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Growing pains at ADL as it launches ‘industry’s smallest’ Intel-based embedded PC

Exclusive interview with JC Ramirez, director of engineering, ADL Embedded Solutions

If there’s one problem most companies would be happy to have is the one related to having too many orders to deal with. 

This is the situation ADL Embedded Solutions finds itself in, according to JC Ramirez, the company’s director of engineering and product manager.

In an exclusive interview with Robotics and Automation News, Ramirez says the company is experiencing “serious growing pains”, especially in Germany, where there is “too much work” going on.

ADL has generally been highly regarded and known as a “board company”, specialising in supplying technology for military and defence applications.

But the company has been going higher, into the upper levels of integration with its products in the past few years. 

adl embedded systems

Good technology in small packages

The company’s latest product launch is the ADL EPC 1500, an Intel-based embedded PC designed for rugged environments.

“We been in existence for 20 years,” says Ramirez. “We started in 1994, in San Diego, California. Now, we have offices in Germany as well.

“In the first half of our life we had a strong focus on rugged embedded single board computers for military and defence applications, and avionics, with some medical diagnostic equipment.

“So we were a board company only until about seven or eight years ago.

“What happened – at least here in the United States – is that gradually over time, and organically, we had customers, especially on the military and defence side of things, slowly but surely push us into higher levels of integration.

“In some cases, these were just hardware subsystems – stacks, if you will.

“We’ve been primarily a stackable 104 form factor, so it’s very common that we would ship subsystems in a stack form. But we have customers that wanted the fully integrated product that included the ruggedised chassis for whatever the application might be.

“We’ve grown that part of the business organically at a pretty good rate. Last year, the percentage of the revenue for the systems business was such that we decided to recognise it as a significant part of our business and actually begin to rebrand ourselves in that direction.

“We used to be a board-only manufacturer. Now we are more of a system solution manufacturer, with a strong foundation in single-board computers.

“We still continue to design develop and manufacture a line of embedded computers. And because of our heritage as being military and defence supplier, they’re pretty sophisticated computers.”

When the going gets tough 

adl embedded systems boards

Ramirez says the main difference between the motherboard on a desktop computer and those that ADL develops and produces is ruggedness and durability.

“From an application standpoint, our computers need to operate in tough environments, in a very wide temperature range, for example. All our single-board computers are rated to operate in between -40 to +85 degrees Celsius.

“All of them can be ruggedized for rugged military standards like mil standard 810 here in the United States and all military power requirements like for 61704 for ground vehicles and avionics.”

Ramirez says the company’s background in developing technology for military applications will be useful in its relatively new interest in developing products for the industrial sector.

“As we begin to move into industrial, we are looking to build on that foundation that we have in the military space, in the rugged characteristics of our boards, the extended temperatures and vibration tolerance… there’s a lot of other things that go with doing military embedded single board computers… having revision control, for example, over your firmware BIOS [basic input / output system], your hardware revisions, longevity of hardware, how long you are going to have it available, and so on.

“Then there’s obsolescence management, access to the engineering teams and management teams and design teams, and so on. There’s a lot of value added services behind the scenes that go with the types of computers we supply.”

Industry for point oh

JC Ramirez, director of engineering, ADL Embedded Solutions
JC Ramirez, director of engineering, ADL Embedded Solutions

Ramirez says ADL’s background in military applications stand it in good stead for industrial settings, since many manufacturing and logistics operations require computers that are at once small and durable.

He says: “With our move into industrial, what we’re looking for there are certainly the rugged applications, and we have done quite a few of those. For example, we do a lot of oil and gas, a lot of traffic management, and other kinds of things where you need to hang a camera or monitoring device – for licence plate recognition, for example, or security and surveillance cameras at border crossings and toll booths… these kind of things.

“If you need a computer that can survive in those environments, which can be harsh and even hazardous, then our boards would be perfect for that.

“In fact it’s a step down from the kind of things we have been doing in military and defence, to be honest with you. We also deal with mission-critical kinds of things as well.”

The relatively sedate world of elevator controls is somewhat different from the high-flying world of military drones.

ADL also supplies technology to companies which deal with currency printing, and pharmaceutical vending, the types of applications where you have to rely on that single-board computer to operate reliably over an extended period of time in less than ideal conditions.

Facial recognition on fish? 

fish face
Picture credit: FBI Most Wanted Fish Face

“In terms of robotics,” continues Ramirez, “we worked on projects where we put some of our embedded single-board computers in the Liquid Robotics Wave Glider units.

“My colleague Michael [Michael Guthauser, ADL senior sales engineer] has also worked on defence projects, and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We built mission computers for doing face recognition on fish, for example, with the idea that we can do fish counts in a safe manner without harming the fish.”

There have been reports in the media of dangerous fish which are not native to a particular area entering that area and decimating the local, indigenous fish, and perhaps in time we’ll see a list of “FBI’s Most Wanted Fish”, but that’s probably a subject for another article.

Ramirez continues: “Recently we have been working on commercial drone applications there’s a lot of companies that are doing scientific and survey work using things like lidar, short wave infra-red, hyper-spectral imaging, and so on.

“It’s this middle ground between the enthusiasts’ drones and the military drones which we also have computers on – the middle ground is the commercial drones that are doing agricultural things, scientific surveys, or third world applications.

“We are also in a lot of the technologies that are used in autonomous vehicles – autonomous military vehicles for example. They use the same technology that the commercial sector is using for autonomous cars – lidar technology, for example.”

Pile ’em low, sell ’em expensive 

Ramirez says the culture of ADL is such that the principle of “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” is not one that the company adheres to.

“We are a US company with a certain business model that would never allow us to compete on low cost and volume,” says Ramirez. “We pursue those niche applications that are unique – situations and environments where you can’t put other computers in because of the rugged environment or because of the mission-critical nature.”

To illustrate the point, he mentions the name of a well-known defence company. “We are working with Lockheed Martin on a new generation of autonomous vehicles. The military are trying to make their convoys safer for humans. One way to do that is to pursue the whole idea of autonomous convoys.

“We are also working with a company called Sigma Space which is developing a lidar system which is way beyond the specifications of any others for an autonomous vehicle.

“These guys [at Sigma] have licensed Nasa technology and they’re starting to commercialise Nasa lidar technology. From a high vantage point they can get granularity down to a centimetre.

“So they need a mission computer, they need a payload computer, based on single-board computers such as ours, because they need the performance that you are not going to get from another device so in this case they’re looking for quad-core Intel i7 performance at the same time.”

Big claims about being small

ADL has been promoting its new embedded PC as being the industry’s smallest Intel-based embedded PC. The dimensions are certainly small in scale – at 3.4 inches by 3.2 inches by 1.5 inches.

“We haven’t done a survey of everything that’s out there,” says Ramirez, “but we do know at least in the European market, and for the kind of things you see here in the US, we have yet to see a smaller embedded PC.”

Ramirez provides an insight into the design process at ADL. “A lot of times, the philosophy for how we developed single-board computers is that we start big and we go small. So the PC 104 form factor is 4 inches by 4 inches, but the design group we work with actually starts the development at much bigger form factors.

“They start at the ATX size, which is more close to the typical size of a desktop computer. From there, they reiterate and reiterate and go further and further down to an industrial form factor called three-and-a-half inch by three-and-a-half inch.

“By the time they go down to that size, they’ve already debugged the processor and the chipset, they’ve developed the power supply, they’ve got a basic BIOS up and running… so they have worked the bugs out of those things.

“Then it becomes an issue of optimisation and miniaturisation.”

“Traditionally 104 has been our smallest form factor up until the board that you see inside this little box [the ADL EPC 1500]. So, here in the last nine months, we took it upon ourselves to go even smaller.

“This is not a standard form factor – the board inside is 75 by 75 millimetres. It’s a fully functional single-board computer. It’s got onboard memory, it’s got a couple of LAN [local area network] ports – the two LAN ports are one of the most interesting things for people doing work on the factory floor.

“With robots and other machines, usually you need an uplink to the gateway or network aggregator, or the cloud, and then you need you need enough downlinks to do whatever you got to do on the piece of machinery or equipment.

“So, if you use one of the LAN ports on our 1500 for an uplink, you still have one LAN port left over for whatever you need to do, plus a couple of USB plus a display port panel.

“So the basic box has enough functionality to do a lot frankly.”

Micromanagement through microservers

You might think the Internet has already taken over the world, and in many ways it has. But it still has a long way to go, especially in factories and industrial settings.

Some people are talking about attaching “microservers” to machines in factories to further extend the capabilities of the Internet, or Internet of Things, or Industrial Internet of Things.

These industrial microservers are different to what you might have heard about microservers. The idea is that these microservers are much smaller, rather like the ADL 1500, and they would be compact enough to be housed inside or on robots and other machines, so they can do a lot of the work of programmable logic controllers and other computer technology.

Microservers of this type potentially represent a huge change in the way industrial networks are constructed and managed. For one, they could possibly eliminate PLCs, although no one is really talking about such a dramatic shift yet.

But certainly, bringing computing or processing closer to the machine, or the edge of the network, closer to the sensors, is something many people are talking about.

“This is exactly the kind of thing you what do with our embedded PC,” says Ramirez. “In an industrial environment, on an industrial internet of things network, we are asking the controllers that you would traditionally see on a piece of machinery or equipment to be a lot more intelligent.

“They are required to do a lot more data gathering, they are required to analyse that data, transit, crunch it, and then move it up to the cloud or the control centre, and so on. We are demanding that they be a lot more autonomous, and make decisions locally, instead of having some remote, central computer do all the decision making for it.

“It depends on what you are doing. For example, in the camera case, where we are doing licence plate recognition, or those types of applications, which are very performance-intensive, you are not going to be able to do that with a simple PLC controller.

“You need enough performance locally right at the machine – whether it’s the camera on the robot, or the unmanned vehicle – to be able to do these kinds of things.”

Big data, small computers

Big data is loosely defined as being data that is too large for one computer to handle, which is why we have data centres filled with hundreds if not thousands of computers, and those data centres are networked with other data centres to create a colossal computing monster.

And while data will continue to grow and probably require many computers to aggregate and process, it’s possible that the new generation of small “microcomputers” will do more of the number-crunching and processing locally.

“The big difference between servers in the traditional data centre setting and what we’re doing,” says Ramirez, “is that our computers are not in these server rooms in comfortable, controlled, cool environments. Our embedded PCs have to be out on the factory floor, directly attached or nearby that piece of equipment or machinery.

“We don’t play in these benign environments computers where everything is relatively cool and controlled. Our computers are meant to be out on the factory floor, on the telephone pole, at the top of a windmill on a wind farm, or on a train, gathering data and helping prevent downtime by providing pre-emptive data analysis.”

The return of an old computing culture 

As mentioned, Michael Guthauser, ADL senior sales engineer, is responsible for a lot of the company’s work in robotics and automation, especially in the industrial space.

Guthauser says the new trend in computing reminds him how things used to be at the beginning of the mass computing era. “At the moment, we’re seeing a trend that’s taking computing from a server to a microserver.

“It reminds me of the 80s, when he had the big Wang computers and IBM units in one central office in a building, and everybody would go in there and do their work.

“It was only later that computers and mini-computers dispersed to the offices, where people could use them.

“So I think if you consider things along those lines, you might see it just as a natural evolution.”

Like Ramirez, and others, Guthauser also believes computer processing power is moving closer to where it’s needed.

“You can have it embedded into machine, where you would localise processing because of its size and power consumption,” says Guthauser.

“You could also put embedded PCs out to the edge of the network, where the sensors are located – to detect pressure and temperature and other things… or to use in different areas and in different ways.”

Those spooky Boston Dynamics creations 

As also mentioned earlier, ADL does a lot of work for military projects, and one of the most well-known ones is those robots developed by Boston Dynamics, which move in uncannily natural ways, so much so that many people have been creeped out: canine robots moving like real dogs, and humanoid robots moving like real humans – so realistic, so scary.

“Boston Dynamics used some of our hardware for the early development project,” says Ramirez. “It was really an army exercise. They got the functionality and performance correct, but they couldn’t get the sound levels down.

“The army took a look at it and said, ‘What are we going to do with this? Troops on the ground cannot afford to be with a robot that’s as noisy as this’.

“They tried for a number of years, but they couldn’t get the decibel levels down to a level that was acceptable.”

Quieter life 

One of the other areas ADL where making progress is in the area of commercial drones.

“In the military and defence sector we’ve always worked at the high end of things, small payload computers and so on,” says Ramirez. “In particular, we’ve done a lot of work in the area of machine vision, but not your typical NTSC or PAL kind of things.

“The kind of things the military does… usually, they’re looking for very, very high bandwidth frame grabbers and cameras.

“We’re starting to get a lot of interest in the commercial drones sector for the same kind of things. We’re bringing machine vision technology from the defence and military world to the commercial sector.”

The company also designed a small payload computer for a leading commercial drone manufacturer.

“We did this tiny little computer for a company we can’t mention the name of, but they used it for agricultural surveys – for harvesting, test control, environmental damage, and so on. We think that’s going to be a growth area for us.”

One of the main challenges ADL has is related to how to deal with the volume of data – how to move it around the network and process it, particularly as its PCs get ever smaller.

For Ramirez, whose background includes a stint in the military and a long time in microprocessor industry, the data challenge is one he sounds as if he relishes.

“I used to work for Unisys and AMCC and companies like that,” he says. “Back then, we were designing very high speed transceivers for transmitting and receiving telecommunications.

“We had to aggregate hundreds of thousand of phone calls – the speed had to be very high. Something like 50 and 100 gigabits per second in the early- to mid-1990s. So we had to put a lot of exotic things into our chip designs and get really creative.”

There’s no real change in the pace at which technology is changing, so companies need to innovate if they are going to grow.

For ADL, its order books would indicate room for growth. Moreover, the industrial sector in general is integrating a new generation of hardware, and this may offer ADL even more opportunities to expand into new markets in the US and Europe.