Pressed by tight budgets and program delays, the military is increasingly looking to upgrade and extend the life of its existing aircraft. Service life extension programs, such as one announced this year by the Air Force for some of its F-16s, put pressure not only on those aging platforms but also the support systems, including test equipment, and the companies that build them.
In response, developers of automated test equipment (ATE) must refine their technologies to support new requirements for the older aircraft even as they deploy and upgrade the new standard testers to handle the entire military fleet.
Even with further cutbacks looming including the potential for drastic cuts via sequestration, existing austerity measures are already taking a toll. “New program starts are extremely limited … (and) many programs have either been cancelled outright or deferred,” said H. Byron Green, senior director test and EW at AAI Test & Training, based in Hunt Valley, Md.
There has been the much publicized termination of the F-22 and the C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft programs, for example, as well as the stretch-out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) schedule. The latter has forced the Air Force to announce it would “pursue a scalable Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for approximately 350 F-16s … (to) ensure the F-16 remains viable and relevant for future Active and Reserve Component multi-role fighter squadrons until the F-35 arrives in greater numbers.”
For the industry, the JSF delays mean “the demand for everything to support it is going to be late and spread out over time,” said Dan Walsh, director of marketing, aerospace and defense at Teradyne, of North Reading, Mass. “If the government slows the rate at which they purchase airplanes, it (eventually) slows down the rate at which they need testers.”
On the positive side, despite the recession-driven budget cuts, “the avionics aircraft segment was still the single largest area of weapons systems procurement sector with spending of $29 billion,” said Sujan Sami, measurement and instrumentation program manager at Frost & Sullivan.
Some of that funding will be going to sustaining and improving older aircraft. Legacy systems will be “staying in service longer than anticipated with obsolescence upgrades awarded as a stop gap,” said Randy Core, program director of enterprise test systems, Support and Services at Lockheed Martin Global Training and Logistics. “Despite this, today’s avionics requirements are outpacing legacy testing capabilities, (and) modern testers must have the capability and architecture to easily expand to meet the requirements of multiple weapon systems.”
In fact, “the current economic environment has reinforced the need to create more affordable ATE solutions which can be adapted to support multiple programs thereby reducing development and sustainment cost,” said Chris Clendenin, director of Boeing Defense, Space & Security Support Equipment & Services.
The military services are following this path and pressing ahead with efforts to meet these requirements by building and deploying a “family” of standardized automated testers, such as the Navy’s new electronic Consolidated Automated Support System (eCASS), and the Air Force’s Versatile Depot Automatic Test Station (VDATS) programs, using technology from a cadre of major technology providers including Lockheed Martin, AAI Textron, Boeing and Teradyne.
“The budget changes that have been implemented thus far have had no measurable impact” on these programs, said Walsh. However, “right now the real question is what will happen with the next round of cuts (which have) … the potential to change the volume of business and even shift where the focus is in terms of technology.”
Even without those potentially drastic cuts, the prime drivers in the ATE market are “requirements to reduce cost and increase commonality” forcing a “move toward software-adaptable solutions and the expansion of test requirements for existing systems,” said Green.
“Customers in a constrained budget environment need to accomplish more than ever before with their existing systems, which are now expected to accommodate a broader array of today’s requirements and to adapt to future ones,” said Green.
The need to upgrade existing, fielded test systems for current and future requirements is already spurring new demand “around the testing of specific, advanced capabilities, such as directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) and digital RF memory DIRCM-based jammers,” said Green. AAI is providing its scalable, plug-and-play electronic warfare simulator product line, A2PATS, to address expressed customer needs for “greater RF fidelity … (and increased) accuracy and coordinated control of phase, amplitude and time,” said Green. The company has recently added to the system, which uses the synthetic source instrumentation technology that forms basis for AAI Test & Training’s RF solution used in the U.S. Navy’s eCASS program, a file translator “that allows customers to utilize the vast majority of their legacy threat files on the new system.”
Overall, the sustainment of legacy platforms, however, may not always involve the use of additional testers but will rely rather on system refinements, said Walsh. For example, when the Navy upgrades an aircraft now, it requires a “new test program be written for their 600 CASS (Consolidated Automated Support System) stations.” The writer of that program “ends up determining whether the CASS station is inadequate for testing, and then creates an augmentation specific kit for the test program.” That fix then “only gets deployed on a minimal basis” to address the limited numbers systems they need to be able to support.”
In the end, sustainment may boost demand for changes, “but, realistically, unless there is a wholesale upgrade of the test program, it doesn’t create a huge ground swell of demand for new test equipment.”
Many of these upgrades are being applied to the “family” of common core or standardized testers. “These multi-use test systems for multiple weapons platforms are driving greater flexibility in test system architecture” since they are designed “to easily expand to meet the requirements” of additional systems, said Core.
The Lockheed Martin LM-STAR tester “along with its system software, Standard Test Operations and Run-time Manager (STORM) … form the basis for our eCASS,” said Core. The tester is “configurable and scalable allowing for differing footprints to meet various applications in both the factory, the depot and in the field at intermediate sites,” said Core. It also “harmonizes the OEM avionics and the depot of the end-user, maximizing the investment in test program development, (and) this harmonization drives tremendous savings and efficiency in sustainment.”
To date, “we have fielded more than 100 test stations and have plans to build more than 500 additional LM-STAR and eCASS stations over the next 10 years,” said Core. This year, the Navy said eCASS completed its Critical Design Review; the program is scheduled to complete testing and achieve Initial Operating Capability in 2016.
An extensive enhancement of the other major Navy ATE program, the Reconfigurable Transportable CASS (RTCASS) “configuration, entailing modification of more than 100 stations at 17 sites, was accomplished this past year,” said Clendenin. “This modification addressed an urgent customer need to expand RTCASS capability to transport additional legacy CASS TPS (Testing Procedure Specifications) whose requirements exceeded the original system design.”
Boeing, the prime contractor, with partners Systems & Electronics Inc., and Teradyne, won the RTCASS contract in 2003 and since have used legacy TPSs to support more than 600 Units Under Test (UUT), for U.S. Marine Corps aviation platforms including the E/A-6B Prowler, F/A-18 Hornet, H-1 helicopter, AV-8B Harrier, MV-22 Osprey and the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22 Osprey. With the latest program enhancement, “the RTCASS currently supports 639 different Units Under Test and is on a trajectory to host more than 750 UUTs,” he said. “In addition, a new variant of the RTCASS configuration is in the planning stages to provide depot repair capability at U.S. Navy Fleet Readiness Centers (FRC).”
As of June, the Air Force had delivered 51 VDATS stations to support depot operations or about one-third of the stations that are slated to be acquired through fiscal year 2017, according the Defense Department’s Automatic Test Systems Executive Directorate.
“The Air Force, the most recent service to adopt a (standard tester), is really still in the process of deploying it,” said Walsh. Teradyne’s digital instruments form the core of the Air Force VDATS, and the company’s technology is also used on the Navy’s CASS and RTCASS testers among other programs. The service has “been successful in deploying it at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, but outside of Warner, they’ve only got a few machines currently installed.”
A significant amount of work still needs to be done to address the service’s legacy platforms, some dating back to 1960s, Walsh said. “They are experiencing some growing pains … and are really dealing with educating the other depots on how to get programs on it and utilize it,” he said. However, their test program sets (TPS) “re-host effort is on track, so they are making good progress, and the next major steps are to finalize transition plans outside of WR-ALC.”
The Air Force is a bit different than the Navy since it will be relying on two standardized testers: VDATS for its legacy fleet and LM-STAR “for its F-35s, F-22s and some of the systems on its F-16s,” said Walsh. Looking forward, “Lockheed Martin and the … Air Force are collaborating on the convergence of VDATS and LM-STAR,” said Core, noting the software for the two systems has “many similarities in architecture … (and) many of the instruments used in (both) are common and enable potential collaboration when dealing with obsolescence issues.”
For its part AAI offers up its venerable Joint Service Electronic Combat Systems Tester (JSECST), “which is currently in use by all four services and many international customers,” said Green. JSECST “has the capability to not only perform end-to-end tests of electronic combat systems, but also communications, navigation and many other installed avionics systems,” said Green. “This greatly expands the value of already fielded and supported testers.”
As the builders of the Shadow and Aerosonde unmanned air systems (UAS), AAI has its eye the unmanned systems as well as the manned platforms. The demand for test systems “continues to grow right along with the demand for unmanned aircraft systems (themselves),” he said. Fueling this demand is the growing cost, complexity and miniaturization of critical UAS subsystems like payloads, data links and communications equipment,” he said. Add to that “the growing prevalence of radio frequency (RF) equipment and UAS in the battlefield, along with the forthcoming addition of the latter to national airspace,” he said. The needs exist, but are undefined and, therefore, unfunded in the current budget environment,” he said. The key challenges include increasing cost, complexity and miniaturization apply to UAS of all size.
AAI is not the only company keeping an eye on the unmanned market. “Presently the UAS market is somewhat unique,” said Core. “As a logistics plan is developed, testing capabilities for avionics, ground equipment and weapons systems fielded on reusable vehicles will be needed,” he said, adding Lockheed Martin “is investing in affordable new technologies that will further enable our test systems to be smaller, more capable and readily deployable.”
On a more skeptical note, Walsh agrees there is growth in the market but mainly for small scale UAVs. “If you look at the big ones the Global Hawks with the last budget cuts, (the military is) only buying enough to replace the ones that are wearing out or they are losing, so the growth is there but … (for) the lower tech product.”
Meanwhile, the new standards, such as PXI, LXI and VXI, as well as synthetic instrumentation are providing developers with tools to address challenges in new ways and allow for the integration of new capabilities to the systems. “As new standards arise, we find it is important to provide an architecture that can integrate new technologies with existing ones to meet our customers’ testing requirements,” said Core. eCASS is an example where VXI and PXI are used in the system to meet the overall system requirements.”
In fact, Lockheed Martin said this year it has integrated PXI modular instrumentation and platform products from National Instruments into the eCASS automated test equipment family. This PXI-based platform is providing “commercial off-the-shelf solutions for advanced engineering challenges and support for extended life cycle government programs,” according to National Instruments.
In the ongoing efforts throughout industry to reduce the footprint of the testing systems, “the increased capability … of the PXI format offers some real opportunities,” said Clendenin. “On a broader scale, instrumentation continues to provide increased functional density coupled with inherent application flexibility regardless of the physical format,” he said. “Devices have more channels and more capability than ever before, and, in particular the concept of Synthetic Instrumentation allows a device to have many ‘personalities.’”
Meanwhile, “new regulation standards are also emerging, such as the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Consortium, comprised of approximately 40 avionics manufacturers, military organizations, among others,” said Sami. “These standards are expected to enhance the quality of products used in critical applications, such as military and commercial avionics and, in turn, pave the way for future next-generation ATE.”
“The move to common open architecture and associated standards for avionics software will speed development of TPSs immediately and potentially allow greater commonality and reduce development costs in ATE,” said Clendenin. “Common avionics software will allow faster analysis and reuse of test routines between TPSs … (and) the ATE level advances will occur as legacy interfaces are supplanted by interfaces compatible with FACE, which is anticipated to encompass a small subset of the current universe of legacy interfaces,” he said.
Next month: Displays
Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at email@example.com.
3M Aerospace www.3m.com
AAI Corp. www.aaicorp.com
Advanced Technical Group www.a-tg.com
Aero Express www.aeroexpress.com
Aerospace Instrument Support www.ais-inst.com
Aerosystems International www.asiiweb.com
Astronics Corp. www.astronics.com
Avionics Specialist www.avionics-specialist.com
Avtron Manufacturing www.avtron.com
BAE Systems www.baesystems.com
Ballantine Labs www.ballantinelabs.com
DAC International www.dacint.com
C & H Technologies www.chtech.com
DIT-MCO International Corp. www.ditmco.com
DMA-Aero/D. Marchiori www.dma-aero.com
EADS North America Test and Services www.eads-nadefense.com
GE Measurement & Control www.ge-mcs.com
Georator Corp. www.georator.com
Geotest-Marvin Test Systems www.geotestinc.com
Ideal Aerosmith www.ideal-aerosmith.com
ITT Exelis www.exelisinc.com
Lockheed Martin www.lockheedmartin.com
MAX Technologies www.maxt.com
National Instruments Corp. www.ni.com
NH Research, Inc. www.nhresearch.com
North Atlantic Industries www.naii.com
Northrop Grumman www.northropgrumman.com
Pickering Interfaces www.pickeringtest.com
RSL Electronics Ltd. www.rsl.co.il
TechSAT GmbH www.techsat.com
Tektronix UK Ltd. www.tek.com
Tel-Instrument Electronics http://telinstrument.com
VTI Instruments www.vtiinstruments.com