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Inside Science and Technology 

Old Sensors Can Learn New Tricks 

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By Dan Parsons 



An array of sensors have over the years been developed for helicopters, but these systems don’t always work well together. And they often do not transmit information to commanders on the ground.

A new consortium of defense companies is hoping to give pilots situational awareness and threat-response systems that are greater than the sum of their parts. It is one of many efforts to make troops at all levels better able to share information using existing sensors. The program also could be a bargain for a cash-strapped Defense Department, as it would provide expanded capabilities without the cost of buying new equipment.

Dozens of defense and technology firms have teamed up to create the Future Airborne Capability Environment, or FACE. The consortium is trying to arrive at a system that will do for the digital battle space what Windows does for PCs.

“That’s the goal of FACE, to create this interface with which multiple sensors and software can seamlessly plug and play,” said Donald Breen, Northrop Grumman’s director of land forces market development. “We want to maintain affordability, maintain modularity and use the equipment that the government has out there right now.”

Led by Navy Air Systems Command and Army Aviation, the consortium includes 100 different companies collaborating on a set of technical standards for digital interoperability.

Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer of Army Aviation, has called FACE “exactly the kind of government-industry cooperative effort needed to ensure that Army Aviation keeps pace with the speed of information technology development.”

Interoperability is an issue that most of the services are tackling on a strategic level. The Marine Corps is particularly interested in keeping tabs on and communicating with its troops during expeditionary operations. The Navy is wrestling with making ships and combat aircraft talk to each other over a secure network.

For now, FACE is focused on cutting through the fog of war at the “pointy end of the sword,” said Breen.

That’s the aim of programs like the Rotorcraft Avionics Innovation Laboratory — an industry collaborative co-founded by Northrop Grumman that includes other defense industry heavy hitters like Harris Corp., FLIR Systems Inc., L3 Communications and BAE Systems.

The various participants have poured $15 million into RAIL over five years of research into helicopter survivability.

They include syncing threat-warning and sensor systems into a cohesive, automatic defensive capability.

The lab has integrated 20 products into a seamless network that allows troops on the ground, pilots and commanders to share information in real time. It has about 120 products from a dozen companies under testing.

Engineers have taken everything in an aircraft’s sensor suite and tied them together so they work automatically in feeding situational awareness to pilots and ground commanders.

Say a ground patrol comes under heavy fire and calls for an extraction by air. A Blackhawk helicopter and a pair of Apache gunships are scrambled to pull them out. En route, the Blackhawk takes fire from an infrared-guided man-portable air-defense system.

With RAIL’s new software suite, the aircraft’s advanced threat warner system identifies incoming fire and alerts the pilot while automatically engaging the common infrared countermeasure device. Without the pilot’s cue, the CIRCM finds and disables the missile’s homing mechanism.

“All that information is given to the pilot, so immediately he’s going to know he’s being shot at and what is being shot at him, and he’s going to know where that threat is,” Breen said. “Already, the lightweight countermeasures system is shooting out flares automatically to confuse the incoming missile.”

While the warhead zooms past, the CIRCM immediately geo-locates its source and takes a photo. The threat’s location and image are automatically offloaded to pilots in both the Blackhawk and Apaches. Using the APR-39 radar warning receiver, the same automated process can thwart radar-guided munitions. It can only identify and pinpoint a dumb threat, like a rocket propelled grenade. But if sensors can track it, gunships can kill whoever fired it. Commanders at the tactical operations center can view all of this information and the troops’ location on a map, and can learn of attacks and the progress of the mission as it unfolds.

The same system works for moving targets, like a tracked vehicle. In that instance, while all of the same countermeasures are deploying, an MQ-C1 Gray Eagle is dispatched to locate and photograph the vehicle. The data are passed to the gunships.

Each of the component systems in that chain of events is standard equipment on Army helicopters. But the automated threat detection and avoidance procedures are made possible by RAIL software.

Breen said minor software adjustments alone can provide dramatically enhanced situational awareness for pilots and commanders.

While RAIL and FACE are primarily concerned with aviation, engineers have realized that similar digital interoperability is useful in other missions.

“What we’ve realized over the past four years … is that the capability and thought leadership and expertise we’ve developed applies to so many other realms,” said Breen.

Wherever sensors operate within an open-architecture computing environment, the same principals can apply. RAIL has already begun testing Elbit Systems and FLIR Systems sensors to determine their effectiveness in automated threat detection and force protection at static installations.

Officials are also eager to find out what these sensors, when linked, can do in adverse weather conditions. RAIL’s future focus areas are finding ways for pilots to better see through dust in brown-out conditions or during nighttime landings at sea.

“It’s all about finding the right combination of existing sensors and devices to do the job that is needed,” Breen said.

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.
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