Northrop Grumman to develop software that predicts equipment failures

U.S. Air Force officials have contracted engineers at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Integrated Systems Sector in Bethpage, N.Y., to develop software that will diagnose problems and predict failures in systems aboard old aircraft.

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By John McHale


The Lockheed Martin F-16 jet fighter, pictured above, could benefit from failure analysis software from Northrop Grumman Corp.
Click here to enlarge image

BETHPAGE, N.Y. — U.S. Air Force officials have contracted engineers at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Integrated Systems Sector in Bethpage, N.Y., to develop software that will diagnose problems and predict failures in systems aboard old aircraft.

The targeted aircraft platforms include F-16 and F-15 jet fighters, as well as the C-130 utility turboprop. The Predictive Failures and Advanced Diagnostics (PFAD) contract is worth as much as $9.4 million over five years.

The new technology will "front end" existing diagnostic tools. PFAD will better diagnose faults and predict failures in hardware such as radar power generation and fuel subsystems, Northrop Grumman officials say. Air Force officials say they expect PFAD software to substantially reduce subsystem life-cycle costs and increase the availability of combat aircraft.

"We've worked successfully in this area over the past 10 years on aircraft ranging from the E-2C Hawkeye to the Joint Strike Fighter, says Robert Klein, Airborne Early Warning and Electronic Systems vice president of engineering, logistics, and technology at Northrop Grumman.

"PFAD will help solve what's known as the 'cannot duplicate' problem. A pilot may experience a subsystem problem in the air, but once the plane's on the ground, technicians can't detect it," he says. "Also, using prediction and diagnostics, we will move from phased maintenance to condition-based/predicted maintenance to substantially reduce life cycle costs," Klein adds.

PFAD will also reduce the number of spares necessary for each part and increase the availability of aircraft by decreasing their downtime, says Barbara Gilmartin, principal investigator on the PFAD program for Northrop Grumman. Technicians will perform maintenance on aircraft based on aircraft condition, rather than on traditional scheduled maintenance, she explains.

Scheduled maintenance is similar to getting a car serviced every 3,000 miles, Gilmartin says. If the car were serviced using condition-based maintenance, then it would have a PFAD-like software to analyze the performance of the engine and other parts of the car to predict when the oil actually has a problem and needs to get fixed, she explains. Just cutting down on the service visits would end up reducing maintenance cost, she adds.

The only sensors that may need to be added for analysis and monitoring would be for vibrating mechanisms, Gilmartin adds. The software will use many built-in-test systems within the aircraft to do this, says Joe Castrigno, project manager for PFAD at Northrop Grumman. Many current systems can isolate a fault, but cannot isolate the specific part, however, PFAD will, he adds.

Northrop Grumman engineers have developed similar technology in the past for the Joint Strike Fighter program, but that was not as global as PFAD, Gilmartin says. PFAD is a flexible system and has strong potential for shipboard applications and reusable launch vehicles, Gilmartin says.

However, the five-year research contract aims at Air Force planes, beginning with the F-16, Castrigno says. Initial work will begin on the F-16, because there is synergy with existing F-16 radar-supportability improvement initiatives at Northrop Grumman, Northrop Grumman officials say. Northrop Grumman's Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector in Baltimore, a partner on the PFAD program, developed the APG 68 radar for the F-16, Castrigno adds.

The Northrop Grumman Airborne Early Warning and Electronic Warfare Systems business area's technology development organization leads the team, which also includes and DATAMAT Systems Research of McLean, Va.

DATAMAT engineers will use data mining technology to extract intelligent data.

Northrop Grumman engineers say they believe there is a plethora of information contained in that database that properly extracted and analyzed can help the PFAD software recognize trends in equipment failures and maintenance that would aid in its fault diagnosis and predictions, Castrigno says.

The team will be working with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

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