Overcome the IP Gap That Stops Companies from Sending Their Products into Space

Posted on August 20, 2019 by Matthew Russell

Microchip FPGAs enable this RISC-V softcore system bound for orbit and beyond

Truly, not all FPGAs are created equal. Most are not functional in space.

It takes time to harden devices from space radiation, shielding them electronically and mechanically, building redundant logic, isolating and decoupling components, and much more. That’s why a majority of the processing components on the market are based on “tried and true” PowerPC (PPC) architecture that’s decades behind commercial solutions.

Processors are not prepared to make the trip into space unless they have undergone radiation hardening.
Processors are not prepared to make the trip into space unless they have undergone radiation hardening.

One aerospace company decided on a radiation-hardened FPGA device from Microchip for its products, which would improve the quality of life for space travelers. They initially considered a PPC RTG4 solution but that didn’t seem feasible. A massive amount of packet routing resources would be required just to facilitate the network traffic over the PPC to RTG4 interface efficiently enough.

We had seen how challenging such a setup could be in a previous engagement. Even with a high-speed PCIe bus, an embedded processor can be quickly overwhelmed with interrupts caused by so much packet traffic.

Creating a radiation-tolerant processor is actually difficult enough that a radiation tolerant processor built into a radiation tolerant FPGA is not currently available on the market. However, with a sufficiently large FPGA, it can be done. The RISC-V soft-core used in Microchip’s RTG4 FPGA benefits from the radiation tolerance of the logic fabric because it is literally built from logic fabric.

There is much less IP available for radiation-hardened ARM devices than there is for Power PC.
There is currently less IP available for radiation-hardened devices than there is for those that make up the rest of the market on earth.

DornerWorks’ FPGA team guided the company to direct cut-through routing within the port logic, while softcore processors define and maintain the logic-based routing tables that exist on each incoming and outgoing port.

The design includes:

  • Microchip’s RTG4 radiation tolerant FPGAs rather than a strict software approach.
    • DornerWorks engineers worked directly with the Microchip to stand-up and debug these relatively new chips as well as to properly implement logic features that provide radiation tolerance and mitigation.
  • RISC-V softcore architecture.
    • DornerWorks engineers collaborated with Microchip on the instantiation and debugging of multiple RISC-V softcores in logic.
  • A modified version of Dornerworks own MAC IP to enable data synchronization and reduce latency.
    • The engineers worked with the customer to evaluate the suitability of off-the-shelf MAC IP and determined that porting and adapting DornerWorks own internally-developed open source MAC IP would be a better, more economical option, and provided a shorter path to certification.
IP development doesn't have to prevent companies from developing products for space.
IP development doesn’t have to prevent companies from developing products for space.

Being compatible with the end-user’s commercial devices, the product spans markets and cements the company’s hold on the aerospace market. Moreover, working with DornerWorks gives the company flexible data rights over the finished product, and full ownership of its own innovation.

This customer is finding validation in its design hypothesis using the modern processor architecture they wanted, with custom IP from DornerWorks, rather than settling for a development pathway that could have timed them out of the market window.

They are headed for space with a wider portfolio, and greater confidence.

DornerWorks engineers Dave Verbree and Brian Douglas contributed to this article.

Matthew Russell
by Matthew Russell