Military adopts ISR technology in aircraft, ground vehicles

For reliability, advanced electronics need to be maintained at a stable temperature. This isn’t always possible in extreme military conditions. Isothermal Systems Research (ISR) has found one solution that’s winning awards and military contracts: spray-cooling.

Mechanical engineer Don Tilton developed the technology for a self-enclosed spray-cooling chassis about the size of a small microwave oven. A chemical liquid inside is sprayed onto electronics, dissipating heat on circuit boards and processors through evaporation, keeping the electronics at a stable, uniform temperature. In June 2003, the Defense Department gave ISR a Value Engineering Achievement Award in Washington, D.C., for saving about $300 million in military weapons cost.

The systems are being tested in the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a tank on land and a jet ski in the water. It is also being tested on the Navy’s EA6B Prowler, a tactical jamming aircraft, and in the Air Force’s Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle that flies at 70,000 feet.

The ISR system also plays a part in new equipment being tested to detect sniper gunfire. The weapons surveillance counter-sniper device would have the company’s product inside. “It’s based on an infrared camera that classifies the type of weapon fired,” Tilton says. “We didn’t develop this, but it’s using our system.”

Although the military wants the latest and best, new technology has to withstand extreme conditions, according to Tilton, who, as ISR’s vice chairman, is responsible for strategic planning and technology direction.

“We need to take the latest commercial electronics, package it in a cooling system that will survive conditions the military would put it through, and have them be self-contained so they’re not affected by dust,” he says.

In May the company broke ground for a new two-story, $1.7 million building in Pullman’s Port of Whitman Industrial Park. The facility, funded in part by the State of Washington, is expected to open this fall. One of the expected advantages of the Pullman location is that ISR will be able to engage in collaborative research with engineering programs at both WSU and the University of Idaho.

Company president Jeff Severs reports that the company has had nearly 100 percent growth in revenue in each of the past three years. ISR brought in about $3 million during 2000 and expected to top $22 million in 2003. Last November, Severs announced the company had received a $3 million federal appropriation to help develop cooling solutions for advanced supercomputers.

While about 98 percent of the company’s business is now with the military, ISR is pushing into the commercial market that includes the next-generation semiconductors.

“Major semiconductor companies are now in the development process for the next-generation chips for servers or desktops,” says Tilton. “We’re developing cooling systems for diagnostic testers for these next-generation chips.”

Tilton, a Washington State University graduate (’85 Mech. Engr.), entered the spray-cooling field in the late 1980s. He had a graduate fellowship to work on Star Wars spaced-based defense technology. The team of scientists included Louis Chow, one of Tilton’s WSU professors, who had taken a sabbatical leave to work on the project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Tilton launched ISR in 1988 while at the University of Kentucky, where he completed his doctorate the following year. He selected spray-cooling as the subject of his doctoral thesis. At the time, little was known about spray-cooling and the fundamental physics of how it works, he says. “I felt I could do some pioneering research.”

His brother, Chuck Tilton (’81 Mech. Engr.), ISR vice president and chief technology officer, joined the company soon after its start in Seattle, where Chuck was working for Boeing. Tilton is looking forward to tests of the ISR system in the Air Force’s high-altitude Global Hawk, a scenario reminiscent of his early Star Wars focus.

“It’s a major milestone for us getting our technology in a flying aircraft,” he says. “I think we will eventually get into space, but not until we get about 10 years of reliability on the ground and in the air.”