Why the transport sector is adopting modular computing

7th August 2014
Nat Bowers


The transport industry requires systems to comply with the highest standards of robustness, reliability and availability. By Christian Eder, Director of Marketing, congatec.

Hardly any segment of industrial computer technology is as diverse and demanding as the transport industry. Requirements range from extreme robustness for in-vehicle systems, highest reliability for systems used in railway signalling or traffic monitoring applications, to extremely complex networking for infrastructure and logistics systems. Common demands are always the highest availability and reliability (safety).

This is one reason why such systems (at least the more complex variants) have mostly been realised as modular computer systems. While such rack-based industrial computer systems, based on standards, such as VME or CompactPCI, ticked the box for high quality and availability, they were pricey. For less complex applications or production runs of several thousand units a year they were and still are too expensive. In these cases, time-intensive custom developments used to be the standard solution but, increasingly, scalable and flexible modular computer systems are being adopted.

Standardising means opting for one of the two dominant, highly complementary module standards (Qseven for mobile and semi-stationary applications, COM Express for highest performance and broadest scalability). Turnkey pre-integration of the operating system results in a clear increase in operational safety and reliability of the whole application; potential own risks are replaced by the skill of the partner. While there are already a wide range of long-term available modules with processors from different manufacturers on the market, congatec has expanded the range lately with new product families targeting transport and traffic applications, based on Intel’s new processor families.

Processor requirements

The first two modules support the Atom 38xx series (better known by its former project name ‘Bay Trail I’), including the Celeron volume models J1900 and N2920. The compact Qseven module with 70x70mm2 footprint is extremely sturdy and uses only ceramic capacitors, thereby providing maximum durability even in the most adverse environmental conditions. Regardless of the standard, both modules are characterised by low processor power requirements of only 5-10W TDP (Thermal Design Power); in practice, power consumption for the complete module ranges between 4.5 and about 12W. The computing performance is scalable from one to four cores with frequencies of 1.33-2.0GHz, and the integrated graphics supports up to two independent displays at full HD resolution with HDMI 1.4 and up to 2560x1600px with DisplayPort 1.2. The graphics and computing performance is more than double that of previous models of the second Atom generation.

The high-end module conga-TC87 uses the ‘ultra’ versions of the embedded Intel Core i‑series, starting with the Celeron 2980U up to the i7-4650U. These new dual-core SoCs provide unprecedented application and graphics performance despite low power consumption of just 15W for clock speeds of 1.6-1.9GHz. The top models are capable of increasing the clock frequencies in Turbo Boost mode up to 3.3 (i7- 4650U) or 2.9GHz (i5- 4300U). All modules come with a standardised interface for peripherals and baseboard so that modules of the same type are freely scalable by simply replacing one module with another. The graphics of the mentioned modules based on the new, third generation Atom and Celeron processors are powerful enough to realise performance-hungry touch applications and HD animations. And this even comes with an unbeatably low power consumption compared to standard industrial PCs.

Harsh environments

Things get more exciting when systems need to operate in tough rolling conditions and outside of air-conditioned rooms. Traditional application environments are station platforms, trains, construction or other heavy-duty vehicles. Here, additional requirements include an extended temperature range and often also extreme vibration resistance. To guarantee reliability, it is not only crucial that the module manufacturer is able to produce modules with the required quality, but also that the boards themselves have been designed with the appropriate expertise and that they have been developed and tested to the required standard before delivery. The new conga-QA3 (Qseven) and conga-TCA3 (COM Express) COMs only use ceramic capacitors. Their extremely robust design and the optional version for the extended industrial temperature range make them particularly suitable for tough outdoor usage. Other possible applications include all types of mobile data acquisition devices, optical surveillance and identification systems, as well as signal processing in intelligent sensor and control systems. Thanks to the low power consumption, use in mobile tracking and GPS-based transport tracking systems (freight tracing) becomes possible for the first time. The proven quality of the modules combined with high-quality software integration for popular operating systems such as Linux, Windows 7 and 8, as well as individual embedded operating systems, enables use even in safety-critical applications.

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