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The U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (VFL) program will usher in not only a new type of aircraft platform but also a new way of operating. These tilt-rotor aircraft will fly faster, cover longer distances, and operate in harsher aviation environments than the workhorse attack and utility helicopters of today.
The FVL aircraft also will carry a new generation of advanced sensors that will increase survivability and lethality while creating situational awareness that air crews only dream about.
The new sensor systems, which will be in development for the next five to ten years, will be expected to perform such services as advanced missile warning and hostile fire detection. But for such sensor systems to become a reality they must be smaller, more sensitive and able to deliver more information in a way pilots and air crews can understand and quickly respond.
Army laboratories and industry face significant challenges to meet these advanced sensor requirements that will place a premium on feature-rich, multi-functionality operations. Sensors will have to provide 360 degrees of situational awareness for pilots and crew while protecting them from hostile and environmental threats with tied-in capability of infrared and active solutions like RADAR and LIDAR.
LIDAR, also known as LADAR, is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating it with a laser light. Targeting capabilities also will have to be advanced with such features as multi-target tracking and aided target recognition for prioritized target lists. All of this information will have to be linked together and distilled into an easy and quick-to-understand package for aircrews.
Army officials say there are significant technological limitations on the current helicopter fleet and that over time those technology capability gaps will escalate, resulting in potential adversary overmatch. The technology in the FVL fleet is expected to eliminate that threat.
While Future Vertical Lift aircraft are still years away from taking off on their first missions in the 2030 timeframe, the sensor technology that will go on these platforms must be ready in the early 2020’s to be tested on existing aircraft that will bridge the gap between the two generations of fleets.
“We are going to be developing the new sensors over the next five years, and the Army wants them to be smaller, lighter while using much less power than the sensors of today, all while costing very little,” said Shawn Black, vice president and general manager of DRS Technologies’ Infrared Sensors and Systems business.
Size, weight, power and cost (SWaP/C) will be the primary drivers for the Army requirements on the advanced sensors. Sensor suites the Army is looking for include technology for aircraft protection, targeting and situational awareness. Some of this technology is still in its infancy if even out of the concept phase.
But there are technologies in development now that will make great advancements in the coming five years. For aircraft protection, the Army is looking at technology that will search for and locate the signature and source of enemy attacks by small-arms fire, including assault rifles. On a larger scale, the service is expected to use infrared countermeasure technology that throws incoming missiles off-course with a laser jammer.
Missile protection technology exists today in the form of the Distributed Aperture Infrared Counter Measures system, which the US Navy is testing. Developed by DRS Technologies, the DAIRCM is an aircraft protection system that combines missile detection, hostile fire indication, and situational awareness with a missile defeat capability that detects incoming threats and can counter and jam them.
“DAIRCM is designed to offer an alternative to today’s additive, federated systems by combining multi-function capabilities like missile detection, missile defeat, hostile fire detection and situational awareness in a single system. The benefits to the warfighter’s are amplified through the reduced life cycle sustainment cost associated with maintaining a single system rather than three or four separate, federated systems.” Black said.
Situational awareness is another key element sought by the Army. The goal is a 360-degree field of view for pilots and crew. The Army envisions that they will wear helmets incorporated with heads-up displays permitting them to see video feeds simultaneously from constantly scanning sensors surrounding the aircraft.
Seeing Through the Skin
The Army wants pilots to be able to “see” through the skin of these new aircraft. Multiple vision-enhancing sensors would be installed on the outside of, but flush with the skin to promote aerodynamics, giving the crew the ability to see virtually anywhere they need to look. These sensors would also enable crew members to see through degraded visual conditions such as brownouts, fog, smoke or bad weather.
The technology to make that wish come true will require devices with high resolution to cover the wide field of regard and still provide enough pixels to create a clear image to the pilot. To get to that level of visual acuity, the pixel density of today’s digital imagery must be improved significantly.
Pixels are the tiny building blocks of electronic images and just as with commercial High Definition cameras on today’s smart phones the smaller they are, the easier they are to integrate in a small form factor. These are crucial considerations for the Army.
Simply put, the service needs a lot more pixels per sensor with different spectral characteristics on single sensors and at maximum cost effectiveness. These new sensors will likely be integrated in today’s helicopter fleet (such as current attack platforms) until the vertical-lift replacements come along. During that time, thorough testing would be performed and lessons learned implemented
World’s Smallest Pixel
DRS Technologies would appear to have a significant advantage in this quest. The company makes the world’s smallest cooled IR pixel at six (6) microns in size. 12 microns is the typical current range with some manufacturers recently developing eight (8) microns. .
“We can fit a much higher resolution format into a much smaller package,” Black said. “We are well placed to keep this development moving at a pace to considerably reduce the size of our two-color, multi-spectral sensors as well,” he said.
Size, weight and power, or SWaP, become huge determinants, especially as the increased speed and, therefore, fuel consumption of the vertical-lift craft become significant. Hence the new emphasis on aerodynamics, which has not been a factor in helicopter design.
More and smaller pixels per sensor will also increase the amount of data each can produce. So another challenge becomes finding the best way to turn the raw data into usable information and package it for rapid transmission to cockpit and crew in a form that can be comprehended and responded to as quickly as possible.
By 2020, uncooled-sensor technology, which is swiftly growing in sensitivity, may be sensitive enough that some of these advanced sensors may not necessarily need to be cryogenically cooled. This is another potential sweet spot for DRS, which is the only manufacturer of ten (10) micron pitch uncooled sensors as well as pushing the limits of performance as demonstrated with a recent DARPA award.