Ruggedized Framework Laptop for Use as Main Mission Control Computer for High Powered Rocketry

Hi All,

On a whim I submitted for the Framework Mainboard Developers program and got selected to get one of the main boards, with the goal being to build a ruggedized (If impractical for day to day usage), Framework laptop.

I’m a member of the Waterloo Rocketry team (you can check us out here: https://www.waterloorocketry.com/). Each year we drive down to the New Mexico desert to launch, where it is both very hot and bright. In addition we also test constantly throughout the year which means plenty of testing outside through the Canadian winter.

All of our simpler ground systems are built into pelican cases and handle the weather just fine, but recently we’ve started doing more interesting things with data acquisition and visualization, which means needing a computer outside. Our little ThinkPad has held up admirably, but just isn’t built for all weather, and so we need a better solution.

This is where the Framework Mainboard comes in. We’re early in the stages of planning out the project, but the general idea will be to build a laptop into a reasonably large pelican case that can handle anything we can throw at it, with the framework at it’s heart.

I’ll try to post more about some of the specific requirements later, but some features we need / plan to include are:

  • Large battery for long outdoor life
  • Very bright display, since it needs to be readable outside in the desert
  • built in Wi-Fi router to support adjacent wireless equipment (I saw a post about turning a framework into a router, that would be really cool to incorporate, but is likely out of scope.)
  • A couple of “Payload Bays”, essentially the big brother to expansion cards. The idea is that systems such as our high powered radios used for communication with the rocket can be mounted into the laptop, and swapped out as needed, just like an expansion card.

There are two big challenges I’m hoping to overcome in terms of mainboard mods with this project. while we could use the USB-C ports for power and video, we really want to leave those free for payloads. As such, I’m hopping to use the battery and display connectors on the mainboard for their original purpose.

  • Has anyone ever tried using a completely dissimilar display on a framework mainboard? the connector is eDP and seems like it might just support other displays with no mods, but I haven’t found anyone who has done this, the closest being a thread here where someone managed to use a very similar to stock, but matte display.

  • Has anyone every tried using the battery connector with a different battery? looking at the pinout I take it there is some sort of smbus interface, which means it expects the battery to be somewhat intelligent. Maybe it would be possible to salvage the BMS off of a pack but use it with larger cells?

I’m curious to hear if anyone has any questions or thoughts about this project, I will do my best to keep this thread updated as the project progresses.

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Love to see it come to life.

Definitely not impractical for day-to-day in my book. There’s multiple sectors in the cilvilian population that do use rugged mobile devices. Mechanics, construction, rescue operation, boating…etc.

Can’t wait.

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Sounds awesome! Looking forward to seeing more on this! Thanks for posting about it!

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Very cool!

:wave: (Cambridge here)

To get better wireless reception/transmission you could replace the antenna assembly with small “rubber duck” (example)-type antennas mounted on a socket drilled through holes in the case. It can be made weatherproof and ruggedized if small enough, I just saw some tiny ones on an IP67 enclosure in my day job.

Probably best to get a small off-the-shelf router with external antennas and mount the antenna sockets on the outside of the case, with reverse SMA extension cables running to the router antenna sockets on the inside of the case. Wire the board into one of the wired ports using something like this so as not to take up any USB ports and to reuse the wireless card slot.

Nirav Patel (founder and CEO) has used a DP to eDP board which worked well and might open up possibilities:

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Huh. I’m in Kitchener. Small world!

Definitely seems like an awesome project! Also interested in the display part.

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I finally got around to getting the main board from our uni’s receiving, looks good but unfortunately it will probably be quite a while till we actually power it on, lots of design work to do first.

After some discussion with our current electrical lead (I’m retired :upside_down_face:) I think we have nailed down a few more details.

Since there is a lot of data we need to display, we plan to build it with 2 or 3 displays, probably into one of the long thin pelican cases.
image
It’s riskier than I’d like but I think we are just going to move forward assuming any eDP panel is compatible with the mainboard if we can get the right adapter cable. and we will probably use one of the USB-C to eDP boards that @Fraoch pointed out above.

As for the battery, there was a bit of discussion here.
Our current plan is that it looks like the SMBus protocol, and the Smart Battery System standard sent over it used for managing battery health are somewhat well documented, so we can probably build our own battery pack with a small micro to monitor it’s health and report over. It will need some more digging, but we remembered that the embedded controller firmware is open source, and after a quick look it seems like we may even be able to mess with the charge rates to better support a larger battery. (Need to check if the hardware can actually handle a higher rate, and if so how much)

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Those are initially intended as rifle carrying cases. Of course, you can store whatever you want. Just saying what they are, so you can look for other options from other brands, not just from Pelican.

Putting this here…so you see what’s been done in this market sector:

https://cotscomputers.com/tag/rugged-workstation/

One other thing to note…since you’ve mentioned desert and heat…so I’ll assume outdoor is your operating environment. You’ll need a panel (or three) that can do 1000nit or more.

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Wow, that is a heck of a laptop!

Yes finding display panels is going to be one of the trick parts, need to find 12-17" DP/eDP panels with high brightness at some sort of tolerable price. I think there are options but it isn’t trivial

i am not sure a pelican case with the lid open will still be considered as a laptop by that point.
I guess you still can put it on your lap and use it, so I guess we have that.
I can totally see it being useful, although maybe not for me atm. Maybe if I am a RC lunatic and I fly drones/drive cars around a park all day I might want one of those.

There are a few problems beforehand. First, cooling – if you want the case to be water-proof, you must need to find a way to cool the system without breaking the seal to the electronics. You can’t just stuff the board into a enclosed space and expect it to not cook-off.
You can get away by mounting the motherboard upside-down in the bottom of the case and make the entire case bottom out of aluminum and carve out channels for heat pipe and cooling fins and then just thermal pad/paste every inch of the board. I think that will be enough passive heat dississipation.
If not, you can make a water-tight “cooling chamber” where liquids (air or water) can be forced through cooling fins with heat pipes with maybe a water-proof fan.
Or alternatively, make an open-loop water cooling system with hose for radiators on the outside.
May be a bit extreme, but that’s a starting point I guess.

I think you can have a few “drawers”, if you would like, on the sides that will open up that will grant access to the ports and allow for equipment to be stored/strapped in to. Of course, they will have gaskets for waterproof. Should not be that hard to make.

Just don’t skip leg day.

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Maybe some Raspberry Pi tomfoolery could help here? I haven’t had the chance to read it but Maybe this could add value to your project?

I look forward to reading more updates about your project!

Best Regards,
Varg

I’ve been working on a rough CAD model, and am planning a big update once that is in a state worth showing, but I’m realizing a lot has been refined since my last update so I should give a bit of an update now.

Case:
After looking at the number of mods that would need to be made to a pelican case, it isn’t worth using an off the shelf case if we are just going to swiss cheese it.
Instead, the laptop will be build into an aluminum and polycarbonate chassis. since we have good access to materials and machinery at our university this will also help keep costs down. This will also make the final product much nicer as it will be a lot more compact, or at least relatively speaking. The current dimensions when closed are about 900x250x75mm. It will also feature constant torque hinges for the display that means the lid will act like any other laptop.

Displays:
I hadn’t ever tested my framework outside, turns out the 450nit display at full brightness is actually probably close to the best you can get from a consumer laptop display. It’s not as ideal as a fancy 1000 nit display, but it’s a lot cheaper, more accessible, and we know it’s compatible, so the laptop will feature 3 framework display panels. (can directly use the work done here)

Router:
After some discussion about our mission control setup, we decided we’d probably prefer to keep this separate. as such it’s been removed from the scope of the laptop. We will probably take an off the shelf router and build a ruggedized enclosure for it, which will serve as a good test of construction techniques we plan to use on the laptop.

Battery:
It’s a complicated one, still weighing options to figure out what will be easiest to implement, while giving good performance.

Thermals:
@Xavier_Jiang you are correct, thermals have been a big concern that has been on my mind for a while now, since we are dealing with just about the worst possible scenario. passively mounting the mother board into the aluminum frame may work, but the issue is the laptop needs to operate in high temperatures (at least 40C), which means the cooling system needs to be very efficient as there isn’t a large temperature gradient to ambient.
I have been looking at heat pipes through a bulkhead wall to a weatherproof fan and heatsink, this is what is done on off the shelf ruggedized laptops, and may be the best option, but is more complex than I’d like. the MVP plan is probably to use powerful well filtered and shrouded fans to drive air through the case, and leave the fan and heatsink alone. Although this seriously effects it’s weather resistance, so I’d prefer to avoid it.

Payload bays:
They will essentially look like mini rack mounted devices that slides in the back of the laptop and have a gasketed seal with many fasteners to hold them in and sealed. this works well as all of our planned payloads will need external connectors for antennas.

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This is a big concern in industrial situations where there’s lots of heat-producing equipment needing to be kept cool, packed into a NEMA 4/NEMA 4X (weatherproof) or even NEMA 7 (gas-tight, explosion-proof) sealed enclosure. Many solutions exist, from heatsink heat exchangers to heat pipe coolers to thermoelectric (TEC) air conditioners to vapour compression air conditioners. Unfortunately many of these solutions are expensive and most are very power-hungry and unsuitable to battery power. But just to get you thinking and pointed in some direction…

Probably the easiest and most effective would be fans, like https://noctua.at/en/products/fan/industrial with lots of filtering, downwards ducting or maybe even labyrinthine ducting to keep water out.

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the problem with heatpipes through a wall is that, well, heatpipes might have a different shrink rate than the surrounding material, which might compromise the seal.
What I was thinking is similar to those cheap “laptop water cooling kit” where you would have hose on the wall instead of pipes, and (perhaps in conjunction with passive cooling through the chassis) you can pipe external radiators to it to help cool it. You can even spec the hose to work with some of those (really cheap and janky) aftermarket coolers. I think it is easier than with weather-proof coolers mounted internally.

There could be a fused/isolated power for the external pump, or the pump can be internal, but you still need fans on the external radiator. Unless you just opt to use a big clean water reservoir (like a pool?) to draw away the heat. The only problem with that is the plumbing might need cleaning afterwards, but should not be a big deal.

Or a lot of airflow.

My rather old Dell E6420 XFR (IP65) handles thermal like this in one of its modes: Fan off until 90c, then burst air to lower the temperature to around 50c, then fan off. It has this rollercoaster thermal profile. However, this only works because it has a fairly large mass to sink the heat into.

Some info here:

FYI, I’ve been running a 2011 i7 (another laptop) for an average of 95c for 36 hours each week, every week…and it’s still rocking. That’s to say, you don’t really need to worry about CPU thermal too much, not even if it runs into the 90c+. The processor will thermal protect itself.

Also, if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t mention any ingress protection requirement related to your anticipated operating environment.

Notice that IP65 is regarding jet spray…not submerge into water.

That is, it’s not about being water tight (in the case of IP65), but about making any seams not directly exposed to take on pressurized water ingress.

I don’t know of any IP67 laptops…only IP67 tablets.

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@Second_Coming Thanks for the info about your laptop, it looks like it also uses the heat pipes through a sealed bulkhead into a separate unsealed thermal chamber.

I do trust the CPU to thermally regulate itself, and the desert gets hot enough that we may run into that regardless. This will essentially be an exercise in trying to cool it as effectively as possible to improve the performance.

As for Ingress protection, since we aren’t designing a product, complying with a specific standard isn’t as critical as ensuring it meets our ingress protection requirements.
Essentially it needs to be IP65, with the additional requirement that it should withstand being placed in very shallow puddles, so the bottom must be fully watertight.

In case you are curious this is the current requirements list:

Number Name Description
1. Environmental
1.1 Temperature The laptop must be designed to handle from -30 degrees to +40 degrees, in direct sunlight.
1.2 Weather The laptop must be able to handle heavy rain and snow, when either open or closed, and must withstand high winds while closed, or open with support.
1.3 Puddles The laptop should withstand being placed upright in puddles up to 20mm in depth
1.4 Sunlight The laptop must be reasonably usable in direct sunlight for short periods of time, and comfortable to use for extended periods when in light shade or better.
1.5 Dust The laptop must be completely resistant to dust. Fans and filters may have only limited protection, but must be easily replaced in the field if prone to damage.
2. Physical
2.1 Weight The laptop should be light enough that it can comfortably be carried for at least 15 minutes when closed.
2.2 Size The laptop should be small enough to be moved by a single person reasonably easily when either open or closed.
2.3 Durability While conducting analysis or testing of this is out of scope, the laptop should be built to be very durable, think surviving being dropped out of the bed of a truck and then dragged 100ft across gravel.
2.4 Ergonomics The laptop should be designed to be reasonably comfortable to use for two hours, such that it can also be used as a regular computer for programming, talking on slack, etc, as required.
2.5 Labelling All Connectors and switches should be clearly and professionally labelled using a method that will withstand the required abuse and conditions.
3. Performance
3.1 Computer Specs The laptop must have plenty of processing power, RAM, and solid state storage, such that it can easily run as a fully capable windows machine.
(Recommended: i5 11th gen, 16GB of RAM, 500GB SSD or better)
3.2 Monitors The laptop must have at least two, preferably three, built in displays, each with a resolution of at least 1080p.
3.3 Battery The laptop should have a battery life of 12h, and be able to reach full charge in 5h when not running to allow short overnight charging.
4. Connectivity
4.1 Networking The laptop must have a standard wifi card, and an accessible ethernet port.
4.2 Human Interfaces The laptop must feature a full sized keyboard, and some combination of a mouse, trackpad, drawing tablet, or similar, with consideration put into usage while wearing gloves. It must also feature an aux jack to allow online calls, speakers, a mic, and a webcam are desirable.
4.3 Payload Bays The laptop should feature two modular payload bays that provide power and data. The first of these bays is currently planned to be used for live telemetry, with the second reserved for future expansion, potentially integrated .
4.4 External IO In addition to previously listed connectivity, and any internal connections to payload bays, the laptop should feature one external thunderbolt port and two USB A ports, with consideration put towards the viability of a built in SD card reader.
4.4 Power The laptop should be compatible with the standardised GSE connector for power / charging, as well as having an AC charger.
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Yeah. The heatsink fins act as deflectors to shield the water jets / droplet projectiles from reaching the seal at speed. By the time the water reaches the seal…those droplets would have their velocity minimized substantially.

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You may not want to do that. Doing so would transfer any shock to the connectors. Unless you can ensure the entire structure has no give, no flex, a completely ridged body (and internal). Even shock with the tiniest displacement (e.g. 0.05mm) could break connectors / joints or cause it to fatigue over time.

Alternatively, you may want to think about a decoupled / roll cage type design, where the internal and external are not tightly coupled, and that material compliance is part of the design.

For thoughts (Zach likely knows this from engineering…so it’s for others really):

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We prefer proper tightening and the use of thread locker, along with proper wire management over any use of epoxy. when given the chance we always use connectors with positive locking mechanisms, for things like USB-C into the main board where we don’t have a choice we may design retention clips. If we have learned anything from years of testing in all sorts of harsh environments it’s that Murphy’s law is real and it will get you, so much like the Framework, reparability is key. particularly, since things tend to go wrong at the worst possible time, being able to conduct repairs with simple hand tools is also important.

As for conformal coating, this is a standard practice for our flight hardware, and we will likely do it to any custom PCBs in the laptop. That being said, conformal coating can mess up hardware in a number of ways, particularly seeping into any and every connector, and reducing heat dissipation on components, as such in the past we have avoided applying it to off the shelf systems in the past since the risk of damaging the system seems to outweigh the potential benefits. If the main board is exposed to any dust or moisture, clearly something has gone wrong with the case design.

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