Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Networking in Minneapolis

Posted by John McHale

I just returned from my first visit to the Avionics Maintenance Conference in Minneapolis. I covered it for our Avionics Intelligence web site and to recruit potential speakers for our Avionics Europe and Avionics USA conferences.

It's unlike any conference that I've been to before in terms of its networking element. Most of the first day was made up of awards and discussions on standards but at night it takes on a different form.

From 6pm to 11pm each night about 20 different companies set up hospitality suites with different themes to attract airlines and vendors to come in and do business, make deals, discuss technology, or just talk about their latest vacations.

Each suite had its own set of food, drinks, and entertainment -- from electronic dart boards to pool tables to Wii video games to live music. Some had a New Orleans theme, a baseball theme and one was set up as an airport lounge.

All in all it's a fun way to get people out of their comfort zone to meet others in the industry and build relationships.

You don't see many events like this anymore. It's quite refreshing.

The folks at ARINC, who put it on understand that success in any business is about relationships. The same is true for journalism.

I was there only one night, but am looking forward to going back next year when the show is in Phoenix and maybe win at Wii Bowling for once.

Monday, March 30, 2009

If you want your baggage fly Northwest, not Delta

Posted by John McHale

If you don't want to lose your luggage fly Northwest not Delta... Wait a minute aren't they the same company? Yes, they are -- Delta bought Northwest last year -- but while they have many similarities, baggage tracking capability is not one of them, said Steve Gorman, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Delta Airlines.

Northwest ranks first in baggage handling while Delta is down near the bottom, Gorman said during his keynote address at the Avionics Maintenance Conference (AMC), run by the ARINC standards organization, in Minneapolis this morning.

Northwest has state-of-the art tracking software and scanners while Delta is just started adding modern baggage scanners recently, he continued. Gorman added that while all of Northwest will eventually be assimilated in Delta, its best practices and baggage expertise will be spread across Delta.

During his talk he spoke in depth about Delta's global reach and what Northwest brings to the company.

He said Delta's longest flight is from Atlanta to Bombay -- about 8,502 miles -- and its shortest is Detroit to Toledo -- 49 miles in 51 minutes gate to gate.

Sounds like less than 60 miles an hour...

Mapquest.com says it's only 57.82 miles from Detroit to Toledo -- about one hour and five minutes driving time.

If you fly the 51 minutes on Delta, you still have to add in another 60 minutes so you can check in and go through security. Then after getting luggage or catching a cab, maybe add another 30 minutes.

All said and done it's about two and half hours to fly 49 miles!

Is traffic that bad in Toledo that you need to fly from Detroit?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where's the DOD budget request?

Posted by John McHale

Spring is here, baseball season is around the corner, the Masters is only a couple weeks away as is the Easter Bunny, but still no sign of the detailed budget request for Fiscal Year 2010 from the Department of Defense (DOD).

During the Bush administration we could count on seeing it in February, but still nothing out of the Obama White House on a specific release date. Yes, he is busy with the economic stimulus package and on a 60 Minutes interview the other night he said Iraq is the least of his problems -- so that could be why.

Instead of waiting on the president, I called the press office at the DOD and a gentleman told me that he could not give a specific date at this time, but he thinks it should come out by mid to late April.

We'll see...

Many of the people I talk to at defense prime contractors are quite anxious to see what funding is going to be available. The delay in release is causing delays in their planning for next year.

I've asked them where they think funding will be targeted next year and the typical response is "your guess is as good as mine."

The stories in the press about Obama potentially cutting back on major programs such as the F-22 also has many employees at Lockheed worried about their jobs as a cutback in production would most likely translate to layoffs.

We'll keep you posted on the release date and when it does come out we will provide coverage on what it will mean for the defense electronics industry.

So stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Optimism in tough times

In my last blog I discussed how the market for military avionics appears to be steady, but I was a bit surprised by the enthusiastic outlook for the global avionics market shown by attendees and exhibitors at last week's Avionics conference and exhibition that we put on in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

One exhibitor, Chip Downing of Wind River Systems, told me the avionics market is still quite strong, but the current economic climate might change especially on the commercial side, but not so much in the military market. He added that he still sees 2009 as a year of growth, but maybe not as strong as past years.

"The avionics market is up quite a bit," Doug Patterson of Aitech Defense Systems told me at the show. He said there is a strong trend in military and commercial applications to have more automation, taking the man out of the loop, which bodes well for avionics suppliers as they move toward next-generation avionics upgrades and the new air traffic management systems.

Officials from Seaweed Systems say they are seeing quite a lot of avionics business right now, and "haven't seen a downturn at all." Folks at Presagis echoed that, saying they see continued growth for themselves and their partners.

Esterline and Ruag Aerospace officials added that their military avionics business is steady and that they are developing long-term programs with key civil and commercial aerospace customers.

The keynote, Donald Ward, created some positive buzz of his own in discussing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA's) efforts toward a next-generation air traffic management system -- or NextGEN. Ward, the FAA's Air Traffic Operations representative to Europe, said the FAA is looking to work more with industry and focus on business models that work.

The main thrust of his speech was urging the U.S. and Europe -- industry and government -- to work together to harmonize NextGEN and SESAR (Single European
Sky ATM Research) technologies. Ward said it is essential to have commonality between the two systems because the technology is too complicated to try to develop independently.

He added that it is also critical to involve the military each step of the way or "there will be major problems down the road."

Aside from Ward's keynote address the most popular session was the one we had on electronic flight bags and how they will be an instrumental tool in dealing with runway incursions.

Hope you got to see them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Needing reform

Posted by John McHale

Last week I was struck by how the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MOD) is behind on acquisition reform, not having anything like a block upgrade or other type of incremental acquisition.

During a presentation at the Avionics conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands, engineers from the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) discussed their efforts to integrate COTS electronicsinto military avionics systems and manage the obsolescence issues that go along with it.

According to them the MOD uses mid-life upgrades, that have long intervals between them, which causes major obsolescence issues as the parts from the last upgrade are no longer supported by the time the next upgrade comes around.

Yes, block upgrades put even more pressure on maintaining the life cycle of components, but that is necessary if systems are to have the latest technology deployed to the field.

For acquisition, the U.S. Department of Defense uses what they call spiral development, which breaks down program development into blocks that incrementally add capability to the program every year or so. This gets new systems into the hands of warfighters more quickly and helps battle the obsolescence problem of COTS components by upgrading them more frequently.

It also enables designers to get feedback from those using the systems in the field.

However, block upgrades can also be confusing to suppliers and newcomers to the industry as there are so many variants and requirements for each block.

I think the gentlemen from Dstl would welcome that type of incremental technology insertion, but kudos to them finding innovative ways to integrate modern military avionics despite the MOD's slow-moving procurement structure.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Troubles dividing the VME board industry could have been avoided

Posted by John Keller

I worried about this, I warned of this, and now it's happening: companies in the VME board industry are choosing up sides in a fight over industry standards to make the VITA 46 VPX high speed serial bus interoperable in commercial and military systems across the board.

Everybody in the single board computer industry knows his community must agree on standards for uniform board sizes, connectors, and other technical aspects of the VPX standard high-speed serial databus. Otherwise this promising new technology will stumble in its bid to gain market momentum and appeal among the big military system integrators like Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman.

The stakes couldn't be higher, because VPX is considered to represent the future of this entire industry. The problem is this: the military board community can't settle on how to move forward with setting these open system standards for embedded computing.

On one side of this dispute, we have five companies that want to break away from the established standards group for this industry, the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) in Fountain Hills, Ariz. The break-away group is called the OpenVPX Industry Work Group, and its members include Mercury Computer Systems Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass.; Aitech Defense Systems in Chatsworth, Calif.; GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va.; Hybricon in Ayer, Mass.; Tracewell Systems in Westerville, Ohio.

On the other side are four companies that want the industry to work within the VITA Standards Organization so as not to give any perceived advantage in VPX innovations to any company or group of companies. These are Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va.; Elma Electronic Inc. in Fremont, Calif.; Carlo Gavazzi Computing Solutions in Brockton, Mass.; and Extreme Engineering Solutions Inc. (X-ES) in Middleton, Wis.

So we have the OpenVPX Five against the VSO Four. You're kidding yourself if you think the other companies in this industry are not under intense pressure to chooses sides and declare allegiances.

More importantly, what does this industry discord say to the big systems integrators in the U.S. defense industry that for years have come to depend so heavily on VME technology like VPX? At best, the big defense companies will want to delay design decisions until the controversy dies down. At worst, they'll get disgusted and look elsewhere for the technology they need.

Among these divided forces are some of the biggest and most influential companies in the embedded computing industry. All are fierce competitors, with no love lost between them. There's enough to divide this industry as it is without competing standards organizations.

So how did it come to this?

First, the VITA Standards Organization ignored repeated appeals from its members to move quickly on VPX interoperability standards so they wouldn't miss market opportunities. I understand some of these appeals came directly from VITA Executive Director Ray Alderman, as well as from other influential industry old-hands.

As a result, leaders of the companies that would comprise the OpenVPX Five believed they couldn't wait on the slow-moving VITA Standards Organization any longer. They believed it was crucial, for themselves and for the future of VPX technology, to move on -- with or without the VSO, and so they did. In all honesty, I can't blame them for doing so.

The mistake the OpenVPX Five made was in not initially inviting everyone in the military embedded computing community to join them. Right off the bat, this group alienated others in the industry who thought the OpenVPX group was moving furtively and with only a select group of companies to do an end-run around those not invited to be part of the group.

Since then, the OpenVPX group has put out the word that their organization is open to anyone who wants to join, but unfortunately the damage has been done. Those not initially invited to join are hurt, suspicious, and ready to organize on their own. It will take a long time to rebuild this kind of devastated trust.

For the VSO Four and their supporters, you can't blame them for being mad. They thought they were getting the kind of standards-building mutual support their industry needed by being members of VITA. Formation of the OpenVPX group was a surprise, and it changed all the rules.

Some people involved with the OpenVPX group are honestly surprised at the industry backlash their group has caused. One member told me -- and rightly, I believe -- that the OpenVPX group could do this industry a lot of good, if people would just quit taking shots at it.

So the OpenVPX group could help boost this industry up if its detractors would fall into line. On the other hand, the VITA Standards Organization also could do the industry a lot of good if its members would get off their butts and take VPX interoperability standards seriously.

Something had better happen fast, before it's too late for this industry.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Editor at large, locally

Posted by Courtney E. Howard

Travel is tough, especially in an economic downturn. Travel budgets are tightening across the board. Lucky for me, I live in the Pacific Northwest -- a hub of military and aerospace activity. I don't have to go too far to be right in the middle of it all.

I am a stone's throw from Fairchild Air Force base, home to a weapons squadron, training group and training squadron, office of special investigations, and more. After a one-hour flight to Portland, I am at FLIR Systems, Mentor Graphics, Lattice Semiconductor, TriQuint Semiconductor, or Intel.

In my own backyard, Spokane County, reside Agilent, SprayCool, General Dynamics Itronix, and others. I had the opportunity to tour General Dynamics Itronix today, in fact. I met some friendly, knowledgeable people, witnessed product assembly in a lean production lab, saw innovative testing facilities, and became privy to the latest technologies the company has to offer.

General Dynamics Itronix, like most other organizations, is not immune to today's harsh economic conditions. It was revealed last month that the Spokane Valley facility may close by the end of this year. A fixture in Spokane for more than two decades, General Dynamics Itronix employs roughly 380 people. Of that number, 20 may remain in Spokane Valley, 60 have the option to relocate to Sunrise, Fla., and the remainder will lose their jobs.

I know I am not alone when I say: I am anxious for things to turn around. It is unfortunate to see facilities that employ professional people in skilled jobs and who put out a quality, valued product suffer.

When I talk to high-level executives at firms suffering layoffs and other setbacks, they reveal that cuts are being made not because primes are suffering and military programs are being cut; rather, it is for no other reason than the poor economy. Heck, even Warren Buffett was knocked from atop his perch: It was revealed today that he has lost his "world's richest billionaire" status. Bill Gates (decades younger) now holds first place. Perhaps every community -- even a billionaires' club -- could use some "new blood" (for lack of a better term). My hat is off to mil-aero firms holding strong in the face of trying times, including my neighbors here in the Northwest. Kudos!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Not a bad time to travel

Posted By John McHale

Yes, the economy is tanking, and big airplane makers like Boeing are having major layoffs, yet airfares and hotel rates are down and flights aren't even crowded.

I flew to Amsterdam this week for our Avionics conference and exhibition and only booked my airfare a couple weeks ago, yet got a lower fare than colleagues who booked more than a month in advance. Not only that I had no one in my row and could stretch out for the all night flight.

It's true I'm on an expense account, but it's never been cheaper to travel if you have some disposable cash for a long weekend, even to Europe.

I'd say do it quickly though before things get worse and before the airlines think of more creative ways to make up for lost revenue.

They've already touched our wallets for checked luggage, soft drinks, etc...

Reportedly Ryan Air, a discount European airline, is considering charging passengers to use the bathroom!!! So if you forget to hit the ATM before you board it could be a very long flight...

Would that fly in the states? (I know, very bad pun) I think the picture of returning Iraq war vets paying for toilet runs in the friendly skies should make airline PR folks cringe.

So before you have to swipe a credit card outside the lavatory, take that little trip you've been meaning to take.

Try Amsterdam too, a beautiful city in many ways...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hijacked by hackers

Posted by Courtney E. Howard

It can happen to you. You could unwittingly be made a pawn in a cyber-attack, or worse: unknowingly become a cyber attacker. Most any computer -- whether a desktop/laptop PC or server -- can be hijacked by hackers. It could then be used as a weapon.

Saturday night, while I was enjoying the company of friends and some adult beverages, a call came in on a friend's cell. Now, it should be said that he is a brilliant, experienced systems and software engineer, and his partner is none too shabby either. Even so, one of their systems fell victim to hackers. In truth, it is likely more appropriate to call it a pawn, rather than a victim. You see, someone else's system was the real target (and subsequent victim).

No critical or classified information was compromised; rather, hackers took control of multiple systems, of which my friends was one, to perform a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on a system in the Pacific rim.

It was not as dramatic as I might make it sound, but it was an awakening. My friend was understandably tight-lipped, so I do not know the specifics around his electronics being hijacked; however, a quick check of the DDOS wiki gives me a general idea about how it happens.

Hackers can invade other people's computers (which I fondly refer to as OPCs). They find a vulnerability and secretly install a code, a script, or a program. The program can also come in through any number of methods, by e-mail, on a thumb drive, via poor password complexity, an even from a Website that can execute script.

The computer acts normally, until the hacker remotely activates the program, say. It then uses the computer/server's Internet connection to send a very large quantity of small packets of information -- tons of those, in fact -- to a target system/destination (or, more specifically, an IP).

The moral of the story? Keep an eye on your system and your information. Keep it all locked down. Keep your firewall on, and your operating system updated. IT personnel in charge of an entire organization’s systems and their information security (especially if that organization is part of or does any business with the Department of Defense) really have their work cut out for them. They have to keep tabs on virtually everyone and everything their colleagues do, and prevent them from surfing questionable Web sites, opening suspicious e-mail attachments, plugging thumb drives or MP3 players with flash memory into computer systems, and much, much more -- well, either that, or invest in a secure RTOS (real-time operating system), such as those you can read about in the pages of Military & Aerospace Electronics. Anyone think a secure RTOS can be compromised? Some believe nothing is safe in this digital age.

Military market a bright spot for avionics suppliers

Reports are all over the Internet about how the tanking economy is killing jobs and revenue in the commercial aircraft market. News stories about Boeing and Airbus cutting back deliveries and major layoff announcements at Boeing and other companies are making headlines.

I even saw a story yesterday about how business jets manufacturers are taking a hit because such jets are seen as luxury items and bad press for companies taking federal bail outs.

Yet, as I travel to different trade shows and conferences for our sister publication Military & Aerospace Electronics, I find just the opposite outlook. Military avionics suppliers tell me they've never been so busy.

Many I talk to are cautiously optimistic based on their projected backlogs for 2009 and solid funding in the last budget of the Bush Administration. Come January 2010 will things be as positive? Will President Obama make deep cuts in his first defense budget, even canceling large programs such as Future Combat Systems? Or will he just cut back on procurement?

One industry source says he believes that it is republican administrations that cut programs, while democrats just cut back. That they are loathe to eliminate large programs as it could mean eliminating thousands of jobs.

Recent news reports are echoing that statement. They hint that Obama might not order any new F-22s, but that he will not kill the program all together.

In leiu of new programs and orders, Defense Department officials may spend funding on retrofits and upgrades of current systems.

Many avionics and other electronics suppliers to the defense community are forecasting growth based on that possibility.

Yes, the Army killed the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program, but the Apache upgrade is moving along and additional upgrades are planned for the Kiowa helicopter and the Black Hawk helicopter. Rockwell Collins also announced the first delivery of the Block I Modernization for the U.S. Navy's E-6B Mercury aircraft.

A dangerous world keeps defense suppliers busy and opportunities abound. That said it's not an easy market to break into and newcomers looking to offset losses in the commercial sector will have a hard time gaining a foothold in defense.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Loving the digital age

Posted by John McHale

I know I'm not alone when I say I've wasted more than few hours surfing on Facebook, the popular online community. It's fun reconnecting with old friends from high school, even ex-girlfriends are popping out of the woodwork.

However, last week, I was bit blown away by a recent Facebook friend request. A woman I didn't recognize added me and asked me if I was the John McHale who wrote a blog on Veterans Day last year about his cousin Steven Caucci, who died in Vietnam.

Turns out she's married to his nephew, a cousin I haven't seen in nearly 30 years. She was just Googling the last name, checking for family histories, and up came my blog.

In the blog I talked about how I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and found his name. I was an infant when he died, but my mother still speaks of Steven.

I think it's pretty wild that I wrote it three months ago on Veteran's Day and long lost family finds it on a Google search.

Anyway, I just wanted to share because I think it's a wonderful example of what the Internet can do to link people together... let alone the MilAero Blog.

Had to throw in the last line...