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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Testing The Waters: Avionics Test Equipment Sees New Markets

With sequestration sidelining some of the military test equipment market in the United States, manufacturers are seeing rising demand in flourishing global markets, such as China and India, as well as quick-paced commercial development for the fast-evolving avionics testing market.

by Juliet Van Wagenen


The results of our Avionics Magazine 2015 Test Equipment Survey found that the majority of respondents, nearly 58 percent, had needs to acquire new test equipment or upgraded components for existing equipment. With more than half of operators reporting the need for new test equipment, manufacturers are facing two very different landscapes in the military and commercial arenas as they look to tackle this need.

On the military end, the test equipment market is facing challenges in the United States and Europe as governments have significantly reduced defense spending. Commercial manufacturers, on the other hand, are seeing a rapid uptick in the commercial market as new data-hungry Boeing and Airbus aircraft, and mandates to facilitate NextGen and Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) drive new avionics and the need for new test equipment to keep pace. Here, we speak to test equipment manufacturers from all ends of the spectrum on where they are seeing demand, where it is falling short, and how they are keeping up with new systems.

Matching the Military

“It’s an interesting time in our history for the economy,” said U.S. Air Force retired Major General Steve Sargeant, CEO of Marvin Test Solutions, a manufacturer which caters mainly to military suppliers — including Lockheed Martin for which the company supplies F-35 armament test equipment. “Certainly you can read how the economy is recovering in different quadrants and parts of the United States, although I don’t think it’s homogenous. And in the area of defense, sequestration has stripped out a lot of the money that the services were looking at for recapitalizing their equipment.”

This means money usually designated for big dollar issues, such as tanks, ships and aircraft, is being diverted to other priorities and federal agencies, according to Sargeant. Military services, including the Air Force, are feeling the pinch to sustain the equipment and aircraft they are flying much longer than expected, which can be a very expensive endeavor. This creates a complex dynamic amongst military aircraft in particular.

“When you have a fleet of airplanes that are responsible for providing the security of the nation along with the people that operate them, they not only have to maintain these aircraft at the same standards at which they came off the production line, but also to the same level of the more recent high speed bus interfaces, because weapons continue to change and weapons and avionics continue to provide more capability,” Sargeant says.

With services strapped for cash, they are looking to make essential safety and operational modifications to aircraft they had expected to retire by now. Questions are arising surrounding the antiquated test equipment they have and are now required to maintain an aging aircraft fitted with new weapons systems and buses. Marvin Test Solution’s aims to ensure that older test equipment never becomes obsolete, looking to provide long-range support. This notion is backed up by our 2015 Test Equipment Survey, in which more than 60 percent of respondents listed the ability to test both legacy and next generation systems as the largest concern when purchasing test equipment.

In 2013 the Air Force awarded Marvin Test Solutions a $5.7 million contract to create a customized test platform that would accelerate fielding of the Portable Armament Test Set (PATS)-70 for use on the flightline test set by providing mission-critical support to the modernized A-10/C Thunderbolt ll. The company developed the test set for the newly digitized avionics and upgraded precision weapon electronics used on the A-10/C. These digital instruments were fitted into the aircraft in 2008, according to Sargeant, but maintenance technicians were still using the test equipment for the analog instruments until two years ago when the service hit a “desperation window.”

“Other aircraft today aren’t in quite that exposed predicament, but they’re starting to look forward and see shortfalls. It will take a while for the United States to really make a commitment into test equipment due to sequestration, but we see signs today on the horizon that things are picking up,” says Sargeant. “There are requests for information, and there are some potentially big programs they are thinking of launching.”

Outside of aging equipment, mandates offer some opportunities in the military market as well. Guy Hill, director of the avionics business unit at Cobham AvComm, says the company is seeing a significant call for equipment to support the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Mode 5 mandate. IFF Mode 5 requires aircraft to equip for the most recent implementation of the military’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, replacing the current Mark XII Mode 4 IFF system. To fulfill this requirement, Hill says the company is seeing increased demand for its ramp test equipment, the APM-424(V)5 as well as its bench instruments, the IFF-45TS and the new automated depot test system the IFF-7300S.

As sequestration overshadows appetites and need in the United States, allowing mandates and necessity to drive the market, regions such as Asia and the Middle East are showing more promise.

“The overseas markets are much more interested, we find, to have the latest and greatest test equipment and the latest technologies,” says Sargeant. “In the Middle East we find that there is a huge appetite for modern test equipment to be fielded with the new airplanes and munitions they’re acquiring. Likewise, countries in Asia today are looking for innovative approaches to testing and are willing and able to put their money on the table to buy into it.”

Keeping Up with Commercial

Developers work to test and develop new avionics test equipment to accommodate new technologies. Photo: Vector
With more than 63 percent of respondents to our 2015 Test Equipment Survey citing the need to satisfy a service performance or operational requirement as their most compelling reason to purchase test equipment, mandates are doing a lot to drive the commercial market.

“In Europe and the United States, the most demand we see is from integration of new navigation features focusing on NextGen and SESAR,” says Bernd Mattner, program manager for avionic test systems and services at Techsat. The rise in demand also means a rise in complexity, sophistication and integration for simulation systems and test equipment that can cater to equipment aimed to enable airspace modernization.

“With navigation systems for NextGen and SESAR, we see the need to integrate navigation sub systems throughout the entire system with multi-sensor fusion and develop test systems that are able to provide navigation system integration in a dynamic environment,” says Mattner.

An example of a NextGen/SESAR test equipment need is the requirement with the aircraft flight simulation and ground system simulation aspect of next generation navigation technology. Some of the new navigation technology requires a test on the sensor-fused behavior of the entire system, including its other avionics components and the interfaces of the navigation systems in order to achieve comprehensive test results.

This is new territory for many companies looking to develop more sophisticated types of test equipment. More than half of respondents to our Survey cited multi-function capability, such as the ability to test combined instrumentation and software-reconfigurable systems, as their largest concern when considering acquiring new test equipment. For Mattner, providing systems capable of multi-function capability and system integration is one of the key challenges the company faces.

Techsat’s Avionics Development System 2 product family aims to solve these issues through an integral approach that supports tests for Verification and Validation (V&V) processes, test methodology, generic test suites, test system core software, as well as the test system hardware platform. Mattner notes that it can be expensive to develop these systems independently, so Techsat strives to use as much Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) equipment as possible when integrating the equipment for these dedicated applications into a test system.

Big data adds another level of complexity to the equation when it comes to catering to new aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, which process and offload significantly more data than ever before.

“The amount of data on new aircraft systems is steadily and permanently increasing. The test and integration of this usually bus-linked data becomes more and more extensive. The data buses find their way into nearly all sensors and it becomes more complex to combine data routing and timing verification,” says Mattner.

Arne Brehmer, head of the aerospace business area at Vector Informatik, notes that his company is looking for ways to best handle data bus protocols for both new and legacy aircraft. “It’s really a challenge to handle all of these legacy bus protocols, such as ARINC 429, which is an old protocol but is still in every new aircraft, due to its robustness. On the other hand, some manufacturers, such as Airbus, have new protocols such as [Avionics Full-Duplex Switched Ethernet] AFDX, so they have a lot of network architecture with different bus protocols and it’s a difficult issue to tackle when it comes to handling them all,” says Brehmer.

While new aircraft programs at large manufacturers have always kept the commercial industry in the United States alive and well, such as Boeing’s 777X program, markets in growing aviation regions are starting to offer more promise.

“The market in China is already on its way up, there is a lot of demand for new technology, particularly when it comes to establishing state-of-the-art testing methods and testing capabilities,” says Brehmer. But it isn’t just large economies that are seeing a pick up in the test equipment market, companies are seeing demand spur from Latin America as well. “In Brazil, Embraer is in quite a steady state. They are developing their niche area of small, well-built business jets one after another, so they have steady demand for improving their test abilities and efficiencies,” Brehmer adds.

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