The one-size-fits-all aircraft

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — The trend within the U.S. military services toward ever fewer aircraft types means giving up multi-mission capabilities unless designers can customize the aircraft at the avionics suites.

This is the warning sounded by Stephen Moss, president of AgustaWestland Inc., the Arlington, Va.-based arm of E.H. Industries Ltd. in Farnborough, England, which is a joint venture of Italian helicopter maker Agusta and its British counterpart, Westland Helicopters Ltd.

His solution is a basic airframe, in this case his company's EH-101 helicopter, that he calls an off-the-shelf aircraft capable of being reconfigured for missions ranging from anti-submarine warfare (ASW) to delivering troops, to battle to such commercial applications as law enforcement. In each case, the difference is electronics.

The same idea of using advanced electronics to extend the capabilities of existing weapons platforms ran like a common thread through this year's COTScon East conference May 30-31 in Washington. Troy Takach, chief executive officer of parvus Corp. in Salt Lake City, for example, told of his company's work on the U.S. Navy's EA-6B Prowler aircraft to upgrade the operator control panel with PC/104 cards while staying within the limitation of a single 20-pound, 12-by 16-inch air transportable rack.

Tom DuBois, technical fellow for Boeing in Philadelphia for avionics and software for the U.S. Army RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack helicopter program, which he called "an aircraft built around electronics," told COTScon that his firm is already using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to upgrade the aircraft for digital battlefield compatibility. This includes a digital video pipeline and a digital map data access with provisions for future sensors that will require data rates of more than 2 gigabytes per second.

The opportunities exist to extend the use of COTS to upgrade existing platforms on a global scale, says Duncan Young, director of marketing at DY 4 Systems in Kanata, Ontario. In his COTScon presentation he noted that North America leads in COTS adoption and is developing the industrial infrastructure to support it. European countries, while lacking the large defense budgets of the United States, nonetheless have pan-European programs such as the EH-101 that will need advanced electronics.

Young's advice for doing business in the European market is to make maximum use of plastic encapsulated modules. "These are COTS components," he said, "and the equipment then becomes COTS." Young also recommended designing equipment with a combination of open and proprietary standards, and then releasing the resulting standards into the public domain.

Engineers from AgustaWestland, the world's second largest helicopter manufacturer after Boeing, brought their EH-101 all-weather medium-lift helicopter to Reagan International Airport in Washington last May for a series of demonstrations for U.S. military leaders, news media, and other interested parties such as congressional staffers. After a half-hour flight around Washington, I can at least vouch for the fact that it's quieter by far than any of the Hueys I've flown in.

The purpose of the company's trip, in addition to generating interest for the helicopter already used by the British and Italian navies, the British air force, and the Tokyo police, is to find an American partner for co-production. Candidates reportedly include Boeing, with which Westland is already working on the British version of the AH-64A Apache; Bell Helicopter, a partner with Agusta on several helicopters; and Lockheed Martin, which is performing integration of AgustaWestland's Merlin in Britain.

Moss says he hopes to have the agreement completed by the end of this summer. The helicopters cost about $20 million apiece for the basic search-and-rescue configuration and as high as $24 million for advanced versions with dipping sonar for ASW, or forward looking infrared radar for passive identification in anti-surface warfare or airborne early warning missions.

The EH-101 already is up to 30 percent U.S. content when General Electric Engines are used instead of the original Rolls Royce Turbomeca engines, says Tony Duthie, director of business development in the company's Arlington, Va., office. Company engineers are buying 25 percent of the EH-101's avionics from U.S. suppliers. Moss expects to push the U.S. content up to 70 percent for the aircraft made in this country and sees a potential market for around 250 EH-101s.

This is not a development project, stresses Ron Jones, business group director at the company's British headquarters. The British and Italian taxpayers have already paid for that, he says. Now the goal is to find missions for the mature design that he claims can lower life cycle costs.

Jones is looking for a 40-year useful life based on fatigue tests on the airframe. He also figures he can hook up any of the necessary avionics black boxes via the core avionics suite's venerable ARINC 429 interface and 1553 databus.

Stressing the importance of defining the platform architecture was David Toms, business development manager at Mercury Computer Systems, Chelmsford, Mass., during his COTScon presentation. Referring to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), he said that what he called "the great payload debate" revolved around developing multi-use, reconfigurable UAV payloads.

Once again it's a case of deciding on a limited number of common airframes and then customizing them for their missions. Toms noted that there were four classes of UAVs — strategic, tactical, combat vehicles, and target drones — and that 25 percent of them carry radars.

As capabilities increase, so will the data flow, Toms says. Either better analytical tools will be developed or there will be a data bottleneck that would require every man, woman, and child in the country to become an intelligence analyst by 2025 just to analyze all the data pouring out from UAV sensors. Since this is obviously not going to happen, the pressure is on the UAV developers to find workable — and affordable — solutions using the rapidly progressing COTS technologies.

If there had been a dynamic electronics industry when Calvin Coolidge was president, maybe he would have settled for a single class of "aeroplanes" that could have been cost-effectively configured to perform the Army Air Corps's missions.


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June 2015
Volume 26, Issue 6
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