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Intelligent avionics

Next-generation combat aircraft tap embedded computing innovations for increased data fusion and mission effectiveness.

Current and future military missions require modern aircraft equipped with high-performance avionics from tip to tail. Militaries worldwide are growing increasingly reliant on manned and unmanned military aircraft for the performance of myriad functions-from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to precision weapons delivery on a specific target. Avionics and electronics technology firms are answering the call for compact, airborne systems capable of delivering robust processing power, mission-critical communications, high-resolution targeting imagery, and situational awareness.

Sensor syndrome

Sensors dominate not only the digital battlefield, but also manned and unmanned military airframes. Engineers are installing "more and more sensors around the airframe," affirms Doug Patterson, vice president, military and aerospace sector, Aitech Defense Systems in Chatsworth, Calif. Manned and unmanned military aircraft employ Aitech's rugged interface/data concentrator units, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computers, and Remote IO-Next Generation common digital processing platform.

The prevalent and ever-increasing use of airborne sensors is driving the need for more capable and compact military electronics with which to process, share, and exploit the data acquired. Just as militaries are employing more sensors than ever before, military aircraft are donning more advanced sensors capable of capturing high-resolution images and full-motion video; as a result, warfighters and avionics are often inundated with information and in need of more robust processing and data handling systems.

The military community's demand for streaming high-quality data presents a serious bandwidth issue, VITA Executive Director Ray Alderman explained during the organization's Embedded Tech Trends conference last month. He issued a call to military systems designers to solve the current bandwidth challenges by innovating in the area of sensor/processing systems.

Sensor technology is advancing rapidly and driving aerospace and defense electronics design, Alderman describes. "We've got to kill the bandwidth problem, particularly on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). There's a need to move the processor to the sensor, providing both in a single package," he explained, for radar, sonar, electronic warfare (EW), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and communications intelligence (COMINT) applications.

Mission management & payload

"UAVs have a data bottleneck issue that needs to be solved with onboard processing and data fusion," admits Curtis Reichenfeld, chief technology officer for Integrated Systems at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Ashburn, Va. "Mission computer systems and network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital uplinks/downlinks and recording systems."

Engineers at Northrop Grumman Corp. needed advanced computer subsystems for work on the U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Unmanned Aircraft System (BAMS UAS), a persistent maritime ISR system able to detect, track, classify, and identify maritime and littoral targets. They chose Curtiss-Wright Controls' Advanced Mission Management System (AMMS).

Northrop Grumman's RQ-4N, a maritime derivative of the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, carries the BAMS UAS suite of maritime surveillance sensors, communications, and processing systems. Curtiss-Wright personnel designed, developed, and manufactured the BAMS UAS AMMS units at the company's Motion Control facility in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Data fusion demand

"One of the biggest enhancements happening now and going forward is that avionics are doing a better job of providing an integrated situational awareness picture for the pilot," explains Reichenfeld. "Instead of the pilot having to look at data from the radar and infrared or EW sensors and then put all the data together, the processing capability now going on military aircraft enables that whole process to be done automatically so that the pilot is seeing the complete situational awareness picture without having to fuse the data himself."

"Platforms are much more highly integrated and have much higher levels of data fusion-all for the purpose of reducing pilot workload so they can better focus on the mission at hand and reduce the need to do the data analysis by checking three or four different sensors or instruments," Reichenfeld enthuses.

"Older avionics architectures had independent systems, each with its own displays; now, we are seeing integrated and network-centric systems fusing data and presenting the combined data on a single display for the pilot to access more quickly and efficiently," Reichenfeld adds. "All the formerly separate data is now presented as a single resource."

This capability is a game-changer for military pilots, lending to faster, better informed decisions.

The P-8A Poseidon is Boeing's first military derivative aircraft to incorporate structural modifications to the aircraft as it moves through the commercial line. (Boeing photo.)
The P-8A Poseidon is Boeing's first military derivative aircraft to incorporate structural modifications to the aircraft as it moves through the commercial line. (Boeing photo.)

Facilitating decision-makers

For EW and electronics support measures, the ability to fuse data into a cohesive combat picture provides pilots with a better understanding of what the threats are and how to overcome them, explains Mark Grovak, avionics business development manager at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions.

"What makes this possible is putting more processing onboard the aircraft, and that's where companies like Curtiss-Wright play a key role in getting extremely high-performance electronics onboard in a way that is still supported by the existing cooling systems on the aircraft," Grovak continues. "The more processing you do, the more power [and heat are] generated-and you have to be able to cool it." Thermally efficient, high-performance computing onboard the aircraft is essential; a robust processing infrastructure is needed to handle the large data sets and run the advanced algorithms that provide the pilot with the desired situational awareness, he says.

Functional flexibility

In the face of asymmetric warfare, flexibility is key. This is true not only of military personnel, but also of military avionics. For this reason, a team of engineers designed, developed, and manufactured the P-8A Poseidon to be a true multi-mission airborne platform for the U.S. Navy.

The P-8A Poseidon long-range aircraft sports an advanced mission system designed for interoperability in the network-centric battle space. "All sensors contribute to a single fused tactical situation display, which is shared over both military standard and Internet Protocol (IP) data links, allowing for seamless delivery of information amongst U.S. and coalition forces," says a Boeing spokesperson. "The P-8A is the latest military derivative aircraft to benefit from a culture of technical innovation."

The anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare P-8A is an arm-ed and ISR platform, sporting both weapons and sensors payloads, able to deploy weaponry and deliver data on a network simultaneously. The P-8A is a derivative of the Next-Generation 737, has the fuselage of a 737-800 and the wings of a 737-900, and is Boeing's first military derivative aircraft to incorporate structural modifications to the aircraft as it moves through the commercial line.

CFM International supplies the CFM56-7 engine that powers the P-8A; Northrop Grumman provides the directional infrared countermeasures system and electronic support measures system; Raytheon provides the upgraded AN/APY-10 maritime surveillance radar and signals intelligence solutions; GE Aviation supplies flight-management and stores-management systems; and Spirit AeroSystems builds the 737 aircraft's fuselage and airframe tail sections and struts.

Situational awareness & sensors

Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a stealth combat aircraft replete with advanced avionics, integrated sensors, and weaponry, continues to gain considerable attention on the world stage. In fact, the F-35 Lightning II is reportedly the only international 5th Generation multirole fighter to date.

"The tri-variant F-35 represents the pinnacle of more than 50 years of fighter development technology," admits Laura Siebert in the F-35 Communications Office at Lockheed Martin. "The F-35 combines the 5th Generation characteristics of radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed, and agility with the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft."

The F-35 Lightning II employs a novel cockpit display and sensor implementation and placement. Advanced avionics provide the pilot "real-time access to battle space information with spherical coverage and an unparalleled ability to dominate the tactical environment," Siebert says, whereas sensor data can immediately be shared, "providing an instantaneous, high-fidelity view of ongoing operations."

Enabling technology behind the F-35's advanced avionics hails from a Lockheed Martin-led team that includes Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Pratt & Whitney, Raytheon, and various other technology partners. Among them is Mercury Computer Systems Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass.

Engineers at Raytheon Company's Space and Airborne Systems (SAS) segment in El Segundo, Calif., licensed Mercury Systems' RACE++ Series multicomputers for the F-35 JSF's Integrated Core Processing (ICP) system. The ICP is the sensor processing system with an open-system architecture designed to maximize the use of standards-based, commercially available products.

"Incorporating COTS technology into an open system architecture throughout the F-35 will enable frequent technology updates at low cost," says Bob Coultas, hardware program manager for the ICP for Lockheed Martin. "Open system architecture is based on the use of commercial, standard interfaces that enable the program to take advantage of commercial technologies for more supportable, lower-cost designs."

"Raytheon is continuing to innovate in the adaptation of COTS products for advanced multi-mission computing," says Erv Grau, vice president of Air Combat Avionics, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.

The onboard system incorporates a liquid-cooled, ruggedized multicomputer capable of performing 40 billion sustained operations per second; it enables multi-mission computing to process EW, electro-optical, infrared, and radar data. Mercury's multiprocessor technology is used in the signal processor (SP) and signal processor input/output (SPIO) modules of the ICP. Mercury's signal processing systems were used in the Concept Demonstration Phase (CDP) of the JSF, and its RACE++ Series PowerStream systems were selected for the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase.

Advanced avionics on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II provide multi-mission capabilities, such as electronic attack and ISR.
Advanced avionics on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II provide multi-mission capabilities, such as electronic attack and ISR.

Data links & bottlenecks

All the older aircraft are scheduled to be replaced by aircraft like the JSF, Reichenfeld admits. "They are going into a 'sundown' and one of their big limitations is that they lack a high-speed network onboard."

With the amount of sensors on each aircraft and the amount of resolution that these sensors have, a single aircraft is generating more data than it and today's data links can handle, acknowledges Reichenfeld. "Efficiencies come from using existing data pipes to do onboard processing so that you are only sending relevant or pre-processed information across the limited data links."

The big bottleneck is getting data off the aircraft, Grovak adds. "Even though the data links are getting better, they are still very poor in comparison to what they are tasked to do. It puts pressure on the ability to do more things on the aircraft and to pass information between airplanes. The bandwidth needed to pass all the data is just not available; more processing has to be done onboard the aircraft."

"Onboard the aircraft, they have enough high-speed networks; it's when you are sending the data off of the aircraft that the bottleneck becomes a problem," Reichenfeld agrees.

The need for data security can further exacerbate data challenges. "If a low probability of intercept or encrypted data (during transit and at rest) is required, more processing has to be done on board. Avionics require more classified fusion algorithms that can combine, or fuse, all the data. Also, if aircraft are sold overseas, you have to have a way to protect the technology and data onboard, making it even more important to have some kind of trusted COTS solution on the aircraft," Reichenfeld explains. "As we are developing more powerful, integrated systems, a lot more security has to be taken into account. We handle that with trusted COTS and with encryption and anti-tamper techniques embedded into our systems."

Retrofitting legacy aircraft

"The new-generation Super Hornets and advanced F-15 and F-16 aircraft are starting to get high-speed 1-gigabit-per-second (1Gb/s) capability, which makes it a lot easier to do all the necessary onboard processing required to provide situational awareness," Reichenfeld says. Older aircraft have a "Link 16 data stream at 1 megabit per second (1Mb/s). The legacy F18 and F16 are still pretty much stuck with 1553." Yet, avionics technology exists to bridge the gap in communications between legacy and next-generation combat aircraft.

Stauder Technologies engineers needed an avionics chassis and electronic components for its AVT StrikeLink Airborne (StrikeLink/A) solution. They found their solution at Curtiss-Wright Controls Inc.

Strikelink/A is designed to provide "turnkey" interoperability with StrikeLink, the material ground solution for the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command's Target Location, Designation, and Hand-off System (TLHDS) by re-hosting digital communications technologies in legacy aircraft.

The avionics system harnesses Curtiss-Wright's integrated subsystems, including avionics chassis, computer boards, backplane, and power supply, to help enable digital interoperability between ground forces and close air support aircraft. The embedded computer runs Stauder's digital communications software, which is currently fielded in StrikeLink and serves as the core of StrikeLink/A. Able to acquire targets during day, night, and nearly all-weather visibility conditions, StrikeLink can precisely determine operator location as well as that of their targets, and then digitally transmit secure data, using Variable Message Format (VMF) protocols, to multiple supporting arms elements. With StrikeLink/A installed on close air support aircraft, initially the AV-8B Harrier, digital communication interoperability is guaranteed and sustainable without modifying the aircraft's operational flight program or hardware installation provisions, according to a spokesperson.

Curtiss-Wright Controls provided Stauder Technologies with integrated subsystems designed, developed, and manufactured at the Curtiss Wright Controls Integrated Systems facility in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Precision weaponry

The Royal Air Force (RAF), the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces, sought to outfit the Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role combat aircraft with advanced avionics, including a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system, enhanced air-to-air capability, an air-to-surface capability, and the ability to use the laser designator pod for precision weapon delivery. For the task, RAF officials turned to BAE Systems in London.

BAE Systems engineers upgraded RAF Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft to the Tranche 1 Block 5 standard; completion of this work, which falls under the Retrofit 2 program, was announced in late Nov. 2012.

"This upgrade program gives the Royal Air Force Typhoon fleet an improved baseline capability, making it better than it has ever been before," says Martin Taylor, BAE Systems' combat air support director. "This improved capability will also allow the Royal Air Force greater scope for how they manage the Typhoon fleet."

BAE Systems engineers have upgraded the Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role combat aircraft fleet with advanced avionics.
BAE Systems engineers have upgraded the Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role combat aircraft fleet with advanced avionics.

Future avionics advances

Advanced avionics are in demand. Regardless of budget pressures, militaries worldwide need modern avionics technologies in new manned and unmanned aerial platforms and with which to retrofit existing and aging combat aircraft fleets. In fact, the success of future missions may call for "cognitive avionics."

"One big trend that we're seeing emerge is cognizance, more machine intelligence for the ultimate goal of relieving the pilot workload to get the mission accomplished, and cognizance in EW, the ability to detect and adapt as threats change, situations change, and missions change," Reichenfeld affirms. "Giving the avionics more cognitive intelligence is one of the growing trends for future avionics systems."

It will take at least 20 years before all the aircraft currently flying will be replaced, Grovak predicts. Military, government, and industry will need to work together to enable old and new military aircraft to share air space and communications safely, reliably, and efficiently.

"There is going to be a large mixed fleet," Grovak explains. "How do you share data from modern aircraft with advanced high-speed sensors with older aircraft whose sensors and situational awareness are not as good? If you've got aircraft with great situational-awareness capabilities how do you share it?

"A big part is having the number-crunching power to blend different protocols into something older avionics can understand, utilize, and display," Grovak continues. "This type of processing is collaborative rather than cognitive."

Grovak also expects the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Consortium to play a key role. "Standard, open middleware software is a way to get more of these capabilities on more of these aircrafts by making applications portable." In the end, he insists, opportunity lies in supporting "the technology upgrades that enable information sharing between heterogeneous avionics platforms so that different generation aircraft can share a Common Operational Picture (COP) and perform missions together more effectively."


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