Boeing, Air Force Keeping a Close Eye on KC-46A Tanker Avionics

Integrating commercial and military avionics into the U.S. Air Force’s new KC-46A aerial refueling tanker will be a significant challenge, so program leaders are keeping an especially close eye on that effort, according to the general who oversees the aircraft’s development.

The program, with prime contractor Boeing, will integrate a new aerial refueling operator station, fuel transfer equipment, defensive systems, flight deck displays of the Boeing 787 and a host of other items into a Boeing 767-2C commercial airframe. The KC-46A also has a modernized KC-10 boom with a fly-by-wire control system, and a refueling envelope. “Overall in the program, the biggest risk that Boeing has and the biggest risk we have is schedule, and one of the pieces of that risk is the avionics and the software, so we’re watching that carefully,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Air Force’s KC-46 program executive officer. “As much as we want to believe that a good portion of the avionics on this airplane comes from the commercial backbone and won’t change, the fact of the matter is when you start overlaying the military applications on it, it gets to be a little bit complicated.”

Boeing is moving through the development of the long-awaited tanker, which completed the preliminary design review in April. Future milestones include the establishment of system integration laboratories (SIL) this year and critical design review, which is scheduled for July 2013.

Bogdan said in the preliminary design review Boeing was able to show how it plans to integrate some of the military capabilities into the commercial software. “You usually don’t see that kind of detail until you get toward” a critical design review, he said. “But there’s a long, long way to go with the avionics on this program. Some of the requirements we have are pretty stringent.”

Rockwell Collins is supplying much of the avionics systems for the tanker, including four 15.1-inch LCDs developed for the 787 Dreamliner, tactical situation awareness system, which combines the traffic alert collision avoidance system, Mode S transponders, terrain awareness warning system and weather radar functions into a single unit, and UHF-VHF radios/tactical airborne navigation system. Other avionics suppliers include Raytheon (military GPS portion of the navigation system); Honeywell (air data inertial reference unit); Thales (integrated standby flight display); GE Aviation (flight management computer); and Teledyne Controls (aircraft condition monitoring system software and digital flight data acquisition unit).

Maureen Dougherty, Boeing’s KC-46 vice president and program manager, said the program is using as many existing components as possible to reduce risk. “We have tried to maximize the use of existing and certified commercial avionics and military avionics … and only make those changes that are required to integrate them.”

“Boeing underestimated the amount of work that was going to be required to integrate the avionics and the software on this program” and fell “a couple months” behind, but the company recognized the problem “fairly early on” and is “working very hard to try to catch up,” Bogdan told Avionics. Boeing tapped about $30 million from a reserve account to speed up software development and has remained committed to staying on schedule for the three SILs it is building in Seattle, he said. The first two SILs are slated to start testing commercial and military hardware and software in October. The third lab, which is to begin testing in April 2013, will have a flight deck and an aerial refueling operator station and look like the inside of an airplane.

“The question is, can they get the hardware delivered from their suppliers and can they integrate that appropriately in enough time for us to keep the program on track, and that remains to be seen still,” Bogdan added. “The risk of them not meeting those SIL dates is probably low to moderate.”

Tough tasks ahead include providing the ability to keep classified and unclassified information separate, and integrating military satellite communications and data links into the aircraft. Both are considered hard to do because the 767 was not designed for those capabilities.

While Boeing is due to deliver the first 18 KC-46As by 2017 and a total of 179 tankers by 2027, the Air Force is in the early stages of developing requirements for KC-Y, the tanker the service might buy after the KC-46A. One of the capabilities being considered for KC-Y is aerial refueling of unmanned aircraft.

“Probably by about the time we start delivering the first KC-46s, which is somewhere in the 2016-2017 point, we will start putting the framework on what we’re doing for KC-Y,” Bogdan said.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is evaluating industry bids to develop, build and support the KC-46 Aircrew Training System. A contract award of about $2 billion is expected by Dec. 31. Bogdan declined to say which or how many companies are competing, but Boeing, CAE and Lockheed Martin all confirmed they submitted proposals. L-3 Communications and FlightSafety have also been mentioned as potential competitors; FlightSafety declined to comment, and L-3 did not respond to requests for comment. — Marc Selinger

Iridium to Put ADS-B Receivers on NEXT Constellation

Left to right, Aireon CEO Don Thoma, Iridium CEO Matt Desch and former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta discuss the formation of Aireon.

Satellite operator Iridum, through its new joint venture Aireon, will be putting automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ABS-B) receivers on its next-generation satellite constellation, aimed at bringing global, real-time aircraft surveillance for air navigation service providers (ANSP).

Aireon, the joint venture between Iridium and Canadian ANSP Nav Canada, with support from FAA and suppliers Harris Corp. and ITT Exelis, will enable continuous space-based monitoring and control of aircraft, using space-qualified 1090 MHz Extended Squitter (ES) ADS-B receivers built into each of the 66 satellites in Iridium NEXT, Iridium’s second-generation satellite constellation. Iridium NEXT satellites are scheduled to launch from 2015 to 2017, and will provide this capability as the new satellites are commissioned, with full service expected by 2017. The receivers each weight about 100 pounds and will be fully integrated into the satellite. Nav Canada will be Aireon’s first customer.

“I am excited that Iridium will once again be able to use its unique global satellite network to expand connectivity beyond the limitations of ground-based systems,” said Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium. “We are now extending the reach of land-based aircraft tracking systems. This is a big milestone for commercially hosted payloads and it will be a ground-breaking use of Iridium NEXT.... We are thrilled that our service will make air travel more efficient and safer. Aireon is truly revolutionary.”

Desch told Avionics the system is designed to provide aircraft surveillance data for areas not currently served by terrestrial systems, namely the North Atlantic. “We’ve had some pretty detailed discussions with a number of ANSPs, the obvious one would be NATS, but we’ve also talked to others, quite a few others, around the world,” he said. “We’re not being built for handling high, dense terminal area traffic. We’re offering a service for over places where there are no ground systems. It’s one of the reasons why we’re so complementary to ground-based systems.”

ITT Exelis, which is under contract with FAA to deploy the ADS-B ground infrastructure in the United States, will act as the system integrator for the Aireon project. (ITT said it will be necessary to make modifications to its ground infrastructure to accommodate the network, but said the changes would be modest.) Harris has been selected as the payload provider, providing 81 space-qualified ADS-B receivers to fly as hosted payloads on NEXT, including in-orbit and ground spares. Fieldstone Partners and NEXA Capital Partners, which manages a $1.5 billion capital investment for operators to equipment with NextGen technology, are advising and supporting Iridium in the formation of Aireon LLC.

“We went to the FAA, we started going out to ANSPs, we started talking to technology partners, avionics players, airframe manufacturers.... Everybody got it right away and realized how innovative this could be,” Desch said, referring to early discussions of the system. “It was sort of a once in a lifetime kind of shot here.

“We were launching in 2015 and nobody else was going to launch a satellite system that could host something like this... We realized this had a lot of promise.”

“What we liked about this idea, and what I think Nav Canada and all the others who got involved in this like, is taking advantage of what that was already on the airplane and make it more valuable to the airlines,” Desch told Avionics.

Assuming the successful negotiation of long-term service contracts with Nav Canada and other ANSPs, Aireon is expected to generate about $200 million in one-time hosting fees for the integration and launch of the payloads between 2014 and 2017. Iridium also expects to receive annual data fee revenue and have a significant retained interest in Aireon, which will evolve it from being the largest shareholder today to between 40 percent to 50 percent ownership during the deployment of Iridium NEXT. — Emily Feliz

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox