Expanding the Competitive Edge

The AFA 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference is in full swing and we will be bringing you the latest news every day. 

This year’s conference theme is “Expanding the Competitive Edge.”  AFA Executive Vice President and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg noted that companies who are expanding the competitive edge are looking beyond the horizon and helping the industry think innovatively, creatively, and specifically to the future.

AFa Conference Floor
AFA 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference

Richard Branson, the Virgin Group founder, billionaire businessman, and space entrepreneur kicked off the conference today with a keynote address on thinking outside the box.

Branson talked about his goal for Virgin Galactic, which is to make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamed about previously, and in doing so bringing positive change to life on Earth. Their new space port in New Mexico will be among the first to offer commercial space travel.

Branson also discussed their work with Virgin Orbit and announced that it will launch a small satellite from Guam for the Air Force in the next few months using a rocket carried by a 747 aircraft. The Guam launch would be the first Air Force launch for Virgin, via its US subsidiary VOX, under DoD’s Space Test Program. 

This test is a vital step forward in Virgin Orbit’s plan to perfect the ability to replace downed low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in a day or less—a capability that could make satellites less desirable targets of cyberattacks. Branson said that this capability can also make networks more reliable by eliminating the need for network disruptions when LEO satellites fail.

When asked how he continues to expand the competitive edge for his companies, he said,

“My attitude in life is giving everything I have to solve a problem. I get enormous satisfaction trying to achieve something that has never been achieved before.”

At Mercury’s booth #126, our team will talk about how we are focused on solving tough computing challenges, from secure AI-enabled processing solutions to safety-certified avionics subsystems, and more. We are talking to airmen coming directly from real-world operations as well as to defense companies looking for innovative approaches. The exchange of ideas and joining of creative minds gives us the opportunity to develop more advanced solutions that meet the needs of warfighters today and into the future. Like Branson, we too are driven to give our all for our customers to help them solve their toughest challenges. 

AFA Conference - Mercury solving thoughest challenges
What are your toughest challenges?
Bring them to Booth #126

Check back with us tomorrow. There is a lot going on and we’ll be bringing you another update from the show floor.

Multi-Domain Operations: Becoming Today’s Swiss Army Knife

Defense News recently released their annual Outlook . If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a great read consisting of a few dozen essays by world leaders looking at the trends and issues, like multi-domain operations, that will most impact the global defense industry.

This year, one essay in particular jumped out at me. General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, wrote an insightful article about multi-domain operations. His analogy of lanterns from the Revolutionary War is very apt, and it helps put into perspective the challenges we face today. Perhaps this quote from his essay is most concise:

“Whoever figures out how to quickly gather information in various domains and
just as quickly direct military actions will have the decisive advantage in battle.”

When General Goldfein talks about multi-domain, he is referring to the military’s work on land, at sea, in the air, in space and in the electromagnetic and cyberspace realms. Traditionally, most defense forces have focused on one domain at a time – in silos. Hence, why we have the Army (for land), Navy (for sea) and Air Force (for air). But domains are not mutually exclusive. They need to work interactively in order to gain the most benefit. As was quickly discovered as early as WWI, air supremacy can significantly improve land operations.

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Lessons in RF Manufacturing from a Chicago Sausage Factory

People often say RF is black magic and it sometimes feels that way. I remember one evening I was called down to the production floor to help troubleshoot a technical problem found during swing shift. There was a product going through final test and it would only pass if held at a certain angle. At first I was doubtful that this was the case, but I held it in my hands, watched the performance on the network analyzer, rotated the unit, and saw the performance degrade. First we suspected the VNA cables, but a golden unit was solid regardless of its orientation. Then we performed the standard “shake while listening for something rattling test” but couldn’t hear anything—plus the repeatability seemed to suggest it wasn’t due to FOD. X-ray imaging didn’t yield any clues. Eventually, we had to send it off to de-lid, found nothing wrong, and after real-seal the performance was stable. The best theory we had was that the problem was due to flux improperly cleaned from a feedthrough.

It was this type of problem that drew me to RF engineering in college. Circuits that only worked when you placed a finger in a certain spot. The gain reduced by the microscope light. While it felt like black magic we all knew that in reality it was physics too complicated to be fully modeled. To this day, I still find these problems fun until all of a sudden a revenue commitment is missed.

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Innovative RF Engineering Teams

In this series of blog posts I will explore various topics in the growing space that is the intersection of the commercial communications industry and the RF/Microwave defense industry. Gone are the days of plentiful cost-plus, multi-year development contracts and in their place we find an emerging competitive landscape. Nimble, technology-focused companies are taking the tools ubiquitous in the fast-paced world of commercial businesses and applying them to a new set of challenges found in the defense and aerospace industries. Just as commercial communication standards fueled rapid growth by allowing the re-use of modular components, disruptive companies are now working to apply these same methods to the RF defense industry. However, to be successful is no easy task. With a much smaller available market, these innovative companies need a thorough understanding of current and future market trends in order to define their technology road-map. We are now in a critical time for the defense industry with massive growth opportunities for innovative companies and a slow decline for those who fail to adapt.

It’s become a common story throughout the RF defense industry. The same conversations are heard in the lunch room, whispered in cubicles and discussed over dinner after a conference. The subject matter experts are retiring. Other engineers are leaving to build the next smartphone app. It’s becoming harder and harder to recruit the next generation of engineers with competition from companies like Google and Facebook. The once cutting-edge RF/microwave design houses are limping along by making minor updates to legacy programs, and in the process, keeping their limited engineering resources busy with paperwork.

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