SBCs are used in a broad sweep of applications—some that involve harsh environmental conditions. Rugged SBCs offer a variety of attributes to serve such needs, including extended temperature range, high shock and vibration resilience and even high humidity protection.
Single-board computers (SBCs) come in all shapes and sizes—with diverse sets of functionalities and performance specs. But not all applications can use SBCs that are designed for benign environments like a hobbyist’s lab or an air-conditioned office. Enter the category of SBC known as “Rugged SBCs.” These products are designed to meet a wide range of operating temperatures, tougher vibration specs and must do without risky failure-prone subsystems like cooling fans.
Over the past 12 months, rugged SBC vendors have rolled out several new products that seek to offer high levels of ruggedness, while still offering the computing speeds, size-constraints and feature sets that are sought after in today’s embedded applications. The boards in this article are confined to SBCs only—module-format boards like COM Express and other module-based configurations are outside the scope of this article.
READY FOR REMOTE DUTY
In an example of those trends, a recent blog  by Technologic Systems describes a scientific research application where its rugged SBC and peripheral products were used enable to remote collection of data under difficult conditions. The computer system needs sensors and actuators to collect and perform actions in a harsh environment. And it needs to be able to reliably function where there isn’t a proper power grid and temperatures swing from one extreme to the next. For a project like this, users need to somehow wirelessly communicate with the device. And these remote areas are likely well beyond the reach of cellular or other far-reaching radio signals.
The application makes use of the global Iridium satellite service for communications. With a constellation of more than 60 low-orbit satellites, it covers the entire globe allowing communications to and from any location you might deploy a device. The application pairs Technologic’s TS-IRIDIUM peripheral with its TS-7800-V2 SBC (Figure 1). This embedded solution uses an Iridium 9602 short-burst data modem, providing access to the entire Iridium satellite constellation. The SBC is powered by a fanless, dual-core 1.3GHz Arm CPU and has tons of GPIO along with several analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and UARTs for gathering sensor data and controlling external components.
According to the company, the TS-7800-V2 and TS-IRIDIUM combined require less than 5W of power to operate, and only consume an extremely low 3mW of power while in sleep mode. SBCs like the TS-7800-V2 can run off of a battery for a long time and are easily powered using solar, wind or water energy. Operating temperatures are -40ºC to 85ºC (industrial temperature range), enough of a range to deploy to anywhere on the planet.
COMPUTE COMPUTING SOLUTION
Although there a lot of Arm processor-based modules on the market, modules are distinct from SBCs in that modules can’t function as a stand-alone computing system. Exemplifying this, in March VersaLogic added a new model to its “Swordtail” product family, the latest in its line of production-ready Arm-based SBCs. Unlike Arm-based modules, the Swordtail is a complete board-level computer, says the company. In other words, it does not require additional carrier cards, companion boards, connector break-out boards or other add-ons to function. It is a production-ready embedded computer.
Available with either the NXP i.MX6 Quad (quad core), or the i.MX6 DualLite (dual core) processors, the Swordtail includes on-board Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a socket for plug-in cellular radios (Figure 2). The new model adds on-board eMMC storage functionality. At home in hostile environments, the compact 95mm x 95mm computer board is rated for operation at full industrial temperature range (-40°C to +85°C). Swordtail also meets MIL-STD-202H specifications for impact and vibration.
The new model includes soldered-down 8GB eMMC flash as a bootable on-board storage medium. This is in addition to the micro-SD socket included on all models in the family. Swordtail boards are well suited for transmitting maintenance or diagnostic information without the need for a wired connection. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios are included on board, and a NimbleLink Skywire socket supports a wide range of cellular and wireless plug-ins.
All Swordtail models feature soldered-on memory and a variety of I/O ports, including wireless interfaces, Gigabit Ethernet with network boot capability, USB 2.0, serial I/O (RS-232), CANbus and I2C interface. In addition, MCOTS (military commercial off the shelf) versions can accommodate up to 32GB of on-board flash storage.
SMALL SBC WITH MINI PCIe
Small rugged SBC designs usually require some trade-offs. For example, expansion is often impractical when a board gets super small. Bucking that notion, in March Gateworks released the newest member of its Newport family of SBCs, the GW6903 (Figure 3). The GW6903 is unique due to its ability to fit multiple PCIe radios in a small form factor typically seen in a single radio design. The 35mm x 110mm SBC features two Mini-PCIe half card expansion sockets. A Gbit Ethernet port and a USB 3.0 port allow for high speed wired connectivity. The board supports -40°C to +85°C industrial operating temperature.
On the GW6903, a U-blox ZOE-MQ8 GNSS GPS receiver with PPS support and MMCX antenna connector is used for positioning. The Gateworks System Controller provides embedded features such as real-time clock, voltage and temperature monitor, fan monitor and control, serial EEPROM and advanced power management with programmable board shut-down and wake-up for remote IoT sensor applications.
A wide-range DC input power supply provides up to 8W to the Mini-PCIe sockets for supporting the latest high-power wireless radios. Input power is applied through dedicated connector or the Ethernet port in a passive power-over-Ethernet (PoE) configuration. Both OpenWrt and Ubuntu Linux Board Support Packages are supported on the Arm Processor. The small size of the SBC allows it to operate in rugged and industrial applications with limited space. An IoT Gateway can easily be created by mating the GW6903 SBC with two half card Mini-PCIe radios.
While small size is sometimes a priority, often a rugged SBC application can require “compute density”—in other words, a compact platform packed with functionality. In an example along those lines, in April AAEON introduced the GENE-WHU6, a subcompact board, powered by 8th Gen Intel Core processors (Figure 4). Despite its compact size, the board offers full-sized functionality, able to deliver the flexibility of a desktop system in a compact form factor, says Aaeon. Designed for tough conditions, the GENE WHU6 features wide voltage input (9V-36V) as well as a wide operating temperature range (0°C to 60°C).
The GENE-WHU6 is built to provide performance beyond its size, powered by 8th Gen Intel Core i3/i5/i7 and Celeron processors (formerly Whiskey Lake) with greater processor performance than the previous generation. The GENE-WHU6 combines this processing power with up to 32GB of DDR4 SODIMM RAM for even greater computing performance. Designed for full-sized functionality, the GENE-WHU6 provides a rich compliment of I/O features, including four USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports, 2x Gbit Ethernet ports and up to two COM ports supporting RS232/422/485.
The GENE-WHU6 also offers flexibility with display ports, featuring HDMI 2.0, VGA and LVDS. Users can also make use of the expandability of the GENE-WHU6 with a full-sized Mini PCIe slot, and two M.2 slots (one 2280 B Key and one 2230 E Key). The GENE-WHU6 supports AI accelerator modules, such as AAEON’s Kneron KL520 NPU modules or the AI Core X family featuring Intel Movidius Myriad X.
RUGGED NANO-ITX SBC
For its latest rugged SBC, American Portwell Technology has also gone with the Intel’s Whiskey Lake processor. In March, Portwell launched its NANO-6051, a Nano ITX form factor embedded board featuring Intel 8th Gen Core i7/i5/i3 processors up to 4 cores/8 threads with a low 15W thermal design power (TDP), formerly codenamed Whiskey Lake (Figure 5). The processors integrate Intel Gen 9.5 graphic engine with 24 execution units that delivers enhanced media conversion, fast frame rates and 4K Ultra HD (UHD) video and provides significant 3D multimedia performance.
Operating with a TDP of 15W and a compact footprint (120mm x 120mm), the NANO-6051 adopts a heat spreader as an efficient thermal solution for space-limited environments that makes it suitable for fan-less systems and can fit specific design configurations with performance and low-power requirement, especially where space is at a premium, says the company.
The NANO-6051 features DDR4 2400MHz non-ECC SO-DIMM up to 32GB and storage interface 1 x M.2 Key M 2280 socket for SSD. For functionality extension, it provides 2x USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10Gb/s) on rear I/O and 4 x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gb/s) on board header to ensure fast data transmission with low-power consumption. 1x M.2 Key E 2230 socket provides wireless module connectivity including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which can make it an ideal solution for communication and IoT applications.
Intel I210AT and Intel I219LM Ethernet controllers provide dual Gbit Ethernet LAN access via the two RJ-45 connectors. The RS-232/422/485 port is selectable by BIOS adjustment. The Intel Gen 9.5 graphic engine supports dual mini DisplayPort (DP) on rear I/O with resolution up to 4096×2304. It provides a selection of multiple connections such as displays, graphic cards, cameras, storage and more on the same system.
Gone now are the days when a compact SBC couldn’t be designed to meet harsh environment. Components like large heatsinks used to be a limiting factor in such boards, but advances in cooling and chip integration has smoothed away such barriers. Along just those lines, in February WinSystems announced its latest Pico-ITX SBC. Based on the NXP i.MX8M application processor, the ITX-P-C444 is designed to combine performance, features and size—without trading off operating temperature dependability (Figure 6). This standalone, rugged SBC also represents the company’s first product introduction that provides integrated access to Qt Embedded Enabled BSP, easing and accelerating software development.
The ITX-P-C444 includes dual independent Gbit Ethernet ports, a USB 3.1 channel, three USB 2.0 channels and two serial ports with RS232/422/485 transceivers. An MIPI-CSI camera interface and 8 GPIO are also built-in. The Mini-Card slot can be used to add more than just I/O modules. One option for additional processing is the Google Edge TPU, which can be used to further enable AI. The Qt Embedded BSP option allows for rapid prototyping and cross-functional development, shrinking time to market. It also supports migration of existing applications in the Qt ecosystem by eliminating the low-level hardware concerns.
The SBC is specifically designed for severe operating environments, including temperature extremes from -40°C to +85°C. The Pico-ITX form-factor design features ample memory that enhances both processing and thermal performance in soldered-down 4GB LPDDR4 RAM. Up to 32GB eMMC is also onboard, as is a TPM 2.0 module to enable root of trust and security. The ITX-P-C444 is powered by a wide range 9VDC-36VDC input. It features a fanless design with heat spreader, so there’s no need to attach an external heatsink or fan.
Achieving high-performance processing in an SBC design can be tricky. That’s because, the faster the processor, the higher the need to dissipate power in the form of heat. For its part, Avalue Technology tackled those challenges in its EMX-WHLGP, an SBC based on Whiskey Lake U Intel Core and Celeron Processors that the company released in March.
The 8th Gen Intel Whiskey Lake U Core SoC i7/i5/i3 and Celeron BGA onboard processor, leverage the power efficiency of Intel’s 14nm microarchitecture to deliver double-digit performance compared to the Kaby Lake generation of processors (Figure 7). The board offers a future-proof platform for intelligent solution development and higher turbo clocks. EMX-WHLGP is a Mini ITX form factor SBC, offering Triple display: two HDMI plus one HDMI switch with one dual-channel LVDS (default LVDS) by Chrontel CH7511 in the resolution of 1920×1080.
The EMX-WHLGP features extended temperature tolerance of -20°C to +60°C (with heatsink and heater attached, 0.5m/s air flow speed testing) and fanless design, which is suitable for industrial and outdoor applications under harsh operating conditions. It is designed with high temperature resistant components and automatic heating by EC and heater when operating temperature is below 0°C, which takes around 8 to 10 minutes for EMX-WHLGP to boot up from -20°C. Heatsink with heater for extended temperature is optional for ordering.
EMX-WHLGP provides a variety of expansion interfaces. Using the board’s PCIe x8 golden finger interface, the board offers 1x PCIe x1, 1x PCI-e x4, 1x SATA III and 1x USB 2.0. Embedded developers can either design their own daughter board easily, or transform the form factor into Micro ATX by connecting with a Riser card.
REVERSED CPU DESIGN
For several of its recent embedded board designs, Axiomtek has taken a “Reversed CPU” design approach. The reversed onboard CPU is attached on the rear side of the board to aid with heat dissipation and offers flexibility for easy system integration especially in space-constraint enclosures. Announced in July, Axiomtek’s latest SBC design with that approach is its PICO52R, a 2.5″ Pico-ITX motherboard powered by the 8th Gen Intel Core i7/i5/i3 or Celeron processors (Figure 8).
The embedded SBC features triple-display capability with one DisplayPort, one HDMI and one LVDS for multi-display applications. Leveraging the Intel Active Management Technology 11, powerful CPUs and rich I/O interfaces, the high performance PICO52R provides high-precision services for edge computing, machine vision and industrial IoT applications.
The high-performance PICO52R has one 260-pin DDR4-2400 SO-DIMM for up to 16GB of system memory. The small form factor is feature-rich with two Gbit Ethernet ports with Intel i219-LM and Intel i211-AT, two RS232/422/485 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports and one M.2 Key E slot for wireless communications. For reliable operation, the PICO52R has a watchdog timer to detect and recover from computer malfunctions and has hardware monitoring features to monitor temperature, voltage, fan speed and more. The rugged Pico-ITX motherboard has an operating temperature range of -20°C to +60°C (-4°F to 140°F) and a +12V DC power supply input with AT Auto Power On.
3.5″ RUGGED SBC
The 3.5″ SBC form factor has become a popular format for rugged embedded boards. As a sort of “defacto” standard, the 3.5″ size meets the needs of a wide variety of applications. With its latest rugged 3.5″ offering, in March Kontron introduced its updated 3.5″-SBC-WLU product, a 3.5″ SBC based on 8th Gen Intel Core U-Series processors (Figure 9).
Operating temperature specs are 0 to 60°C and humidity 0% to 95%. The new version provides up to 12× higher WLAN speed than conventional devices, depending on the model, thanks to the Intel Wireless Access Point, which is integrated in the M.2 Key E slot via the new Intel CNVi interface. Further M.2 slots can be used to extend SSD memory via Key B and Key M, or to extend WWAN (via Key B, for example: 3G, 4G or future 5G).
The board supports numerous interfaces, including two fast DDR4 SO-DIMM memory sockets for up to 64GB, a high-speed SATA 3.0 socket and M.2 expansion slots. It offers advanced connectivity through two Gbit Ethernet interfaces, four USB 3.1 (front panel), four USB 2.0 (via headers), two RS232/422/485 for USB and Serial Device Connection, as well as 8-bit DIO for device and signal control. The Realtek ALC662 audio codec offers audio via 2 speaker out as well as one line-in, line-out and mic-in via headers.
Graphics features on the 3.5″-SBC-WLC include support for 4K Ultra Definition Video, 1x LVDS and 2x DP++ for triple display support through Intel UHD Graphics 620/610 GPU, including HDMI and DVI support without active adapter. An integrated Trusted Platform Module (TPM) V2.0 increases the security of devices.
A more recent 3.5″ rugged SBC offering comes from Advantech. In June, the company announced its latest 3.5″ SBC, the MIO-5393 powered by 9th Gen Intel Xeon/Core. Featuring a compact 146mm x 102mm design, this SBC offers rich I/O functionality and domain-focused features like CANbus (Figure 10). Advantech’s MIO-5393 features the innovative Quadro Flow Cooling System (QFCS) thermal solution for excellent temperature management. This advanced high-efficiency cooling solution facilitates extreme computing performance. This thin and light thermal solution also features a silent operating smart fan, enabling CPU heavy loading without throttling at 60°C (140 °F).
MIO-5393 utilizes two different TDP (45W/25W) SKUs with active coolers or passive heatsinks to support operations in harsh temperatures (-40°C to 85°C). Advantech’s advanced thermal-solution leverages four symmetrical screw holes around the CPU to dramatically lower thermal resistance and dissipate heat quickly. Advantech’s 3.5″ SBC effectively solves the temperature and thermal issues confronting outdoor kiosks, railways and crucial factory environments.
According to Advantech, the board is the first 3.5″ SBC to feature the latest 9th Gen Intel Xeon/Core with six core computing power. This new generation SBC doubles USB speed by utilizing USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10Gbps). Using a built-in Gen9LP graphics engine, MIO-5393 supports three simultaneous displays with 48-bits LVDS (eDP optional), HDMI (up to 4k at 30Hz) and DisplayPort (up to 4k at 60Hz). MIO-5393 supports up to 32GB/64GB memory size dual-channel DDR4 2400MHz. Advantech’s platform features a M.2 M-Key 2280 slot for supporting NVMe/PCIE Gen3x4 PCIe SSD storage.
 “TS-IRIDIUM Global Communications Solution”, by Derek Hildreth, from Technologic Systems blog
AAEON | www.aaeon.com
Advantech | www.advantech.com
American Portwell Technology | www.portwell.com
Avalue Technology | www.avalue.com.tw
Axiomtek | www.axiomtek.com
Gateworks | www.gateworks.com
Kontron | www.kontron.com
Technologic Systems | www.embeddedarm.com
WinSystems | www.winsystems.com
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • SEPTEMBER 2020 #362 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article
Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine 6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.