By James T. McKenna | July 26, 2017
U.S. OEMs and suppliers are striving with the Pentagon to define and develop a modular, open-systems framework for the design of military aircraft and avionics that can make such equipment more reliable, maintainable and competitive.
They face major challenges. One key is achieving common, industry-wide standards for the modular, open-systems approach. Another is fitting that approach, which promises to be faster and more agile, into a rigid and slow U.S. Defense Dept. acquisition system and procurement regulatory scheme.
The impetus for their efforts is the Pentagon's Future Vertical Lift program to develop a new family of faster, more capable vertical-takeoff-or-landing (VTOL) aircraft to replace the current generation of transport, reconnaissance and attack helicopters beginning in the next decade. A precursor initiative is the Joint Multi-Role-Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD), whose prime competitors are the Bell Helicopter V-280 tiltrotor and the Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant compound helicopter. Bell plans to fly its prototype this year.
“The paradigm we seek is the appropriate level of commonality and open-systems approach and [the ability to have] reliability and maintainability taken care of upfront,” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Robert Freeland, a specialist on military rotorcraft for the undersecretary of Defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics and a former Bell-Boeing MV-22 squadron commander. “That gives you a more logistically supportable aircraft and, across the different services, a more sustainable fleet as you move down the road.”
In a world in which combat threats and geopolitics change continually, Freeland and others in industry said, the key to success is properly defining interfaces that allow avionics architecture to evolve while aircraft designs and operations are progressing.
“If you don't get that right, that architecture will end up owning you for the next 30 years,” said David Dowling, director of vertical lift capabilities at Northrop Grumman.
Freeland and Dowling were among six speakers participating in a Washington, D.C.'s panel discussion, “Future of Vertical Lift: Forging a New Paradigm,” hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies Tuesday.
Military helicopters have long been utility items, designed to be built and fielded quickly for a variety of missions with basic capabilities for transport and weapons carriage. The underlying assumption was that they would be replaced after 10 years or so.
Instead, many have flown for decades longer. Examples are the basic designs of the Boeing CH-47, Bell UH-1 and Sikorsky CH-53.
“The air vehicles are around 50 or 75 years, a really long time,” said Keith Flail, Bell’s VP of advanced tiltrotor systems. Getting the backbone of avionics design right “so that we can plug in new systems that deal with these unknown unknowns that are out there over time is really important.”
The industry is working on defining that backbone. In 2016, the U.S. Army — lead service on FVL — signed technology investment agreements with Boeing, GE Aviation Systems, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Rockwell Collins. They are “the next major step in identifying the elements required for successful implementation of a truly open systems architecture for DoD's future vertical lift fleet," JMR-TD Program Director Dan Bailey said at the time.
Dowling said those companies briefed the results and lessons learned of those “architectural implementation process” demonstrations to the Army and each other at the beginning of July at that service’s Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
In addition, Dowling said, the Vertical Lift Consortium is preparing to respond to government task order to define avionics electrical, mechanical, signal and data interfaces under modular, open-systems approach over the course of about a year and half. That consortium includes aircraft OEMs and engine makers, other suppliers and contractors, universities and non-profit organizations and small, VTOL R&D companies. It works in collaboration with the U.S. government.
Developing standards is a big challenge, said Dave Schreck, Rockwell Collins’ VP and general manager of airborne solutions for government systems. When a more common one today, the Future Airborne Computing Environment (FACE), “was coming out, within Rockwell Collins, if you got five engineers in a room, there were four or five different interpretations of what that standard was,” he said, adding that those differences multiplied across the industry. “Somebody's got to pull all those pieces together.”
The Marines and U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command V-22 illustrate the need for more rapid upgrades, said another panelist, H. Eric Burke. He is the FVL avionics lead at Harris.
The V-22 entered service shortly after the turn-of-the-century and quickly transformed U.S. military operations with its combination of vertical flight and turboprop speed. It also has had dramatic effects on American diplomacy, given its ability to insert U.S. forces at global hotspots quickly. But the aircraft and its avionics were designed in the 1990s.
“We know that there is phenomenal capability that we can inject into that platform,” Burke said. “It's just difficult to do that. The architecture, the design, the interface control documents just weren’t open at that time.”
With FVL aircraft, which are to be in service by 2030, “we can't pigeonhole the avionics architecture, the mission equipment package now,” Burke said. “We have to build a design architecture that will allow the most advanced equipment in 2030. We need to be able to inject it at that time of fielding.”
Sikorsky’s director of business development for FVL, Richard Koucheravy, in his comments highlighted the challenge of melding a more agile product design and support approach with Defense Dept. processes.
“The ability to rapidly integrate capabilities sounds wonderful. It's what we need to do,” he said. “But I think we need to begin having discussion on what the impact is on the lifecycle of the aircraft moving forward, in terms of not just the practical arrangements about who the integrator is but the ability to develop business structures with third-party providers, with the OEM.”