As we look in depth at the rapid increase of ARM based Embedded Computing Boards (ECBs) coming to market we are talking to industry experts, analysts, silicon partners and board vendors to help us understand the market dynamics. One really interesting use case for an ARM ECB is in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition where teams compete for a chance to send a robot to the moon. But first some background:
I spoke to Simon Collins who is a product manager with GE Intelligent Platforms a major player in the embedded market and proponent of the industrial Ethernet. GE came to my attention when they released a new COM Express format board based on the NVidia Tegra K1 (the mCOM10-K1 pictured below).
The move by GE to working with NVIDIA is very new but Simon told me that because market forces are changing so rapidly in Embedded they had to find a lower power solution to their customers imaging needs. Video processing of some kind is becoming a must have in the IoT and especially in autonomous vehicles so the SWaP (Size, Weight and Power) requirements mean a whole new approach. Another key factor is that in many video applications the systems don’t need to be real time in the true sense of hard deterministic avionics type systems and Simon coined the term “real time enough” to describe what his customers want. So in these applications a system might run Linux or even Windows because interrupts aren't going to be catastrophic and it’s better to have some video than none. Another tipping point that led to the ARM based board decision was the availability of many versions of Linux that can cross platforms from x86 to ARM by using a different compiler. In this case the Linux version that GE offers is based on Ubuntu which runs on both X86 and ARM so the same source code can be used but compiled for the NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor.
Another key factor for Simon and the GE team was the power saving nature of the NVIDIA Tegra K1, they could offer the customer what they needed within a 10w power budget compared to past designs that may need up to 100w to deliver similar capabilities. Today many vehicles are essentially “driven by video” so drivers and their robot companions can see multiple views of their surroundings so this level of video processing is becoming a standard.
Since we are talking about ruggedized applications its critical we talk about the difference between boards that are sold as development kits and the COM Express boards that GE produces. Simon told me that the mCOM-10 board has memory soldered on and doesn’t use gold edge connectors because over time vibration and temperature change movement can degrade the connections so military grade connectors are used throughout. Different board form factors have been standardized depending upon the application (see my blog on Board standards association VITA for example) and you can search the ARM Single Board Computers by form factor for your needs.
So now we can get to the fun part and thats going to the moon! Simon and the GE Intelligent Platforms team have been working with one of the Lunar XPRIZE competitors, Astrobotic to help them get their vehicle to land safely on the moon. Astrobotic, with its partner, Carnegie Mellon University, is pursuing the Google Lunar XPRIZE and is scheduled to launch the first mission during the second half of 2016 At the recent NVIDIA TechCon I got a shot of Simon and one of the XPRIZE prototypes:
So what exactly is the GE board going to be doing on the Astrobotic lander? To me this is the best part of this whole project and why you never know what you are going to learn when you talk to end users of ARM technology. The XPRIZE Lunar landing is going to take place on a more "interesting" part of the moon (the North pole) where there are many more hazards than the relatively flat areas where previous spacecraft have landed so the Lander needs to steer clear of obstacles in real time to land safely. But, and its a big but, there is a 10 second communications latency between the Lander and Earth so its going to have to autonomously land itself and it will do that with the video processing on the GE mCOM board. In exactly the same way a self driving car can spot pedestrians and traffic lights, the Astrobotic Lander will steer its way around boulders and craters using the video processing of the NVIDIA Tegra K1 and (hopefully) land safely. To me its a perfect example of how the low power of ARM based bards combined with incredible embedded vision capabilities are changing the way engineers can solve difficult problems not just on earth but on the moon. Oh and lets not forget why the Astrobotic Lander needs to steer itself in visually all the way; there is no GPS on the moon, duh! Read more about ARM boards here: Exploring the world of ARM based Embedded Computing Boards (ECB)