An Electronics Evolution


I’ve been associated with the pyrotechnics industry now for over 30 years. It was August 1989 when I was stationed at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland that I drove out to the Eastern Shore to attend a summer class at Washington College. Dr. John Conkling was teaching a class entitled “The Chemistry of Pyrotechnics.” Dr. Conkling, a past executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, has made fireworks his life passion. While the colors you see in firework shows certainly have become brighter and bolder due to new chemical mixtures, the basics associated with pyrotechnics are still pretty much the same. You want yellow? Think sodium. Blue? Copper. And red? Strontium. I always remember that one just because to be honest, I really don’t know of many other uses for strontium!

Of course, all those colors that we like to ooh and aah at don’t just happen because we’ve got the right fuel and the right oxidizer mixed in the right ratios. We need energy input into that chemical mixture to get things going. It is this technology that differentiates PacSci EMC from many other companies in the relatively small energetics industry because we live at that interface when an electric signal in gets converted to a pyrotechnic signal out. We use that pyrotechnic signal to perform some work – to initiate, to detonate, to separate, to generate, to actuate – that supports our customers’ mission success. Our industry has a reputation of adopting dramatic technological change slowly. I don’t say this disrespectfully – proven performance and heritage make a critical difference when you want to reduce the risk that something could potentially occur that’s unexpected.

As ordnance engineers, we’re trained in fact to design for extremely unlikely scenarios as a part of ensuring we have design margin so that things don’t turn catastrophic. But while the chemistries associated with pyrotechnics may not have changed that much over the past 30+ years, how we deliver those electric signals in certainly has.

Just think about it yourself. The electronic designs of the 1980’s were pretty advanced as compared to the 1960’s, but we’re here in the year 2020. It’s no longer an analog world that any of us live in, but a digital one. The B-52 Stratofortress will always be an impressive airframe, but it’s not flying today on the same avionics that it had back when it first flew in the 1950’s. It’s those very same avionic upgrades that keeps a 50-plus year old aircraft not just relevant, but still fearsome. By extension, I believe the pyrotechnic industry is also enabled by our underlying electronic and digital advancements.

The simple analogy I often use when I tell people about this involves light bulbs. Think about the last time you went to go buy one. They’re really not the same anymore – in fact, it’s getting pretty hard to find a standard incandescent bulb. You know – filament based, just like Thomas Edison first conceived of them. Nowadays, it’s all about LED based bulbs. The electric input signal is the same, as well as the output – in this case, emitted photons. But you can do so much more with those LED-based bulbs. Through the miniaturization of electronics design through the decades, we can now incorporate circuitry on the boards with those LED’s that allow you to talk to them through the internet to turn them on, turn them off, or even change color.

The bridgewire in a pyrotechnic device can be likened to a filament in a light bulb. It’s possible today to substitute bridgewires with other means to convert an electric signal to a pyrotechnic signal out. There are exploding foil initiators (EFI’s), and semiconductor bridges (SCB’s) that – when combined with the right chemical mixture – can also perform the very same pyrotechnic work as a bridgewire device. There are also Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (LASER) based initiation systems. In this case, a LASER diode generates high intensity light from the electrical input signal to ignite the pyrotechnic composition and subsequently provide the necessary work output. We can incorporate circuitry that controls the initiation of these EFI’s, SCB’s and LASER Diodes with all the same safety protocols that we have with our bridgewire devices. If different or more stringent protocols must support that customer’s mission, we can change the board design to allow this without changing the basic pyrotechnic mechanism. Similarly, we could even use these same boards in line – think of it as a switch – to control even our standard bridgewire initiators and detonators.

The first uses of these integrated electronic-pyrotechnic (IEP) designs has been in missile applications here at PacSci EMC. It wasn’t just recently either – we’ve been in production of our IEP-enabled ignition safety devices for several years now. This very same electronics capability helps to sequence dozens of initiation events today as a part of our nation’s strategic missile defense initiative. We leverage that same electronics expertise and heritage to release dozens of satellites in low-earth orbit as a part of a constellation. In this example, we’re responsible for the control and sequencing of hundreds of initiators. We even have our IEP designs down-hole to help with oil field exploration.

PacSci EMC will always be a part of mission success at that interface of electric signal in-pyrotechnic signal out – and as the electronics capability evolves allowing for greater customization, greater control and potentially even greater safety, we will be at the forefront securing our own legacy.