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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Program Insider: NACRA Meets T-Rex

By Douglas Nelms

The U.S. Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement (NACRA) at NAS Patuxent River took delivery of its new flying test bed in April, allowing flight testing on new technology projects to start in June. The Test Bed for Rapid Experimentation and Warfighter Support, or “T-Rex”, is a U.S. Marine Corps UH-1N that was being replaced by the UH-1Y Venom at USMC Base Camp Pendleton.

The new test bed concept is based on that used by the Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) at Fort Eustis, Va., but “maritime oriented, representative of the aircraft which will fly Navy and Marine Corps missions, including shipboard work,” according to Douglas Isleib, NACRA director. It is the only maritime science and technology test bed helicopter within the Department of Defense.

The aircraft initially will be used for current and short-term projects such as avionics testing or wiring sensors, “things that aren’t major aircraft modifications and real intrusive to the aircraft,” Isleib said. The aircraft is already equipped with the Mil-Std-1553 data bus to facilitate short term avionics project testing.

“We’re going to walk before we run,” he added, stating that NACRA will be looking at “quick reaction” technologies, “fielding technologies, particularly to the warfighter, that are not business-as-usual kind of fielding.” These will primarily be aimed at technological upgrades to rotorcraft currently in the fleet.

Current programs to be tested include installation of a UH-1Y mission computer to enable use of the Control Display Navigation Unit, large multi-function displays and other digital avionics to be used for evaluation of new technology.

The long-term concept is aimed at “looking into the future, determining the enabling technologies that are key to future generations of helicopters, whether it’s next generation [aircraft] or capabilities that are going to be fielded 10 years from now on current platforms,” he said.

“We’re in the good idea business,” Isleib continued. “There are good ideas out there that could be saving lives, improving missions, saving money … you name it, but they could be helping the warfighter today. Only they’re not because they’ve had a hard time bridging the ‘technology Valley of Death’—that valley between a good idea and an opportunity to demonstrate on a fleet-representative aircraft or environment. A lot of good ideas never get to a program of record because they can’t get across that valley. T-Rex is all about finding those ideas and giving them their chance.”

The new UH-1N test bed will be available to other organizations besides NAVAIR, to include other military services, industry and academia. Isleib said that initial funding for T-Rex was obtained this fiscal year following authorization of the program from Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, Naval Air War Center Commander. “He’s a visionary guy, and bought into [the T-Rex program] in order to look at different ways of doing things in different ways, to bring improvement into the fleet.”

While T-Rex funding was approved for NACRA, funding from other sponsors—who will fund their own programs using T-Rex for testing—will support the program. A NACRA goal is to become self-supporting, “bringing in dollars through sponsors who want to fly their projects on this kind of capability. When we become busy enough so that we’re paying for our own flight hours, then we start looking at whether or not we’re busy enough so that we need to expand [with additional test beds].”

The test bed will be used in four major project areas, Isleib said. The first is safety and survivability, particularly the problem with controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). “There are technologies out there—cockpit technologies, helmet technologies, knee-board technologies—that have a high probability (for improvement of safety), things we can get on the aircraft very quickly to impact safety.”

Digital interoperability is the second area. “This is absolutely the way we are going to be fighting in the future, where all the forces—airborne, ship-borne, ground, even sub-surface—can talk to each other to pass information quickly and easily” he said. With all the technologies being developed in the area of digital interoperability, T-Rex will help reduce risk for program directors in both government and industry, helping them determine which technologies make sense and “which are the ones that probably won’t work for the Navy or USMC.”

Cost reduction is the third focus. Isleib said that there are projects out there that could be low-cost replacements for things that are on rotorcraft now, “but may not see the light of day, may not get looked at, if not for this independent testing capability. So we hope to impact cost reduction, finding products out there that will last longer, be cheaper and operate better, and can be inserted quickly and easily to replace current equipment.” The fourth area is simply mission effectiveness.

As a flying test-bed, the UH-1N will undergo constant modifications as new equipment is placed in or on it. While NACRA has its own self-contained maintenance operations, it will be working within NAVAIR rules and regulations, using Test Squadron HX-21 for technical authority to sign off any modifications “to ensure that we stay safe,” Isleib said. The T-Rex UH-1N is both a combat veteran, having served in Afghanistan, and a veteran of scientific research in Antarctica before being turned over to NACRA.

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