FPGAs for space

The FPGAs are considered the future to space electronics, as there is nothing more useful, in terms of robustness, than re-configurable devices. But what about their resistance to space radiation?

Commercial rad-hard ICs today are getting rarer and most public efforts on the area are somewhat deprecated. It proved that demand was lower that the supply, and the way I see it, it is starting to get very complex with all these new technologies popping up, in the race of overcoming Moore’s predictive restrictions.

One of the biggest enemies of the industry is raised costs related to changing the process technology, which led many developers turn to Radiation Hardening By Design. RHBD, on the other hand, has some known inherent disadvantages which include higher power consumption, area penalty and a design headache. This article also describes how RHBD does not answer the problems of lowering the final costs.

The cheapest method seems to be the combination of rad-hard (or not) FPGAs and libraries that automatically make the design hardened. One such library is Design Against Radiation Effects (DARE) which implements techniques of redundancy and voting. These schemes are responsible for increasing the area penalty of the design, but remove a significant amount of burden from the designers.

The question that remains now is not only whether hardening by design techniques are the future to radiation hardening, but whether FPGAs are the future to space electronics. Without being an expert on the subject, I’d say ‘no’ to both. I know it might not qualify as a proper scientific explanation but just as “secure” programming languages (C++, Java) did not exclude the use of C in some specific cases, FPGAs simply cannot replace all electronics. And what’s more, you cannot neglect the advantages of using FPGAs that are hardened using a “by process” method. Generally, examining hardening at the transistor level is the only way to make us use the full potential of the extremely small, lightweight and power-saving electronics that we all hope will emerge.