Key to the skies

Article Elix System for LEMO Connected magazine 21

Mission data for air operations is becoming increasingly extensive and sensitive. 

A startup has developed a new solution “Engineered in Switzerland”, for simple and easy data transfer: the fastest, most robust USB flash drive on the market, with the largest storage capacity.

Mission prepared, crew briefed. Maps and other useful data loaded; helicopter takes off. Everything is recorded in flight. To be analysed live or upon return. Data, data and more data. 

Vehicles – in particular flying vehicles – have become increasingly intelligent” points out Eric Chaubert, CEO of Swiss SME Elix Systems. “They carry on board an increasing number of sensors, mostly cameras, which enable them to perceive the environment more effectively, to detect obstacles, identify and track targets, etc.” 

Transforming these video signals into useful information on the fly requires dedi cated chips, massive computing power, algorithms, artificial intelligence … which is exactly the speciality of Elix Systems. Created in 2020, the company designs mission computers, including the SummitX range, which has won over some of the big gest names in aeronautics. 

A niche market, that is growing and chang ing rapidly, to meet the needs arising from the widespread use of videos and artificial intelligence. 

With its latest product, the startup offers a distinctively different solution: RS Key is a removable USB key with an extremely robust and fast dual interface which sim plifies mission data transfer between crews and aircraft. The solution arose from a spontaneous proposal when Elix was install ing its mission computer in helicopters. 

The operator, Airbus Helicopters, requested to connect them to a proprietary LEMO high-speed USB connector on the dash board. “Their idea was to enable plugging in another computer to transfer data from our mission computer. We suggested that they do this with a removable support, which seemed more practical!” 

All we had to do was develop the support. 

At first glance, nothing could be simpler than a USB key. However, nothing is simple in professional applications, especially those in defence and aeronautics. The support had to be rapid to ensure the smooth trans fer of large data sets (including maps). Since mission data is sensitive, an ultra-reliable encrypted connection was also necessary, a challenge, given the constraints of avion ics and high-speed transfer. Moreover, this USB key had to be able to resist tempera ture variations, shock, vibration, and other rough handling it may be subjected to on board an aircraft or in the pocket of a police man or a soldier.

Since the starting point was a LEMO con nector, Elix turned to the Swiss group (see A fantastic leadership!) immediately. Together, they designed a new product within a few months, based on the LEMO T Series (an IP68 miniature connector designed for outdoors applications).

Article Elix System for LEMO Connected magazine 21

The result: a support just under 9 cm long and 2cm at its widest, with a metal lanyard for hanging and another for easily unlocking the Push-Pull connection. It features a LEMO connector on one end and an USB on the other, both fitted with metal caps. In total, it weighs a sturdy 85 grammes, clearly not the USB key for the average person.

Its performance is exceptionally reliable. When closed, the RS key remains waterproof. It withstands temperatures ranging from -55°C to +85°C (-40°C to +70°C in use) and operates at altitudes up to 7600m. It resists vibration, electromagnetism, radiofrequencies, shock and crash, humidity and is certified to DO-160 and MIL-STD-810 standards. Well protected in its envelope, there is a Flash memory of 128 GB to 512 GB and the data transfer speed of a USB 3.1 Gen1, which is still rare in professional 

“A fantastic partnership!”

How does it work?
“Simplified every step of the way!” ensures Eric Chaubert. Once the mission is on a desktop computer on land, the data is transferred to the RS Key via the standard USB-A port. The caps are then screwed on and the pilot can safely take it. Once on board, the pilot unscrews the LEMO connector cap, plugs the key into the dashboard and transfers the data. In flight, the SummitX can record the data captured (video, sound, logs, etc.) on the key, either live or at the end of the mission. After landing, the key is plugged in the desktop USB-A port - as simple as that. 

In the event of a crash and emergency evacuation, the key is simply pulled out and pocketed. Easily and quickly. Depending on the scenario, instant data erasure can also be activated. Elix launched its RS key on the market this spring. It is available to order for small vol umes (around fifty units per customer). The startup plans to increase its production to several thousand units a year.

However efficient, this first model is only a starting point. Additional versions are already on the Swiss startup’s roadmap with larger capacities, an even higher transfer speed (10 Gb/s), as well as other pairs of connectors. “Elix is also a design office, so we are open to develop customised vari ants for our customers.”

Integrating specific functions?
Why not? The startup plans to turn the device into an authentication key: if it’s disconnected from the helicopter’s dashboard, the data stored on the mission computers remains inaccessible. Practical for ensuring confidentiality in the event of a crash or capture. Developed for avionics, the device also targets a wider market, explains Eric Chaubert. “Defense, wearables, medical or even broadcast. The RS Key is an ideal solution anywhere sensitive data needs to be transferred simply, quickly and securely!” 

Why did you choose a partnership with LEMO?
José Pont, project director: Our customer had chosen LEMO connectors, so it was only natural to create the USB key with LEMO. Its connectors are renowned for their robustness and reliability, so that was a given. Moreover, LEMO had already USB 3.1 high-speed solutions in its catalogue, so everything was there to get started.

How did the partnership go?
For an SME, it is quite complicated to initiate such a partnership. Often, you may not be considered important enough for your major partner, and you might have to work with customer support without decision-making authority and lacking certain skills. So, there are quite a few obstacles to overcome. But none of that with LEMO! Their customer support is responsive and competent, with decision-making capabilities. Our collaboration with them was ideal: iterations were swift, the process was seamless, and adaptation and improvement cycles were fast and efficient! We look forward to our continued successful cooperation!