Intel® Core™ i7 and COM Express in unmanned vehicles


American lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan is one of the driving forces when great resources are put into development of unmanned vehicles. These vehicles are typically compact and have to endure rough environments because no considerations for drivers or pilots are needed.


Norwegian company Galleon Embedded Computing AS experiences an increasing demand for small and durable embedded computers. And therefore they have found a niche.

– Applications in unmanned aircrafts and unmanned vehicles in general are definitely the biggest areas of growth for our products that are compact and rugged systems for data storage, says Espen Bøch, Vice President.

Galleon was founded in 2009 by six professionals who had worked for Vmetro, an embedded company with aerospace and defense customers. In 2008 Vmetro was acquired by Curtis-Wright Corporation, a large American competitor and the operation was downsized.

– When founding Galleon we made some choices based on prior experiences. One example was that we didn’t want to carry the load of development involving the processor platform, says Espen Bøch.

COM Express for performance

Galleon decided to buy a COM module, a ready-made small board containing the CPU, chipset, memory and additional components to form the processor platform. The module is mounted on a carrier board that is developed based on Galleons experience and knowledge in data storage and high-speed interfaces.
– We are not a big company and we strive to use our resources in the areas of our core competence, says Espen Bøch.

The next decision involved the form factor of the COM module.  A choice among a wide variety of modules from several suppliers was needed. This was to ensure access to the latest processor technology and to secure deliveries. The module had to withstand harsh environments, be compact and offer high computational performance.


Not before long the choice fell on COM Express. PC104 was one of the alternatives but according to Espen Bøch performance is typically not enough in this form factor that is traditionally found in demanding environments.
– As I see it, COM Express is the form factor that offers the most performance per cm2 and it also works reasonably well in demanding environments.

Eco system supporting Intel® processors

Vmetro mostly used the PowerPC architecture. According to Espen Bøch, PowerPC has historically been an efficient architecture in terms of performance. The support for AltiVec, a library for vector processing, has offered obvious advantages in applications including signal processing. This is the reason why PowerPC has been widely used for instance in the defense sector.

Galleons choice on processor architecture fell on X86 and processors from Intel. According to Espen Bøch, the performance of Intel processors has surpassed PowerPC, being one of the motivations for the choice. Yet another important aspect was access to the large eco system of development tools and software supporting Intel® processors. And also, the support for various controllers and functionality connected to the processor is quickly implemented in Linux. This is due to Linux being the operating system that first and foremost is used by Galleon.
– We do not need to spend months to develop drivers for this and that I/O-chip that we need.


The Hectronic H6052 COM Express module is based on Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processors. The form factor is COM Express Compact (95mm x 95mm) and the pin configuration in the interface between the module and the carrier board is type 2. The set of interfaces include for instance PCI, PCI Express, SDVO and LVDS.

Hectronic H6052

The Hectronic H6052 was Galleon’s for performance orientated product versions. The form factor is COM Express Compact (95mm x 95mm) and the processor in use is Intel® Core™ i7. H6052 is originally specified for a temperature range of 0°C to 60°C but temperature tests in Hectronic’s climate chamber and a selection based on the results opened up for an extended temperature range, -20°C to +70°C. The procedure is called temperature screening.
– We made our choice among suppliers that from our judgment were capable of delivering quality over time. But who also possess a prior experience from the defense sector. Hectronic also has a geographical proximity much appreciated.

Defining product functionality

H6052 is used in Galleons products for network attached storage, recording of data through Ethernet as well as a general purpose computer system. The functionality of the product is defined by unique carrier boards equipped with communication interfaces with possibilities of extension from connecting XMC/PMC-modules.
The picture shows a typical application involving products from Galleon. It’s an embedded system with three subsystems in an unmanned aircraft. Sensors such as an infrared camera give an image of the environment on the ground. The raw data from the sensors are processed in the Mission Computer and distributed by a radio link to the system on the ground.
– The radio link has a limited bandwidth so that only low resolution image data is possible to transmit.

Spending less time on the ground

High resolution images and raw data from sensors are still of great interest to the typical user. On a completed mission this data is available in Mission Data Recorder and High Speed Sensor Data Recorder. Defense customers appreciate particularly the possibility to quickly remove the data media and replace it with an empty unit.
– Downloading for example 4TB data through Ethernet takes a couple of hours. That period of time is shortened to about 30 seconds if the media is removed instead. The time on the ground between missions is thereby nearly none.

Block diagram for a system which is used for recording of data traffic through Ethernet. The direct link from the input ports via a switch to the CPU is there for maximum data speed.

The High Speed Sensor Data Recorder in particular requires high speed data transfer and large storage capacity for raw data from the sensors. It’s perhaps the product that the most clearly shows Galleons core competence. Maximum bandwidth is achieved with a direct link on the carrier board to the graphical interface on the CPU via a switch.
– We’d like sensor data from the two XMC ports to be transferred without delay and stored in the memory for further processing by the processor, says Espen Bøch. Intel® Core™ i7 is used for data reduction, compression and additional processing.Four SSD disks attached to one SATA port each on the chipset are used for data storage. Connection of additional storage media is an option. The data speed is 450 MB/s.

Advantages from semi-custom strategy

The development of the carrier board had begun already when the final decision was taken on what COM module to use. The separation of the hardware in one module containing the processor platform and functionality unique to the product on a carrier board proved advantageous.
– It gives us the possibility to develop different versions of the carrier board and the products a lot faster.Hectronic’s BIOS competence proved valuable when the H6052 module was to be integrated with the carrier board. The primary interface for system control is Ethernet. Mouse and keyboard aren’t used and the carrier doesn’t include any keyboard controller. BIOS normally is dependent on the keyboard controller for system start-up. Adaptations to BIOS were made to create what’s called a legacy free BIOS to avoid the problem.Adaptations in BIOS also were needed to ensure system start-up even with a corrupt CMOS. CMOS is an area of memory that is powered by a battery and placed in the real-time clock. It contains data used in the start-up procedure by BIOS to set a number of registers in hardware. An interrupted start-up procedure due to a battery failure wasn’t an option. The adaptations in BIOS implied that default values were read directly from EEPROM (should CMOS be corrupt).

Galleon Rugged NAS is developed for network attached storage applications in demanding environments. Storage media is SSD and it’s exchangeable for rapid access to the information. It’s an important aspect to maximize the air-time for unmanned aircrafts.


Products are tested according to the MIL-STD-810, a standard which is sufficient for most of the defense customers. Some of course have additional requirements. The tests include among other aspects temperature, vibration and humidity, but also the altitude above the sea level, not one of the most common requirements applicable to embedded systems.
– The bigger challenge from meeting the requirement of operation on high altitudes is the lack of air for system cooling.Galleon solves this problem by conduction cooling. A metal plate, a heat spreader, is mounted on the H6052 COM module for heat distribution from critical components. The heat is dissipated by conduction into the enclosure and through the metal where the system is mounted.

Challenges from altitude above sea level

At an altitude of 4000 meters rotating hard disks aren’t working. The bed of air that the disk needs for rotation is not possible to create in thin air. SSD disks without moving parts are of course unproblematic.

Yet another challenge from system operation on high altitudes is air encapsulated in components, solderings and the PCB. The air may expand and break the material. It’s not a common problem, according to Espen Bøch, but developers of these systems are aware of the risks involved.

A lot of resources and efforts have been invested in product development and establishment of sales channels at Galleon. Europe is considered the home market.
– Our staff has a vast experience from the market and we use the network we have already, he says.

Experiencing changes in buying behavior

Galleons customers are mainly system integrators, which have customers in the defense sector world-wide. Espen Bøch has recently experienced a change in buying behavior among defense customers. Spending years of investigation and evaluation prior to a decision and a signed purchase order have come to an end. The defense sector is required to launch new technology in the field faster and to keep cost down.
– Customers are buying more and more ready-made products instead of performing in-house development.Work is in progress at Galleon. A number of new products will be released during 2011. Just recently the first shipments have been made to customers in Great Britain and Germany. An introduction in the US market is imminent, a market that is expected to make up two thirds of Galleon’s turnover in the future.
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