The significance of oscilloscopes in aerospace and defense

Oscilloscopes have made significant gains, both in functionality and in importance in the world of electronics. Oscilloscopes are instruments that can read and display voltages, which are usually plotted against time on a graph. Non-electrical signals can be displayed by converting inputs like sound or vibration into voltage. The devices display waveforms formed by changes in electric signal over a calibrated scale. These waveforms can be further studied to determine properties such as frequency, interval, rise time, and amplitude.

May 31st, 2016
The significance of oscilloscopes in aerospace and defense
The significance of oscilloscopes in aerospace and defense

By John Paul

Oscilloscopes have made significant gains, both in functionality and in importance in the world of electronics. Oscilloscopes are instruments that can read and display voltages, which are usually plotted against time on a graph. Non-electrical signals can be displayed by converting inputs like sound or vibration into voltage. The devices display waveforms formed by changes in electric signal over a calibrated scale. These waveforms can be further studied to determine properties such as frequency, interval, rise time, and amplitude.

Today, oscilloscopes can capture signals in flux and save them for later study and storage. They also boast innovative features, such as Windows-based software, detachable disk drives, and the capability to be operated effortlessly over the Internet. These show how integrating hardware and software solutions can provide flexibility and scope in different fields of work.

Aerospace and defense is one of the largest and most prominent industries with global operations. The revenue generated by this industry alone comes to hundreds of billions of dollars. Recent studies show that the U.S. has the largest annual expenditure for defense in the world. All operations in this industry then, including electronics and telecommunication, need to be highly dependable and efficient.


Defense avionics

Manufacturers like Rohde & Schwarz, Tektronix, and Fluke Networks, among others, offer standard oscilloscopes for a host of applications. At the same time, oscilloscope rental companies like TRS RenTelco and many others provide dependable services to those who would like to rent oscilloscopes or to buy used oscilloscopes and other equipment.

Standards in the aerospace and defense industry are high – nothing less than the best quality, durability, and highly secure operation. Maintenance problems in or failure of electronic equipment in this field could result in not just a loss of millions of tax dollars, but would also carry the heavy burden of potential loss of life. One can, then, imagine the responsibility carried by test engineers and technicians in the armed forces; they need to calibrate and ensure the correct operation of all kinds of electronic equipment employed by aerospace and defense agencies.

Applications in aerospace and defense
Oscilloscopes in aerospace and defense need to perform regular and consistent validation, characterization, and advanced debugging. Oscilloscopes can be used to determine whether a malfunctioning instrument is distorting an important signal.

Standard calibration and testing with the latest high-speed oscilloscopes have been an important requirement for aerospace and defense communication systems for a long time. Without proper calibration, inaccurate results can occur, leading to bigger problems. Calibration is crucial. Requirements like ISO/IEC 17025:2005 certification is now standard for all testing equipment in aerospace and defense.

Data security, testing, and automation
Data security is a crucial and reasonable concern for the aerospace and defense community – and technological advances has answers for such necessities. Today, quite a few oscilloscopes have internal storage capabilities and use Flash solid-state data storage technology, which allows users to wipe any data clean and thus prevent sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands. Oscilloscopes from companies like Keysight (formerly Agilent) also provide interoperability with desktops and notebook computers, providing ease of use and data collection. This is a vast improvement over old, cumbersome technology.

A lot of users today want to buy oscilloscopes with enhanced automated capabilities to achieve faster and more accurate measurements in order to increase productivity. Since the quality of received and transmitted signals is very important, testing assumes a lot of significance in tough electrical environments associated with the military. There is also considerable interest in high-end oscilloscopes that can detect signals with minimal distortion and that can deal well with jitter. It is also important to break down jitter into constituents and to isolate its cause.


An Oscilloscope [credit –
Wikimedia Commons]

High-speed serial networks will also require oscilloscopes that can meet their demands. Oscilloscopes that make automated measurements using add-on PC software are well equipped to answer high-speed serial communication needs. The MIL-STD-1553 serial bus is one example of a serial bus that is tested using oscilloscopes for signal integrity. MIL-STD-1553 is used largely in the control of avionics systems, as well as in military ground vehicles and space-based systems.

Conventional digital oscilloscopes may make finding signal integrity a time-consuming process. Oscilloscopes with the ability to intelligently trigger on and decipher signals are preferred in such cases. Oscilloscopes are also used to test avionics for civilian aircraft, including commercial passenger jets and business jets (bizjets). Some oscilloscopes come with software that provides eye-diagram masks, which simplify testing of serial buses used in such systems.

Navies, like air force organizations, need equipment that can successfully perform in-field naval applications like radar, navigations, and communications. This requires versatile oscilloscopes that have the capability to perform advanced waveform analysis. Such oscilloscopes will also handle repairs and calibration of an assortment of electronic equipment aboard ships and submarines, as well as onboard the Navy’s fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft. Some oscilloscopes have acquisition rates as high as one million waveforms per second.

Portability and LXI Access
It is one thing to be a qualified technician on a battleship, or other aerospace and defense vehicle, whether on land, on the sea, or in air or space. It’s another thing to have to lug around heavy equipment up and down the platform each day to perform testing. Portable oscilloscopes can be a blessing to hundreds of defense technicians who can work without being hampered by equipment size or battery life. Better portability will turn out to be a game-changer for oscilloscope manufacturers.


Portable Oscilloscope [credit -
Wikimedia Commons]

Another important innovation that will leave its mark on oscilloscope usage in aerospace and defense is the advent of Local Area Network (LAN) Extensions for Instrumentation – popularly called LXI. It replaces the previous industry instrumentation standard, which was the General Purpose Interface Bus (GPIB). Using LXI technology, oscilloscopes can be assigned IP addresses. With that, users will have complete access to the information stored on a device from anywhere in the world.

Conclusion
Oscilloscopes are crucial in testing and calibration for myriad aerospace and defense applications. While signal integrity is a very important aspect, factors like portability, consistent quality, faster performance, and the ability to incorporate relevant technology will govern their utility in aerospace and defense in the future.

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About the author
John Paul is the Community Outreach Manager at TRS RenTelco, one of the largest suppliers of electronic test equipment for rent, lease, and purchase in North America.

About the Company
TRS RenTelco provides new or used electronic test equipment for rent, lease, or purchase. Solutions are provided for the various type of equipment such as spectrum analyzers, network analyzers, oscilloscopes, etc., from leading manufacturers.


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