Military Embedded Systems

A Guide to Rad-Hard Technology: Essentials, Military Applications, and Microcontrollers


August 04, 2023

Dan Taylor

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

In an era where technological advancements are driving innovations across various sectors, radiation-hardened (rad-hard) technology is forging new paths, especially in the realms of space, military, nuclear industries, and even burgeoning fields like 5G/6G communications. But what exactly is rad-hard technology, and why is it increasingly vital? This article aims to elucidate the essentials of rad-hard technology, its profound impact on military applications, and the intriguing role of rad-hard microcontrollers.

Key concepts include:

  • Rad-hard: Ability to withstand high levels of radiation.
  • Rad-hard electronics: Components designed to operate in high-radiation environments.
  • Rad-hard microcontrollers: A specific type of integrated circuits resilient to radiation.

The Essentials of Rad-Hard Technology

Rad-hard technology is not just a niche; it's a growing necessity across various industries:

  • Space Industry: Required for satellite and manned missions.
  • Defense Sector: Essential for military communication and weaponry.
  • Nuclear Industry: Utilized in power plants and radiation handling equipment.
  • Emerging Technologies: Plays a vital role in 5G/6G communication, real-time imaging, and nuclear instrumentation.

The demand is on the rise, but it's hindered by limited availability and performance restrictions.

Traditionally, there are two main methods used in rad-hard designs:

  • Up-screening of Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) Components:
    • Pros: Cheaper initial costs.
    • Cons: Risk management, expensive procedures, wide variability in radiation tolerance, life cycle costs, obsolescence risk.
  • Use of Space-Graded-Radiation-Hardened Electronics:
    • Pros: Specifically designed for radiation exposure.
    • Cons: Limited availability and performance, expensive, often legacy components, typically can't match COTS components' specifications.

These methods come with their own challenges, driving the need for more innovative solutions.

Radiation-Hardened by Design (RHBD) Methodology

One emerging solution is Radiation-Hardened by Design (RHBD) methodology, a game-changing approach that:

  • Addresses performance, availability, and cost requirements.
  • Allows development of highly integrated system-on-chip solutions.
  • Ensures reliability, reduced mass, and improved performance.

RHBD is paving the way for future technologies by bridging the gaps left by traditional approaches.

Challenges and Limitations

Both traditional methods and using COTS components in radiation environments pose significant challenges:

  • Challenges with COTS:
    • Requires shielding, up-screening, radiation testing, error detection and correction, redundancy assurance.
    • Tolerance varies widely, ranging from 3-100 krad.
    • Single-event latchup and other severe events can destroy components.
    • Manufacturer changes may alter radiation tolerance without notice.
  • Space-Graded Rad-Hard Electronics Limitations:
    • Qualified to radiation doses of <10 kGy, legacy processes.
    • Heavy shielding required, leading to bulky solutions.
    • Inadequate in high-dose radioactive environments exceeding 100 kGy.

Understanding these challenges is key to harnessing the potential of rad-hard electronics.

Military Applications of Rad-Hard Technology

The military's demand for rad-hard components is witnessing robust growth due to increased threats in space, including from nations like China. Also, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is spending more money on both traditional long-life missions and shorter, lower-cost small satellite applications. There's also a need for reduced size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) while maintaining radiation tolerance.

The growth in the rad-hard component arena is shaping military technology and strategy.

Supply Chain and Market Trends

A global supply-chain shortage is affecting the rad-hard component industry. Shortages are resulting in the delayed delivery of vital components. The DoD is investing in long-term onshore semiconductor manufacturing to help counteract this, but it may take a while for this activity to bear fruit. Suppliers are making their own efforts, including expanding facilities and hiring additional staff to combat delays.

These supply chain dynamics are instrumental in understanding the current state and future trajectory of the rad-hard industry.

Innovation and Long-Term Concerns

Innovation and long-term planning are paramount in the military's use of rad-hard components. This involves design innovation to meet SWaP-C demands by using Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) components while maintaining radiation tolerance. Leveraging commercial manufacturing processes is vital to meet aggressive price targets and fulfill high-volume applications like small satellite missions.

Simultaneously, there are long-term concerns that must be addressed, including the need to balance between mission success, procurement cost, and time to launch. A comprehensive understanding and assessment of government investment's sufficiency are also essential to avoid potential future challenges and ensure a stable supply of these vital components.

Rad-Hard Microcontrollers and Their Importance

Rad-hard microcontrollers are specialized integrated circuits designed to withstand intense radiation levels. Unlike regular microcontrollers, these chips can operate in extreme environments, such as space, nuclear reactors, and military defense systems. Key attributes include:

  • High Radiation Tolerance: Can withstand doses greater than 1 MGy.
  • Performance Standards: Maintain performance and integrity in extreme conditions.
  • Miniaturization: Enable compact and high-performance solutions.

Application in Various Industries

Rad-hard microcontrollers find applications in various fields:

  • Space Exploration: Essential in satellites, probes, and rovers.
  • Military Systems: Critical in defense technologies including missile systems and early-warning systems.
  • Medical Applications: Used in radiation therapy and diagnostic equipment.
  • Nuclear Power Plants: Control and monitoring systems within nuclear facilities.

Understanding these applications can provide insight into the vast potential of rad-hard microcontrollers.

Challenges in Implementing Rad-Hard Microcontrollers

Despite the significant advantages, there are challenges in implementing rad-hard microcontrollers:

  • Cost Factor: Often more expensive than regular microcontrollers.
  • Limited Availability: Fewer manufacturers and products in the market.
  • Design Complexity: Requires careful design and extensive testing.

These challenges don't overshadow the benefits but necessitate strategic planning and understanding.

Rad-Hard Electronics Market Overview

In the overall market, a shift towards Radiation-Hardened by Design (RHBD) is becoming evident, reflecting a series of crucial considerations and potential benefits. The adoption of RHBD is critical to meet the increasing demands of high-radiation environments, where traditional solutions may fall short. While Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) components may seem tempting, they must be approached with caution, keeping in mind total life cycle costs and potential risks.

RHBD's unique approach plays a transformative role by enabling new opportunities in burgeoning industries such as nuclear fusion, space, and military applications. Understanding this shift towards RHBD is not just a matter of trend awareness but a strategic imperative that can help industry professionals make informed and future-oriented decisions.

Long-Term Strategies and Considerations

The landscape of rad-hard technology demands a well-rounded strategy:

  • Government Involvement: Adequate investment from government bodies to ensure sustainability.
  • Industry Collaboration: Collaborative efforts between manufacturers, users, and regulators.
  • Focusing on Innovation: Continued emphasis on research and development to foster innovation.

These strategies can help in shaping a future that leverages the benefits of rad-hard technology efficiently.

Final Takeaway

Understanding Rad-Hard Technology, especially the role of rad-hard microcontrollers, offers a glimpse into a world where technology meets some of the most challenging environments. From space exploration to cutting-edge military applications, the impact of rad-hard technology is broad and profound.

The market is dynamic, shaped by factors like supply chain challenges, technological advancements, and strategic investments. Key players are innovating, markets are expanding, and there's a definite shift towards newer methodologies like RHBD.

Whether you're an industry professional, tech enthusiast, or just curious, knowing the essentials of rad-hard technology opens up a universe of technological marvels that are shaping our present and future.