Military Avionics R&D: Spending Dips But Opportunities Soar

By by Charlotte Adams | October 1, 2014
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Recently, the U.S. military is focusing more avionics Research and Development (R&D) spending on upgrades and fixes than on designing new platforms. This includes emphases on mission avionics, such as sensors, data links and Electronic Warfare (EW), as well as cyber security and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD).

Avionics Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) spending has been dropping for several years, according to Wayne Plucker, director for Frost & Sullivan’s North American aerospace and defense practice. Plucker says the Pentagon is not buying many new platforms, instead it is tweaking what systems it has in place. Still, there are some relatively new aviation projects moving into Engineering Manufacturing Development (EMD). The more mature development programs, such as the Presidential Helicopter Replacement and the Combat Rescue Helicopter programs, will offer R&D opportunities for mission equipment.

The Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) is a newer program, set to consume $750 million in the fiscal year 2015, as part of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) R&D spending.

Gains and Losses

The sensor technology sector of RDT&E received $272 million in the 2013 fiscal year and is looking for $312 million in the 2015 fiscal year in applied research as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) budget. Spending on Navy tactical data links and Air Force command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C2ISR) data links is slated to increase in the 2015 fiscal year. UAV spending also would rise from $2 billion in 2014 to $2.75 billion, Plucker says. Funding is being directed to address GPS weaknesses and A2/AD, with most of the plus-up going to the LRSB.

Both Honeywell and Rockwell Collins are working on data links. Northrop Grumman recently demonstrated a system, using dual-band Honeywell antennas, which will enable the newest, fifth-generation fighters to communicate securely with legacy aircraft. Lockheed Martin, using Rockwell Collins’ TacNet Tactical Radio, also has demonstrated how this interoperability can improve.

Key emphases in the 2015 Department of Defense (DoD) science and technology base (6.1-6.3) budget request include overcoming A2/AD challenges ($2 billion) and the related areas of cyberspace and space operations ($0.9 billion) and EW ($0.5 billion), according to a review of the federal 2015 electrotechnology research budget published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

There will be cuts, as well, if the fiscal year 2015 request is approved. Two of the major budgetary losses involve legacy platforms: the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) airborne C4I platform and the F-16 fighter, according to C. Zachary Hofer, defense electronics analyst with Forecast International.

The Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES), the F-16’s major avionics modernization program, has been canceled, Hofer says, scrubbing more than $253.2 million from the budget over the fiscal year 2013 through fiscal year 2017 timeline.

The E-8 JSTARS has already been as upgraded as possible, Hofer says. The E-8 has been canceled and the corresponding RDT&E budget eliminated. However, the E-8/RDT&E program has been replaced with a follow-on program, the NextGen JSTARS, that demands a significant investment in avionics technologies.

Despite the dip in spending, avionics companies will enjoy a wealth of opportunities. Honeywell is focusing on navigation, data link, altimeter, anti-jam and anti-tamper advances, among others while Rockwell Collins is emphasizing sectors such as cyber (data security), communications, EW and A2/AD.

GPS Alternatives

The GPS-alternative technologies under consideration include visual imaging via terrain mapping or visual odometry, star tracking, two-way time transfers and the use of signals of opportunity (SoOPs), etc. However, all approaches have limitations, so a combination will be required.

Honeywell, for example, is working on more accurate inertials that could prove to be an effective counter to GPS jamming when combined with a fixed-beam antenna. The company has also developed Selective Availability, Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM)-capable Embedded GPS Inertial (EGI) navigation systems, now available. It is also looking at star trackers that could be used instead of GPS to calibrate inertial sensors. The best way to defeat GPS denial is “to have a more accurate inertial system because inertials can’t be jammed,” predicts Tom Hart, vice president of defense and space sales for Honeywell Aerospace.

GPS Hardening

In addition to a weak signal, GPS can be spoofed, intruded on and jammed. The military has anti-spoofing and anti-jamming technologies but the 2011 Iranian capture of a U.S. UAV seems to indicate they have their limits.

Some GPS-equipped platforms use Controlled Radiation Pattern Arrays (CRPA) — Electronically Scanned Array (ESA)-type architectures — for jamming protection. But strong jamming can overcome CRPAs, and the vast majority of current military platforms still use omnidirectional antennas.

Some GPS projects involve encryption technologies that enable vehicles to tell a real signal from a false one, Plucker says. Other efforts involve helicopter/UAV teaming and UAV swarming to defeat area denial. Teaming concepts might require one manned aircraft to control seven unmanned vehicles.

DARPA is well aware of the GPS problem and has multiple programs addressing Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) technologies. “GPS is the predominant means of obtaining PNT information for a majority of systems and applications, both military and civilian,… [having] effectively displaced almost all other sources of PNT for military applications as diverse as munitions,… ISR, communications and battlespace management,” the agency says. But its pervasiveness is worrisome. “GPS is vulnerable to interference due to its low signal strength. This combination of ubiquity and fragility has led many to conclude that sole reliance on GPS is untenable,” says DARPA.

The agency’s Micro-PNT program is seeking to develop low-cost, -size, -weight and -power (SWaP), micro-level inertial sensors and timing devices. “These sensors and clocks form the basis of inertial navigation (dead-reckoning) systems which enable navigation without the use of external signals, such as GPS,” says Robert Lutwak, DARPA’s program manager. Contractors are developing clocks, gyroscopes and accelerometers based on Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), as well as “atomic-physics-based devices,” he says. “The objective of micro-PNT is to extend the duration and accuracy of navigation by dead-reckoning on all platforms,” Lutwak explains.

A related DARPA program is the Spatial, Temporal and Orientation Information in Contested Environments (STOIC), which was evaluating proposals at the time of this writing. Seeking to provide GPS-independent PNT with GPS-level timing and positioning, STOIC focuses on robust, long-range reference signals, “ultra-stable” tactical clocks and multifunctional systems that provide PNT information between cooperative users.

The Army’s Communications-Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), and the Naval Research Lab (NRL) are also pursuing solutions that leverage and advance technology originally developed under DARPA, Lutwak says.


A related DARPA endeavor is the Arrays at Commercial Timescales (ACT) program, which aims to reduce the cost of procuring electronically scanned array antennas by at least 80 percent. A major thrust of the program is to develop a common building block component that is readily upgradeable and customizable to applications such as radar, EW and communications. This digitally interconnected common module would comprise 80 to 90 percent of an array’s core functionality.

Electronically steered ESA antennas are faster and more agile than similarly sized mechanically steered antennas and more effective in contested environments. They transmit multiple beams simultaneously to multiple points in space, with high directivity on multiple channels and different data rates.

There are a lot of applications that are underserved by ESA technology because of the costs, says Lee Paulsen, Rockwell Collins’ principal investigator under the ACT program.The core of Rockwell Collins’ ACT module consists of a reconfigurable silicon germanium (SiGe) transceiver; a low-cost, 65-nm CMOS Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC); and a reconfigurable Software-Defined Radio (SDR) architecture realized in a next-generation, Arria 10 Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) from Altera. The company is developing the transceiver internally and partnering with Stanford University and the University of Oklahoma on the ADC and the SDR architecture, respectively.

Cyber Security

As Cyber security is growing more important, DARPA’s High Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS) program aims to develop secure software for UAVs and ground vehicles. Rockwell Collins is the prime contractor for the air vehicle team, working with Boeing, National ICT Australia (NICTA), the University of Minnesota (UMN) and Galois, a research firm in Portland, Ore.

In the now completed Phase 1, the team developed secure software for a small quadcopter UAV test vehicle. They ported a secure, Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) of NICTA’s to the UAV processor and developed secure control and communications software for the test UAV. Galois synthesized all of the onboard vehicle software from high-level specifications, and Rockwell Collins and UMN performed the formal proofs of the software architecture, verifying correct information flows. DARPA’s red team was not able to penetrate the vehicle software from the external network.

In the ongoing Phase 2 the team will add NICTA’s seL4 operating system kernel to the quadcopter, the first operating system kernel to have functional and security properties formally verified to the binary level, according to John Borghese, vice president of Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Technology Center. During this phase, the seL4 kernel is ported to the Boeing Unmanned Little Bird helicopter to secure its mission software. The red team will launch attacks from within the onboard vehicle software — not just over the external network, which assumes they have hacked into the system via the external network and gained a foothold onboard the vehicle. The team’s software will have to recognize the danger and prevent malware from infecting other parts of the onboard software.

Phase 3 of HACMS will continue the transition of secure software technology from the quadcopter to the ULB and the team will modify the existing system to make it resistant to attacks. This includes use of the NICTA RTOS on the ULB flight control computer, seL4 on its mission computer and synthesis of some of its control and communication software components.

Rockwell Collins’ compositional reasoning tools will formally analyze the software architecture and components to identify security vulnerabilities. This involves defining mathematical specifications of assumptions and guarantees about the behavior of the system and its components.

Charlotte Adamshas written about aerospace and defense systems, operations and maintenance issues for 30 years. She is a contributor to Avionics, Aviation Maintenance and other industry publications and can be reached at [email protected].

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