You guys are dinosaurs!

-July 17, 2013

Last week I attended an IC design workshop to assess some new EDA software. Out of the fifty or so participants, I was the sole representative from the space industry.

It was interesting to hear how our commercial colleagues are designing using the latest 20 and 16 nm, deep sub-micron nodes, exploiting the benefits of FinFET transistors. It was fascinating to observe the reaction of several of our colleagues when I shared the geometries used by the space electronics industry. After recovering from the shock, a 'gentleman' from a very well known semiconductor company said, "You guys are dinosaurs! I thought you rocket scientists would have used the latest and most advanced technologies."

I then spent the next half hour educating our peers about radiation effects, availability of service, accessibility, reliability and managing risk. Shock was replaced by curiosity, and I described the use of COTS components in space, sharing some specific examples of parts used by launchers, Earth-Observation satellites and Cubesats. A private, follow-on discussion with several of our colleagues continued during the break when I explained the differences between plastic and ceramic packages, hermeticity, as well as out-gassing. Shock was replaced by mutual respect, an invitation to speak at a future workshop, and the exchange of business cards.

The space industry wants to exploits the benefits offered by the latest technologies and offer new customers and markets cheaper access to space. COTS components have been used in space for many decades and are increasingly being used by launch operators, Cubesats and some LEO missions which operate for short periods of time within each orbit.

Space-equipment manufacturers baselining COTS parts assess the risk of using such components and the greater the understanding of a device's failure modes and causes, the higher the confidence level that it will perform within a mission environment and lifetime. How COTS parts are used also increases their suitability in space, e.g., previously I have deliberately not used an SPI interface on an integrated circuit as the vendor told me that it was soft and sensitive.

Most space-equipment manufacturers baselining COTS components up-screen these to provide a level of assurance when using devices outside their intended range of operation. All deep sub-micron parts are susceptible to single-event effects to some degree and some COTS semiconductors are fabricated on a silicon-on-insulator process or have an epitaxial layer which provide a level of latch-up immunity. Parts manufactured using SiGe HBTs do not experience threshold voltage drift unlike conventional bulk CMOS transistors. System and circuit-level radiation mitigation techniques - e.g., triple modular redundancy or EDAC - protect against single-event effects.

The space electronics industry is evolving and unlike dinosaurs, will not become extinct! Many of the old legacy processes and standards endemic to the space industry are be re-assessed to replicate the high-volume consumer electronics market. The principles of right-first-time, design re-use and mass production are being adopted to reduce unit costs.

Have you used any interesting COTS technologies or are you planning to baseline any commercial-grade components into your space electronics. I'd love to hear about your experiences and challenges!

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