By the end of the Second World War, armoured warfare had seen quantum advances in mobility and lethality compared with the early tanks developed for the First World War. However, the 'electronics' on these tanks were limited to batteries and the crackly radios that they powered. Since then, technical advances have dramatically improved soldiers' security, making them and their vehicles incredibly safe. But with stringent military standards to adhere to, developing reliable electronic systems for military vehicles is still a huge challenge.
Ultra Electronics works hard to offset these difficulties. With decades of experience behind it, the company has built a formidable reputation for developing military electronic systems. This process begins with testing its electronic architecture, explains Tony White, a chief technology officer at Ultra Electronics. "We have invested - and continue to invest - in the very latest test facilities," he says. "This allows us to run our design concepts through a range of environments before they even hit the vehicles."
In particular, Ultra Electronics puts its products through 'highly accelerated life testing' (HALT). "We put our products into a specialised test chamber," White explains. "We exercise [the product] as if it were used for years. We test it early, which allows us to identify weaknesses in the design. Using HALT allows us to make our products even more robust." This rigorous approach is worthwhile. After all, Ultra's rugged computers are sealed against water or dust, can withstand Category 1 vibrations, and are able to cope with storage temperatures as high as 70°C.
Ultra's power management systems are also tested carefully, with computer modelling and simulation key parts of the process. "We've invested heavily in test equipment that allows us to create the environment you'd have in a vehicle, without actually being in the vehicle," White says. "That allows us to fully test a power system with simulated loads. We don't have the cannon, but we have the means to simulate what the cannon behaves like."
White and his colleagues also ensure their power management systems comply with UK and international military standards. Though White concedes that "there are subtle differences between the two", he is confident that "Ultra can create products that meet both of those standards. We know [both] standards and their nuances intimately."
Just as well: the operational benefits of power management systems are immense. To make his point, White borrows from Star Trek. "Captain Kirk would dial down to the engine room and ask Scotty to give him all the power to the forward shields," he says. "Then, he would ask Scotty to move all the power to the warp drive [and escape]. Our power management system does that for the vehicle commander. It allows us to put power where the commander needs it. We prioritise where the power goes for the mission, something we call 'intelligent power management'."
Other Ultra systems are just as useful. By providing tank crews with a range of cameras and sensors, Ultra helps them understand their surroundings. "We provide multiple displays," White says. "This feature means the whole crew gets complete situational awareness." Naturally, all this is done at low latency, as delays mean tanks risk "crashing into trees", he says with a smile.
Thinking about these practicalities is typical of Ultra. Unlike its competitors, the company works closely with clients until they're happy with the results. "We don't approach a customer thinking we know everything," White emphasises. "It's a joint thing." Vigorously sticking to a client's specifications is important, too. "If they ask us to achieve the full specification, that's what we'll deliver for them," he adds. "Some of our competitors don't tell clients that they're going to derate, which means [their systems] are not fully compliant."
Coordinating with clients is also a part of Ultra Electronics' future plans. "For the past ten years, we've been working with the Ministry of Defence on an intiative called 'Land Open Systems Architecture' (LOSA)," White says. "All our electronic architecture systems comply with LOSA principles. This has led us to develop wearable electronics for soldiers. We're also developing fixed-base infrastructure electronics for operating bases, giving us the ability to look at vehicles, bases and soldiers altogether." Quite a challenge, but if history is anything to go by, Ultra Electronics is up to the task.