Miniature Connectors Empower Military Robotics
Robotics have become essential tools for the military. Miniature connector and cable interconnections specified for military robotic applications can be selected or designed to create a system that can endure unique conditions and hazards while providing reliable performance.
Robotics are increasingly essential to military operations. They provide early surveillance information to help commanders plan strategies. They are a key part of autonomous weapons systems and other tools used to assist in battlefield tactics. Sensors, detectors, and complete circuits are being placed farther out on end-of-arm robotics systems, deeper into the sea for surveillance cameras, and immediately behind drill bits in down-hole drilling and logging tools. Surveillance cameras and machine vision robotics are used to collect data as well as assist robots that are traveling unassisted. New camera eyes have evolved to capture, process, and store critical image data. In some cases, they must include circuitry to transmit high resolution digital images back to the control center or to an unmounted soldier in the field.
Reliability in Harsh Conditions
Miniaturized cable and connectors that can function in all environmental conditions are essential to the design of robotic tools that support the military. However, specifying the right components for these high-reliability applications can be challenging. There is no standard connector of the correct size or electrical capability to meet every circuit and module need. Instead, many new connector designs are evolving into “fit-for-application” formats that have the versatility and configurability needed to support new robotic devices in military ground-based activities.
Connectors that are used in military robotics endure a unique set of conditions and environments. They are first subject to shock and vibration during travel to their ultimate use destinations. In use, this equipment is often exposed to extreme temperatures, such as high heat in deserts and sub-zero lows in arctic deployments. Equipment must also be sealed against dust, sand, mud, moisture, and saltwater, as many operations are conducted in harsh environments. System designers must plan for a wide range of potential conditions and anticipate every hazard the equipment will be exposed to in the field.
Industry standard specifications like MIL-DTL-83513 for micro-D connectors or MIL-Spec 32139 for nano-D connectors are the starting blocks connector suppliers use to design connectors for robotics and other equipment used by the military. If changes in the shape or mounting style are needed to make a connector fit a specific application, existing military-quality connectors can be modified to meet the unique needs of the new application and still provide rugged, reliable performance.
In many cases, connector and cable designers must ensure that high reliability interconnect solutions can perform well beyond the standard specifications for advanced or extreme environment use and even survive unknown or unexpected use conditions. Reliability is the constant goal despite these challenges.
Latching mechanisms can be specified to provide the correct amount of security for a connection. Sealing to protect against ingress of liquids or debris is also important. Recent innovations include protection from cyber intrusion and metallic sealing of the whole system. Mine and bomb detection robotics are used constantly in and near the battlefield to protect emerging ground troops.
Sensors have become key to robotics and are integrated into connected systems to collect data on environmental conditions, motion, and other data. Sensors can help detect IEDs and alert personnel to avoid them or remove them from the path ahead.
Robotics are not only expanding in their use in the terranean battlefield, today they are also part of military applications for air and sea. Naval warfare is reaching into the most unexplored terrain, including deep sea regions. Robotic buoys and mini submarines are being deployed for boundary protection and underwater surveillance. In gas pipeline installations, navigation circuits are installed on autonomous vehicles, and monitors are routed through pipelines. IP67/68 water-tight nano-circular connectors have been developed to meet the needs of equipment that performs in high-pressure deep seawater. These connectors remain functional while submerged at a wide range of depths and can survive collisions with other aquatic devices and components. To ensure success in these extreme hazardous conditions, metal connectors are overmolded with watertight sealing materials that adhere to the cable and the connector itself. Features like threaded locking and keying ensure blind-mating to maintain constant performance and signal integrity.
SWaP Remains a Priority
Military devices are often required to be small, lightweight, and powerful (SWaP) to minimize transportation costs and ease soldiers’ burdens. PZN (polarized nano) and nano-circular connectors are rugged, handle signals well, and can support a complex routing network of data within robotized systems. Since the voltages are low and current is minimal in nano-sized connectors, small gauge limp wire assists in winding and routing interconnections around other electro-mechanical elements in the system. Selecting wire tested and approved for high flex and tight bends is always advised. When small round connectors are used, engineers must check for proper mounting to ensure they stay connected in extreme environmental conditions.
Customizable, Configurable Solutions
Instead of selecting mass-produced commercial connectors to pass general specifications, system designers go through a specific check list that focuses on survivability in the worst-case scenarios. Key items could include electrical performance during high heat or when exposed to unique chemicals in the battlefield. Challenges like these place cable and connector companies in a rapid development evolution to include high-speed digital signal processing and communication with new chip technologies. Surviving these scenarios requires advanced materials while using solid modeling systems to speed development of application specific connectors. Frequent reference to the harsh-environmental conditions will keep design on track and ensure better performance. Engineers are encouraged to meet with the connector designer and review requirements to help define the connector. This interaction for development of application-specific connectors and cables has come of age with the coupling of automated machining equipment and 3D printing of first article products. Most often, a solid model can be completed within two to three days for the design team to review.
While there are an infinite number of potential solutions in defense robots, selecting a connector that addresses the needs of the application and environment is key. Micro- and nano-sized connectors are good solutions when weight or size is at a premium. New materials are utilized by designers to deliver the functionality and the reliability to get the job done time and time again, even as robotics advance and applications become more complex. Many times, a custom solution is the best solution and engineers should not hesitate to reach out to their favorite connector company and partner to create that best solution.
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