United Kingdom engineers struggle to upgrade old aircraft with new avionics technology

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands, 16 March 2009. Officials of the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence (MOD) in London say their agency needs to find better ways of upgrading fielded military avionics systems with open architecture flight technology for the duration of their aircraft platforms' life cycles.

Mar 16th, 2009

By John McHale

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands, 16 March 2009. Officials of the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence (MOD) in London say their agency needs to find better ways of doing an electronic upgrade of military avionics systems with open architectureflight technology for the duration of their aircraft platforms' life cycles.

The MOD's procurement model is counter-productive to integrating open architectures and commercial off the shelf (COTS) military avionics technology into existing aircraft, say officials of the MOD's Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

"For platforms with only 10 to 20 years until their planned out-of-service date, the cost-effectiveness of implementing a modular architecture is becoming increasingly difficult to argue in a cost-constrained environment," says Chris Nicholas, supportability & mission systems team leader at Dstl, who made his remarks in March during the Avionics 2009 conference and exhibition in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The continued extensions to these service dates have placed greater demands on relatively old avionics systems to help MOD officials mitigate the effects of component and subsystems obsolescence, while adding new functionality to existing aircraft.

Unlike the block upgrade system widely used in the United States, the MOD uses mid-life upgrades (MLUs) "that result in long intervals between capability changes and an increasingly heavy obsolescence burden," Nicholas told Avionics 2009 attendees.

Some MOD aircraft programs have "avionics and mission systems that are over 40 years old," and program managers often cannot afford upgrades, Nicholas says. The MOD needs solutions that address obsolescence and provide room for growth, Nicholas says.

Dstl is working to find an affordable way to address obsolescence and incremental avionics upgrades-such as using software emulation, modular and incremental certification, and commercial communications, Nicholas says.

Nicholas and his team are pursuing a concept they call "capability agility," which they intend to give the MOD more flexibility in dealing with obsolete military avionics. Some solutions include re-using existing hardware and software, as well as using modular systems design, rather than complete system re-design and certification, Nicholas says.

One other solution might involve upgrading existing MIL-STD-1553B 1-megabit-per-second databuses with Extended 1553 from Edgewater Computing Systems in Ottawa, to deliver data rates as fast as 200 megabits per second over existing 1553 wiring, says Dstl engineer Dan Cook.

Dstl engineers are working to integrate Extended 1553 with software emulation technology and associated input/output devices a mid-life upgrade of legacy United Kingdom aircraft, he adds.

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