Pentagon developing next-generation helicopter equipment
December 13, 2011
By Kris Osborn
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 13, 2011) -- The Army-led science and technology Joint Multi-Role Demonstrator effort to design a next-generation vertical-lift aircraft by 2030 is heavily focused on leveraging advanced electronic and avionics capabilities, service officials explained.
Sensors, electronics, avionics and cutting-edge types of mission and survivability equipment are a large part of the science and technology, or S&T, equation, said Dave Weller, science and technology program manager, Program Executive Office - Aviation. The goal is to design a vertical-lift aircraft that is faster, more capable and better equipped than today's fleet.
As part of the JMR Technology Demonstrator Phase 2, the Army's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, or AMRDEC, at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., has sent a Nov. 9 formal Request for Information, or RFI, out to industry. The purpose is to solicit feedback on developmental solutions and emerging technologies in the areas of Mission Systems and Aircraft Survivability Equipment.
"Our notional strategy with this RFI is to look at potential technological solutions which can be integrated onto our flight demonstrator aircraft in the 2018 time frame," Weller explained.
Overall, the next-generation Mission Equipment Package, or MEP engineered for the JMR will need to accommodate the capabilities and parameters of the new Air Vehicles advanced in Phase 1 of the program, said Malcolm Dinning, AMRDEC Aviation Liaison for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
"The Phase 1 Air Vehicle design will provide a new platform, but the ability to be operationally effective depends upon the Mission Equipment Package -- such as targeting, weapons package and sensor capabilities," said Dinning. "As we start looking at vehicle speeds that are well above current aircraft, we cannot simply add large sensor pods onto the aircraft. We have to figure out how to integrate these sensors and antennas as conformal systems to the air frame."
Accordingly, Phase 2 will look for integrated solutions and Mission Systems capability able to provide the technological growth and open systems architecture sufficient to bring the JMR aircraft into the next generation.
CAPABILITIES OVER SOLUTIONS
"What we're trying to do is identify capabilities that we would like to see. We don't anticipate any particular solution, rather we are asking industry to propose solutions to certain problems we are looking to solve," said Ray Wall, chief of the Systems Integration Division, Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, or AATD, Fort Eustis, Va., and lead for the Phase 2 portion of the JMR Technology Demonstrator program.
Vendors were invited to a JMR industry day in Newport News, Va., Nov. 18 to learn more detail regarding the parameters of the RFI.
"We told our industry partners what we are trying to do and gave them the proper framework with which to give us advice. We're asking for industry to provide feedback regarding whether they have specific solutions which can meet our approach and solve our capability gaps. We are also interested in their comments regarding whether they believe we have adequately addressed an approach to solving problems that we know exist," said Wall.
The RFI will be followed by a Broad Agency Announcement expected to be released to vendors in January 2012. The AATD plans to conduct a Phase 2 trade and analysis beginning in July of this year, to be followed by plans to award multiple Mission Systems Effectiveness Trades and Analysis Technology Investment Agreements by late 2012.
"We don't want to be bound by what is out there today. The hardware and software solutions we seek may be similar or radically different than what exists today," Wall explained.
Integration is key to the Army's Mission Systems and ASE strategy, as the overall approach is aimed at fielding an integrated suite of sensors and countermeasure technologies designed to work in tandem to identify and in some cases deter a wide range of potential incoming threats, from small arms fire to RPGs, shoulder-fired missiles and other types of attacks.
One such example of these technologies is called Common Infrared Countermeasure, or CIRCM, a light-weight, high-tech laser-jammer engineered to divert incoming missiles by throwing them off course. CIRCM is a lighter-weight, improved version of the Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures, known as ATIRCM, system currently deployed on aircraft.
CIRCM, which will be fielded by 2018, represents the state of the art in countermeasure technology, officials said. Future iterations of this kind of capability envisioned for 2030 may or may not be similar to CIRCM, Chase said. Future survivability solutions will be designed to push the envelope toward the next-generation of technology, he explained.
"We will need to be responsive to today's threats plus additional threats that we don't even know about yet. With JMR, we are talking about a vertical-lift aircraft that has significantly different capabilities, so the sensors and Mission Equipment will have to be significantly different in order to accommodate the dimensions of the new Air Vehicle and the flight environment in which it will operate," Chase said.
Additional countermeasure solutions proposed by industry could include various types of laser technology and Directed Energy applications as well as missile-launch and ground-fire detection systems, Wall added.
The RFI is also looking to gather information on sensor technologies, such as next-generation options and solutions which might improve upon the state-of-the-art Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor, or MTADS, systems currently deployed on helicopters; MTADS sensing and targeting technology provide helicopters thermal imaging infrared cameras as well stabilized electro-optical sensors, laser rangefinders and laser target designators.
The current, upgraded MTADS currently deployed on aircraft throughout the Army were engineered to accommodate the size, weight and power dimensions of today's aircraft, dimensions which will likely change with the arrival of a new Air Vehicle built for JMR, Wall said. In essence, the AATD is hoping the proposed technical solutions will be engineered with a mind to the dimensions of a new, next-generation Air Vehicle.
"We're looking for enhancements to MTADS and other sensors and Mission Equipment in terms of how they could be incorporated into the airframe of a new Air Vehicle," Wall said.
JMR Weapons Systems Integration is a critical part of this effort, according to the RFI. The JMR aircraft will be engineered to integrate weapons and sensor systems to autonomously detect, designate and track targets, perform targeting operations during high-speed maneuvers, conduct off-axis engagements, track multiple targets simultaneously and optimize fire-control performance such that ballistic weapons can accommodate environmental effects such as wind and temperature, the RFI states.
Exploring the range of "autonomous flight" or "optionally piloted" technologies is also central to the JMR program, Weller said. Along these lines, the AATD is looking for technical solutions or mission equipment which increases a pilot's cognitive decision-making capability by effectively managing the flow of information from an array of sensors into the cockpit, Weller explained.
HUMAN MACHINE INTERFACE
The RFI describes much of this capability in terms of the need to develop a Human Machine Interface, HMI, wherein advanced cockpit software and computing technologies are able to autonomously perform a greater range of functions such as on-board navigation, sensing and threat detection, thus lessening the burden placed upon pilots and crew, Chase said.
In particular, cognitive decision-aiding technologies explored for 4th-generation JMR cockpit will develop algorithms able to track, prioritize organize and deliver incoming on- and off-board sensory information by optimizing visual, 3-D audio and tactile informational cues, Dinning explained.
"What we're really looking to do for the volume of information flowing into the aircraft is exploring how to best deliver this information without creating sensory overload. Some of this information may be displayed in the cockpit and some of it may be built into a helmet display," Dinning added.
Manned-Unmanned teaming, also discussed in the RFI, constitutes a significant portion of this capability; the state of the art with this capability allows helicopter pilots to not only view video feeds from nearby UAS from the cockpit of the aircraft, but it also gives them an ability to control the UAS flight path and sensor payloads as well. Future iterations of this technology may seek to implement successively greater levels of autonomy, potentially involving scenarios wherein an unmanned helicopter is able to perform these functions working in tandem with nearby UAS, Chase explained.
Air-to-Air "tracking" capability is another solution sought by the RFI, comprised of advanced software and sensors able to inform pilots of obstacles such as a UAS or nearby aircraft; this technology will likely include Identify Friend or Foe, or IFF, transponders which cue pilots regarding nearby aircraft, Wall said.
Technical solutions able to provide another important obstacle avoidance "sensing" capability called Controlled Flight Into Terrain, or CFIT, are also being explored; in this instance, sensors, advanced mapping technology and digital flight controls would be engineered to protect an aircraft from nearby terrain such as trees, mountains, telephone wires and other low-visibility items by providing pilots with sufficient warning of an upcoming obstacle and, in some instances, offering them course-correcting flight options.
Using sensors and other technologies to help pilots navigate through "brown-outs" or other conditions involving what's called a "Degraded Visual Environment" is a key area of emphasis as well, Wall added.
"Overall, what we are trying to do is look at a range of solutions such as radar, electro-optical equipment, lasers, sensors, software, avionics and communications equipment and see what the right architecture is and how we would integrate all these things together," Wall explained.
Similar to Phase 1 which is focused on Air Vehicle development, Phase 2 of the JMR TD is also heavily emphasizing affordability and hoping to encourage innovation in a manner that also contains costs.
"JMR presents a unique opportunity to apply historic amounts of creativity and innovation to the single-largest decision factor influencing the entire life cycle of an aircraft: cost. With a clean-sheet design, it may be possible to incorporate from the beginning new technologies, new concepts, new processes, or even old ones that could not win their way on to fielded platforms," the RFI states.
Along these lines, the JMR is expected to use Health Usage Maintenance Systems, or HUMS, diagnostic sensor technologies attached to key aircraft components to catalog usage data as a way to streamline the repair parts replacement process, substantially lower maintenance costs and in some cases extend the service life of aircraft, Dinning said.
"HUMS absolutely has the highest potential for reducing operational and maintenance cost of the aircraft," Dinning explained. "This provides an ability to build sensors onto maintenance-intensive components that we routinely inspect. We record the flight-usage spectrum and the sensors record the behavior of this component. This information is then passed to a diagnostic software tool that diagnoses anomalies in that behavior and then sends the information to a prognostic tool which determines when failure might occur."
"This combination of sensing, diagnostics and prognostics allows us to move from our current scheduled maintenance to a conditioned-based maintenance approach. This allows us to replace stuff only as needed," he continued.
While this technology is used widely in the current fleet of Army aircraft, future applications of HUMS will look at innovative ways of embedding diagnostic technologies onto the Air Vehicle itself, Dinning added.