COTS in space - the future

In the last 50 years, the electronic components domain has gone through a tremendous series of technological developments, mainly driven by the users' appetite for performance and by components manufacturers' appetite for profit.

Nov 28th, 2018
COTS in space: space heritage
COTS in space: space heritage

By Dan Friedlander

Retired following 44 years in component engineering

In the last 50 years, the electronic components domain has gone through a tremendous series of technological developments, mainly driven by the users' appetite for performance and by components manufacturers' appetite for profit.

The military components official policy (led by US DoD) did not succeed to keep pace with the technology (led by commercial demand). The space components official policy (led by NASA, ESA), piggybacking on the military methodology, has been plagued by the same problems.

Unfortunately, it is hard for engineering judgment to prevail over business decisions. The history proves that even governments are not capable to control business decisions of components manufacturers. Nobody is capable to change components manufacturers business decisions to discontinue products, to merge, to outsource to foreigners, to sell companies to foreigners etc.

The business decisions are driven by demand. The military and space demand is a very small one compared to the commercial one. The military/space components availability security is far from being secure.

The dynamic patterns of changes in the component industry, have an imminent effect on the availability of the components. The space demand size has a critical mass in dollars. The critical mass is determined by the relevant components manufacturers, per their market share. The users should be aware about their lack of power to control business decisions, that their effect may vary from individual components obsolescence to partial or entire markets.

Regarding the use of COTS in space, change in policy should mean adaptation to changing circumstances. It seems that the lessons have not yet been learned by the space components policy makers. Nobody claims that a change in policy is a simple, risk free process. There is no risk free EEE components methodology (in the past, in the present or in the future).

"We learn from history that we do not learn from history".

A proverb states: "History repeats itself".

There should be a time limit to decide what is the optimal timing to fully recognize (not as last resort) the use of selected COTS in space applications. In addition, the even more painful issue of the space designs dependency on the uncertain availability of military, space, hermetically sealed EEE components, shall be dealt with on time.

"Sometimes painful things can teach us lessons that we didn't think we needed to know".

This article attempts to extrapolate the past into the future, namely forecasting and not predicting the future. The future developments in the space/military EEE components domain are not fatalistic in nature.

Forecast vs. Prediction vs. Projection

This article is not intended to predict the future, but to forecast it. The goal of forecasting is to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.

Often the terms "forecast" and "prediction" are used without fully understanding their meaning. In order to ensure proper interpretation of the original intent herein, following is a brief initiation into these terms meaning.

Forecast is scientific and free from intuition and personal bias, whereas prediction is subjective and fatalistic in nature. Forecasting is an extrapolation of past into the future while prediction is judgmental and takes into account changes taking place in the future.

Forecast implies time series and future, while prediction does not.

Forecasting is a subset of prediction. Any time you predict into the future it is a forecast. All forecasts are predictions, but not all predictions are forecasts, as when you would use regression to explain the relationship between two variables. Using regression to make predictions doesn’t necessarily involve predicting the future.

Projection is a hypothesis that is based on assumptions, not actual data. Projection means a forecast based in current trends. In this sense projection is just a subset of all forecasts, because forecasters also do forecasts using educated guesses about how current trends are likely to change.

A forecast is an expectation of what is likely to happen, and a projection is what you would hope to happen.

Prediction can be simply described as a statement about an uncertain event. The Oxford Dictionary defines prediction as an act of saying or estimating that (a specified thing) will happen in the future or will be a consequence of something. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as an act of declaring or indicating something in advance.

Input Data for the Forecast

The main relevant input data is applicable for the forecast:

  • The traditional MIL methodology for space and military applications, based on heavy testing/screening of hermetically sealed electronic components, is deeply rooted in the ongoing environment of resistance to change.
  • EEE COTS components, in spite of huge technological developments, were banned for decades to be used in military and space applications.
  • The MIL traditional methodology rigidity and the commercial market dominance lead to a considerable technological lag of military/space EEE components behind commercial ones.
  • The military/space EEE components market size led to components manufacturers business decisions to leave the military/space market, further affecting the availability.
  • It has been proven that components manufacturers are independent in taking business decisions. 
  • Budgets are shrinking.
  • After long debates the US DoD officially was compelled (by global developments) to recognize the legitimacy of usage of EEE COTS components in military applications.
  • The decision to use of EEE COTS components in military applications has been proved as a successful one from every aspect.
  • The above decision has led to replacing the MIL traditional methodology with the QML concept, a liberalized version of the traditional one, infused with elements of commercial practices.
  • The space applications have been exempted (DoD is not responsible for space) from the above decision. Meanwhile, within local initiatives, EEE COTS components were successfully used in space applications.
  • Extremely slow space policy makers decision taking led to a last resort EEE COTS components penalized methodology.
  • The present space policy leads to preference of military/space grade, hermetically sealed EEE components in space applications.
  • The only thing certain about the availability security of the military/space EEE components is uncertainty.

The use of EEE COTS components in space applications, within a new proper methodology (not the present one), are the only known long term sustainable solution.

The way to ensure keeping pace with the technology, within affordable budgets, is economy of scale.

Motivation for Space Exploration and Exploitation

A vast space activity has been witnessed during the last 60 years. The space exploration will continue to draw the earth inhabitants' attention. However, the physical space exploration and exploitation (by manned and/or unmanned spacecraft) is limited by the Availability, Accessibility and Affordability of the technologies needed to materialize the relevant missions.

"We want to open up space for humanity, and in order to do that, space must be affordable"

Space is relatively removed from daily life, yet it is more important than many expect.

Not everybody understands what is the motivation to invest huge amounts of money in space applications, instead of investing the very same money in the terrestrial life.

Not many earth inhabitants consider how space intersects with their lives on a constant basis. The value of space exploration really is in its spinoffs. The space research and the space missions have practical benefits for life on Earth.

The interest in the commercial use of space can be traced back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. In it Congress declared that it was to the benefit of the USA for the concurrently established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.”

It is clear that electronics is a vital parameter in space exploration and exploitation. Electronic components are vital to build space applications.

Consequently, the Availability of EEE Components meeting the space requirements is a vital, critical parameter to the future of the global space industry. The EEE Components are produced by manufacturers within a business regime, driven by profitability.

Based on the past, the highly motivated leaders are not able to keep pace with the dynamics of the global developments.

The time between policy changes are measured in units of decades. The resistance to change prevail over the adaptation to the global development. This may negatively affect the future.

Those resisting changes may become irrelevant in the future.

The military has been a recognized catalyst of the space activity. There is no doubt that the military has a high motivation to use the space.

The U.S. military has relied on satellite communications, intelligence, navigation, missile-warning and weather systems in areas of conflict since at least the early 1990s, including in the Balkans, in Southwest Asia and in Afghanistan. Space systems have since then been considered as indispensable providers of tactical information to U.S. forces.

As an indicator to the high motivation of better use the space, US Lawmakers claim there is no question that space needs a higher level of attention than it has received. They blame the military for not investing in important technologies that the military needs to ensure access to space. Their arguments are “We got behind, we became dependent on a Russian engine, we kept using a launch vehicle that is massively expensive, we didn’t take advantage of commercial opportunities”, “There is no question that we have been lagging.” A shakeup of the military space organization mandated by Congress will get underway in 2018. The "commercial opportunities" will be probably raised to higher priorities.

The high motivation for space exploration and exploitation may be on a head on collision with the now preferred military/space grade hermetically sealed electronic components availability. The commercial end use dominates and will dominate the global electronic components market.

In an interesting paradox, electronics are becoming more important to the military/space community, while the military/space community is becoming increasingly unimportant to the semiconductor industry.

Forecast: Extrapolation of the Past into the Future

The future of the space industry is in the hands of disruptive technologies which match space requirements. COTS is one of the disruptive technologies that will aid in the creation and expansion of NewSpace.

"NewSpace" is a term is for a movement and philosophy encompassing a highly visible, globally emerging, private spaceflight industry. Specifically, the terms are used to refer to a global sector of relatively new, distinctly commercially minded, aerospace companies and ventures working to independently (of governments and their prime or major contractors, i.e., Old Space) develop faster, better, and cheaper access to space applications. The NewSpace is driven by commercial, as distinct from political or other motivations.

The NewSpace, being a disruptive force vis-à-vis OldSpace, is a valued data to be extrapolated from the past into the future. The space sector has entered a new period of changing the traditional way of thinking. It is important to note that the present space policy of military/space grade, hermetically sealed electronics components preference in space applications does not match the NewSpace philosophy and, in consequence, new solutions must be found. Like for military, COTS in space is considered a viable disruptive alternative.

Space technology will become a mass market product and will be practically accessible to everyone. The movement of the semiconductor industry to economy of scale cannot be stopped. This movement is business minded. Not profitable markets will disappear. The movement towards economy of scale is applicable to all the levels of the space industry and it is in line with the already experienced budgets shrinking.

"We haven't the money, so we've got to think." - Rutherford.

Open mindedness is a good start for new thinking.

Regarding the forecast of EEE Components usage in space applications, the most important issue is not to rely on the availability of military/space grade components. The future of their availability is shaped by business decisions of independent components manufacturers.

It is rather safe to forecast that the global components market structure by end use will not change substantially. Consequently, the space industry market share size will remain close to the critical mass and sooner or later will cross downward the critical mass. The components manufacturers will act in accordance to their own interests.

The space industry has their own interests. Subject to profitability, they want to realize the huge potential offered by space.

The policy makers' duty should be to lead proactively the industry into the future.

They have to adapt to the NewSpace philosophy, otherwise they may become irrelevant.

It has to be mentioned that the privatization of the space activities strengthen the need for a stronger standardization. New thinking is urgently needed to accelerate new policy creation efforts.

In order to avoid future chaos, organizational shake up should take place.

Forecast: EEE components in space

It is obvious that without electronics the space industry cannot survive. Consequently, the availability of the electronic components is a must.

Presently, most of the space designs are based on military/space grade or equivalent hermetically sealed electronic components, meeting the space agencies' policies. The designing process is costly and time consuming. On the other hand the buyers require short systems deliveries. In such an environment it is logical to sustain designs as long as possible.

The direct consequence of the above tendency is to commit those designs to the relevant components for design generations. The problem with that is commitment to uncertain availability.

A professional review of parts list of a space project committed to the official policy will reveal a frightening deteriorating picture. In order to sustain the design, the project manufacturing resorts to more and more compromises.

The compromises consist of, and not limited to:

  • Use of old components.
  • Use of obsolete components.
  • Use of components not procured through the regular supply chain.
  • Cannibalization of old boards/ reuse of components.
  • Use of components with known problems, previously rejected for flight.
  • Use of replacements from other than the original source.
  • Other creative solutions.

In view of the deteriorating components availability, the growing number of waived requirements is not surprising. However, in view of the military/space components market size, the users should be extremely worried. The future of the components availability is in the hands of the components manufacturers' business decisions.

Most of the space community is aware of the dangerous situation, waiting for leaders to decide how to proceed.

Considering the long and costly process to implement a disruptive solution (for example use of COTS), it would be safe to conclude the matter as soon as possible. 24 years after Perry's memo, the MIL/space vs. COTS debate is not yet settled!!!

Most of the space systems are committed to the traditional MIL methodology.

Conclusion: Extrapolating the past into the future, the critical military/space electronic components' availability is far from being secure.

The global military/space components market share size (in dollars) dropped from 60% to 0.3%. Each components manufacturer is entitled to decide when the critical mass will be downward crossed.

The present space policy still prefers the traditional methodology, committing old and new designs to it. The policy is not in line with the NewSpace philosophy.

A long term, sustainable solution shall be found urgently. COTS is a viable solution, in spite of the many obstacles to be overcome. Anyway, the NewSpace philosophy will be compelled to use COTS in space in order to materialize the established technical and financial goals. The standardization and the information exchange should be given a much higher priority than in the OldSpace.

The author, Dan Friedlander, graduated Engineering School/Tel Aviv University with a degree in physics (1965-1969). He has 44 years of experience in Component Engineering at MBT/Israeli Aerospace Industries (1969 to 2013), as Head of Components Engineering. As such, he was responsible for all aspects of EEE components – including policymaking, standardization at corporate level, approval, etc. – for military and space applications. Now retired, Friedlander is an industry consultancy (2013 to present). For further details on his experience, visit his LinkedIn profile.

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