Sturdy containers offer shelter from the storm for network equipment
The concept of rugged equipment has expanded to include structures that can house technology components essential to battlefield communications
Making relatively small electronics rugged enough for use in extreme environments, such as the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan, is a major challenge. But what if you need more than a laptop computer with you, perhaps a whole network operations center — from loading the equipment on a plane, truck or helicopter to dropping it in the middle of nowhere?
That's the sort of task that VT Group, formerly known as VT Milcom, has performed several hundred times during the past four years. “We got into the containerized shelter business initially about four years ago,” said Scott Bohman, VT Group’s general manager. “We got involved in some air traffic control solutions being installed in Iraq for the Air Force and then worked some communications shelters with [Air Forces Central] for overseas work, [and we] did a couple of shelters on the Iraqi oil platforms in the Persian Gulf.”
Those deployments have been the best possible laboratory for improving the design of rugged, mobile shelters, which are prebuilt, environmentally controlled enclosures that serve as everything from Secure IP Router Network gateways for terrestrial radio networks to full satellite communications facilities. The shelters are built from standard steel Conex shipping boxes or International Organization for Standardization Naval Air Systems Command (ISO Navair) air freight steel-framed aluminum shipping containers.
The field has been the main proving ground for those systems, Bohman said. “It's by trial and error, mostly. We haven't taken them into a chamber and done any testing to them — other than the one that got hit by the mortar round.”
That shelter took a direct hit in Iraq, said John Zitnick, shore department manager at VT Group. “But the thing stayed up and running,” he said. “Fortunately for us, [the mortar round] didn't explode. But it knocked the shelter four inches off its foundation, and everything stayed running. So…everything we engineer is built so that it can take the shipment, plus a potential hit.”
Zitnick said the biggest engineering challenge is usually making the internal structures of the containers rugged so they can withstand shipping. “Once we're done with them here, they're broken down and ready for shipment. They'll leave here most of the time by truck, go to an Air Force base and be air transported by a C-5 or C-17. So [when they] get to the theater, they could be put on a truck on a dirt road. So before we even get them to the site and set them up, we have to make them so they can withstand" the transport.
The containers are modified to better handle rackmounted systems that are bolted down to ensure that everything is still in place after being transported by truck, airplane, ship or helicopter to their destination.
Modular tech centers can be made from two, three or more interlocking shipping containers. Each center can have environmental controls that help keep the electronics inside cool in the most hostile environments — and keep dust, dirt and sand out of them.
“Some of these, even though they're only 20-foot containers, have either two three-ton or two five-ton air conditioning units in order to withstand some of the environments they're going into,” Bohman said. “The way they work is they slide into the container for shipping. Then when you get them on-site, you slide them out to maximize the floorspace.”
All of VT Group’s shelters are built from 20-foot or 40-foot standard steel Conex cargo containers or from 20-foot aluminum and steel ISO Navair air-freight containers. “For a lot of these shelters, although their containers ship independently, the side panels come off so you can basically put them together,” Bohman said. “So you could have three 20-foot containers all adjoined, and you would have a gasket and a clamping system to keep the outside environment outside.”
VT Group doesn’t make the electronics inside the containers rugged. “We're doing the ruggedization in terms of installing the racks, the power, the grounding, the cable trays,” Zitnick said. “We rack and stack the equipment, but these shelters are varied systems. Some of them are main distribution frame telecommunications shelters, with copper cable coming in; some are network transfer nodes, some are for tactical communications. Pretty much anything to do with communications is what we're building.”
After the containers arrive in the field, VT Group’s employees help set up the shelters and train military personnel. Some of their experience in the field has led to improvements in what VT Group ships. Although the first shelters VT Group built followed Air Force engineering specifications, “what we have now was engineered by our own team in-house,” Bohman said. “We have had some containers that have come back for refurbishment, and we've learned some stuff. Some of the containers from four years ago — we've seen places where we could do things better.”
One of those improvements was the heavily reinforced floor system now used to mount racks of equipment. “I think early on, we didn't reinforce the floors because the Air Force's design didn't call for that,” Zitnick said. “And we found that some of the cabinets in shipment seemed to loosen up. That's where we came up with that heavy-duty floor system.”
Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.