the reliability of electronic equipment at a range of altitudes from 100,000 feet down to sea-level. QinetiQ will study the vulnerabilities of military systems to solar particle events, caused by sudden activity on the surface of the Sun, during which radiation levels can increase by up to 1000 times those experienced normally. The potential impact of background radiation which is always present, and which peaks at 60,000 feet, will also be assessed.
Dr David Joynson, Research Director for Electronic Systems at the RAO, said: "The military use of advanced electronics developed in the commercial world is a reality. However, component failure in a fast jet is potentially far more serious than in a domestic PC. These components need to be sufficiently robust to perform the challenging tasks demanded of them and this contract award to QinetiQ is an important contribution towards ensuring future equipment programmes are not compromised."
Ian Reid, Managing Director of QinetiQ's Space division, said: "The supply of electronic components is now driven by high-volume commercial markets, such as computers, consumer appliances and telecommunications, and these are increasingly being used for military systems. Therefore, understanding the vulnerabilities of these components to radiation exposure is hugely important for the MOD. QinetiQ is able to draw on many years of research of cosmic radiation in space and apply this understanding to the sub-space environment and we look forward to working with the MOD on this programme."
QinetiQ's radiation environment team was founded in the mid-1980s (then part of the Royal Aircraft Establishment) and has continually studied the effects of radiation on space systems ever since. In 1989 the group pioneered investigation of atmospheric (i.e. sub-space) radiation effects with a four year programme of flights on Concorde. By the mid-1990s the issue of radiation effects in advanced electronics on aircraft had become apparent and QinetiQ's work in this area has continued to grow.
QinetiQ's radiation monitors have been flown in the Shuttle and a Merlin radiation monitor is currently deployed on GIOVE-A, the test-bed spacecraft for the European Galileo satellite navigation system. Merlin has also been selected to support NASA's "Living with a Star" programme and will help NASA to understand better how high-energy particles and radiation produced by the sun can affect life on Earth.