Soldier-worn applications: changes in the world of connectors

Bob Stanton, Director of Technology at Omnetics, talks to Soldier Mod about changes in the world of connectors when it comes to the soldier-worn applications of the future

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Hybrid special connector

Hybrid special connector

The modern battlefield has become a data-heavy environment, with signals connecting every element of the military, from ships to satellites to soldiers. While the amount of data involved in a military setting continues to increase, the soldier on the ground has to be more mobile than ever. That means ensuring that data can be processed, transmitted and received with lighter, smaller and more convenient equipment than ever before. A challenge for the people behind every element of that equipment – including connectors. It’s a challenge that Bob Stanton, Director of Technology at Omnetics, says the firm is tackling head-on.

“The soldier on the ground has to be more mobile and carry less weight if he's walking around,” Stanton told Soldier Mod. “The first thing that a designer may need to remember is if you're up in the air or sending things to someone, you've got a lot of digital data to process, a lot of computer processing. If you're down on the ground, you’ve got to wear this stuff and carry it, and trudge over mountains and through deserts, so they want lighter weight, high quality information, but more specifically aimed at what they need only. So the first thing that one must remember is that, even though our tactics and our soldiers on the ground are much more advanced in what they do and how they do it, data has to be condensed to be portable and survive extreme environments on the ground, and on the soldier, rather than in a machine on a boat, or in an aeroplane or on a satellite. So one must always think when you’re designing cables and connectors for the ground of the physical aspects of the environment, the portability and the soldier, what they're wearing. Then you can boil it down to which application the soldier wants to use. Do they want videos from a drone? Or do they want to control a device from their glove or in their hand, that runs over the hills, and looks down at something else, or a weapon or a missile or something? There will be different soldiers assigned to different tasks.”

Micro-D Coax plus signals

Micro-D Coax plus signals. RF Signals plus digital signals for communication kits.

That means that weaponizing ground soldiers requires a more modular approach, explains Stanton, providing different packets of speciality technologies depending on what that soldier needs. “If the soldier, for example, wants to have a good communication system, and maybe control one drone, and collect the images from that drone, he may need to have some power, then drone control signals, and maybe a little GPS. And that's all. So his little packets would need power, signal management and maybe some visual data collection, or some communication. That's three different kinds of wires. And you can put them all in one connector today.” Such technology marks a step forward, says Stanton, with hybrid or mixed signal connectors coming of age rapidly to meet digitisation and the evolving specialised troop assignments and ultimately reducing the number of cables and amount of equipment carried by soldiers on the ground. In addition, the arrival of quick-disconnect connectors, allowing soldiers to remove equipment quickly and easily compared to previous systems, ensures they are helped, rather than hindered by the equipment they carry.

Another key evolution comes with developments to chip technology, allowing high-speed digital transmission using lower voltage. Put simply, the evolution of chip technology facilitates the delivery of more data to soldiers when they need it, whether that’s in the form of images, better control of a drone, or other use cases. For Omnetics, that means producing connectors that can handle those high-speed digital signals. In addition, any connector – and cable – has to be shielded from outside electro-magnetic interference (EMI) or ‘noise’, providing yet another challenge for companies across the industry designing connectors for the modern military. "Most often, the connectors and cable have to be shielded from the outside noise. And then inside the cable, each signal has to be shielded from each other. That's where it gets really complicated.”

In any of the developments to such vital pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that makes up military modernization, communication is key, says Stanton. That means customers talking to Omnetics about what they want and what they want it to do. “We say, ‘talk to us, tell us what you're going to do and why you're going to do it and what it's going to be like’. So they tell the connector designer all the things that signal needs to handle, which signals they are, how big it has to be, but the electronics are as, or more, important than the physical now, because it takes all this extra isolation.” From there, a process of solid modelling takes place, whereby designers come up with a connector that they think will meet the requirements, from its number of pins, to how it looks and what speeds it can handle. Through dialogue with the customer, the connector can be changed to ensure it fits exactly what they need. “The most important part of it, and Omnetics does this religiously, we always use parts that have already passed all of the military specifications, we’re just changing them around and rearranging them. So we already know they will handle shock and vibration for riding in a truck over Afghanistan mountains and they will disconnect, that sort of thing. So we always make sure they know that.”

Hybrid Standards 99 family

Hybrid Standards 99 family. Designed to reduce size, weight and carry multiple of electrical signals inside one cable – this reduces bulk and multiple connectors going to equipment the soldier uses in the field. Often used on robotics, drones, and Helmet technology.

Following the solid modelling process, within weeks Omnetics can send a customer a 3D-printed model of their connector so they can ensure it physically fits with their equipment before then moving on to creating prototypes for testing. The big evolution in this area is in the time it takes, says Stanton. “This used to take months, it’s just a totally different world with how quick you can turn around now.”

Micro-D latch 99 with power

Micro-D latch 99 with power. Mil. Swap type connector (small, low weight and Power) – Easy Latching in the field.

While the ability to produce connectors that are virtually bespoke to specific customers is a major step forward, interoperability of equipment is still useful and allows customers to go to different suppliers – something not all companies will admit, but that Stanton is open about. While standards are “slowly evolving away”, they remain in demand for now, he says. Yet it’s not quite a simple move from standard to bespoke, explains Stanton. He uses the Miniature 38999 Connector as an example - an evolution in the world of connectors, yet one where different suppliers’ products don’t necessarily work with each other’s. While some companies raced to produce the connector quickly, they missed the important element of producing a connector whose threads would match that of the largest volume of the Miniature 38999 connector line. “So here you're starting to mix standard threading or socket insertion to the connector industry for speciality applications. That's a mixed bag in the middle of this size reduction and struggle to have enough suppliers that make the same thing so customers can get a second source. So that's where military standards really came from and had its strengths for years. I feel that ‘standards’ will be used and sold by Omnetics for a long, long time,” adds Stanton. “However, rapid custom designs are becoming a parallel portion of the industry.”

If interoperability is so important, why don’t we see everything second source? Stanton is forthright. “We're in a race to come up with brand new technologies to compete with what I call ‘non-friendly nations’. So the designers don't want to wait, they need something ‘now’. Which means availability is really becoming critical. We see Europe, the US and most of the NATO alliances trying to find ways to stay far enough ahead of the Asian countries who are more advanced in some of the digital technologies. And so we see a whole bunch of semiconductor companies building themselves up again, because it's time to get competitive.”

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