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Military Avionics Trends: Cockpit Upgrades, Integration with Civil Airspace

In the coming years, the military avionics supply and demand chain will feature advanced cockpit upgrades and integration capabilities with civil airspace, as countries move forward on urban air mobility concepts and as the use of drones becomes increasingly common.

Behind increasingly advanced, touch-screen military cockpits that fuse information from a variety of sensors lie required encryption technologies, more powerful processors and networking technologies. That’s where Curtiss Wright Defense Solutions steps in as a subcontractor to Tier I suppliers, such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Honeywell.

Radars on military aircraft have been moving since the 1990s from mechanically steered antenna models to jam-resistant, electronically scanned area antenna systems that can track multiple targets. In January, Northrop Grumman said the United States Air Force had completed the installation of the company’s AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar on Lockheed Martin F-16 Air National Guard fighters at Joint Base Andrews, Md to meet a U.S. Northern Command Joint Emergent Operational Need for homeland defense.

In designing the APG-83 to give the F-16 fifth-generation fighter capabilities, Northrop Grumman said that it drew upon its experience building the APG-77 for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter and the APG-81 for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter. Northrop Grumman said the APG-83’s bandwidth, speed, and agility advantage over the F-16’s legacy APG-68 mechanically steered antenna radar, also built by Northrop Grumman, will allow the aircraft “to detect, track and identify a greater number of targets faster and at longer ranges.” Such targets could include cruise missiles and enemy aircraft.

High-speed digital processors that can keep pace with a plethora of incoming signals and signal conversions are required for such advanced AESA radars.

“We make a lot of hardware that fulfills that role,” Paul Hart, the chief technology officer and technical fellow at Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, told Avionics International.

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions is also providing encrypted transponders and more powerful processors required for companies doing military Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out work.

The Pentagon said last August that it would have 2,936 aircraft equipped with ADS-B (Out) by the Federal Aviation Administration-mandated deadline of Jan. 1 this year, according to the U.S. Air Force, the military service in charge of the effort.

That number is just 21 percent of DoD's total aircraft inventory, but officials have said that ADS-B (Out) modifications present a significant depot scheduling challenge, and, in some cases, engineering challenges, such as for fighter aircraft. By 2025, DoD plans to have about 62 percent of its aircraft equipped with ADS-B (Out), including 35 percent of fighter aircraft, 67 percent of helicopters, and 100 percent of mobility, command and control/intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C2/ISR), and trainer aircraft, an Air Force official said recently.

Collins Aerospace is supplying ADS-B transponders for the DoD effort, while other contractors, including primes such as Boeing, are providing integration, GPS upgrade and navigation work.

The U.S. Air Force is upgrading the cockpits of C-21A aircraft, the military variation of the Learjet 35A, to comply with FAA air traffic mandates, including ADS-B (Out). The digital upgrades include Universal Avionics EFI-890R electronic flight instrument system, the Honeywell Primus 880 weather radar, the 24-channel Trimble GPS and Precise Positioning Service (PPS) military receiver, and the Raytheon APX-119 Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder with ADS-B (Out). A dual flight management system with internal GPS receivers is installed in the center pedestal.U.S. Air Force

A Memorandum of Agreement signed by Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell and then Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on July 26, 2018 noted that "the cost, budget, and depot schedule constraints make it prohibitive for DoD to equip all DoD aircraft by the [Jan. 1, 2020] compliance date."

"Notwithstanding these potential constraints, DoD will seek to align ADS-B Out equipage with other program updates (e.g. Identification Friend or Foe–Mode 5 and Military Code [M-Code] receivers) in order to reduce overall costs," the MoA said. "Additionally, there are instances where DoD airframes are scheduled to be retired soon after the compliance date, which would narrow the benefit window considerably and may not be best value to the public."

Another issue for the Pentagon and the military agencies of allied countries is how to equip aircraft with Synthetic Vision Systems (SVS), Degraded Visual Environment technologies and improved tactical data links beyond Link 16.

Some 23,286 military aircraft worldwide are wired for the 1 megabit/per second MIL-STD-1553B data bus, 1980s technology that will not permit such advanced upgrades without rewiring that can cost $750,000 per aircraft for labor and supplies alone, according to Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions. These aircraft include 4,573 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, 4,000 Lockheed Martin UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, 2,500 Lockheed Martin C-130 transports, 2,000 Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, 1,200 Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and 1,198 Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle planes.

In 2015, the NATO Standardization Organization approved a new standard, STANAG 7221, to accommodate advanced upgrades, such as SVS, through data rates several hundred times greater than MIL-STD-1553, but it remains to be seen how far military agencies will go to move toward STANAG 7221 for their aircraft.

“A lot of people are looking at that,” said Hart of Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions.

Collins Aerospace is also focusing on networked communications in the military avionics market. The company says its customers increasingly demand ad-hoc voice and data communications among aviation and mobile ground forces.

“The advanced waveforms utilized by our latest communications systems provide beyond-line-of-sight connectivity for voice, data and imagery enabling improved command and control, as well as enhanced situational awareness on the battlefield,” the company wrote in an email to Avionics International.

“Many military customers with both fixed and rotary wing aircraft are selecting our latest ARC-210 RT-2036(C) networked communications radio for their next communications systems upgrade,” according to Collins Aerospace. “The ARC-210 is an airborne software-defined radio communications system providing advanced tactical networking waveforms, such as MUOS (Mobile User Objective System) SATCOM for unprecedented secure voice and data connectivity around the globe.”

“The ARC-210 system also provides communications with civil agencies supporting homeland security and disaster relief missions,” Collins Aerospace told Avionics. “The ARC-210 radio is easily integrated in military aircraft with options for either MIL-STD-1553 or Ethernet for user data and control functions, as well as a standalone control capabilities.”

Collins Aerospace said that its second focus area for military avionics is mission effectiveness and airspace interoperability.

“Upgrades to RNP RNAV [Required Navigation Performance and Area Navigation] allows our military customers the flexibility to seamlessly plan and execute their missions in the most effective manner possible, as opposed to the requirement for pilots to select between different navigations systems in some platforms,” the company said.

RNP RNAV are part of Collins Aerospace’s Flight2™ integration avionics system, fielded on more than 900 aircraft, including Boeing KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, and C-130 transports, Northrop Grumman C-2A supply aircraft and E-2C Hawkeye early warning aircraft, and Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

U.S. Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft by Boeing have received digital, glass cockpits under the Diminishing Manufacturing Sources Replacement of Avionics for Global Operations and Navigation (DRAGON) program. Boeing is the contractor for the effort.U.S. Air Force

Last August, L3Harris selected Collins Aerospace to upgrade 176 C-130H U.S. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve aircraft with Flight2™, to replace more than 100 analog cockpit instruments with seven multifunctional displays (MFD), three control display units (CDU), and a new digital autopilot to reduce pilots’ workload, improve pilots’ situational awareness, and improve the safety and reliability of the aircraft. The new displays are also to facilitate the pilots’ overlay of flight plans and viewing of nearby points-of-interest, radar and threat information.

“We are frequently asked by our customers to help upgrade of their existing navigations systems to meet the latest RNP RNAV standards for civil airspace,” Collins Aerospace said. “This commonly requires an update to their aircraft’s GPS systems. However, more importantly, the upgrades include the integration of our proven Flight Management Systems. Leveraging our commercial avionics capabilities, we have uniquely developed FMS solutions for fixed and rotary-wing aircraft that provide seamless flight management through both civil and tactical airspace.”

Technicians install a Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 radar.Northrop Grumman

In addition, Collins Aerospace said that it has recently begun working with several rotorcraft customers to implement ADS-B in their cockpits.

“We have approached this as a new capability integration effort by adding software applications for interface with low-cost 3rd party ADS-B receivers,” the company said. “Our software apps then provide ADS-B based traffic and weather information for display on our high-resolution cockpit displays in intuitive, easy to read symbology and text.”

Open architecture systems that can readily accept upgrades are another opportunity area for military avionics builders, as well as a challenge.

In January, the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to build a Software Programmable Open Mission System Compliant (SPOC) radio terminal to provide an air-to-ground and air-to-air communications challenge across four radio frequency waveforms: Link 16 CMN-4, Common Data Link, Multifunction Data Link, and MUOS.

Roshan Roeder, the vice president of Northrop Grumman’s communications, airborne sensors and networks division, said the SPOC terminal would benefit the Air Force’s development of the airborne communications infrastructure for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) and “provides a mature hardware and software development kit that allows the Air Force to rapidly develop and prototype innovative communications solutions from any provider on an open architecture networking terminal that can be quickly taken into flight test and production.”

In January, the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to build a Software Programmable Open Mission System Compliant (SPOC) radio terminal to provide an air-to-ground and air-to-air communications challenge across four radio frequency waveformsNorthrop Grumman

The Air Force held its first test of ABMS at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla, in December to demonstrate real-time interoperability among the military services.

“Key challenges for military avionics upgrades both now and for the foreseeable future remain in the complexities and differences in closed proprietary architectures commonly found in military aircraft,” Collins Aerospace wrote in an email to Avionics International. “Although the services have worked for many years on various approaches to Open System Architecture, the lack of widely used standards continue to create roadblocks to affordable reuse of common capabilities and functions,” the company wrote. “The Future Airborne Capability Environment, FACETM, is one example of an open architecture standard that promises the ability to allow affordable reuse of software components across systems developed by different avionics suppliers. FACE has been adopted by the U.S. Army as the common operating environment for aviation.”

Collins Aerospace said it is working with NAVAIR to qualify the company’s FACE-certified MFMS-1000 Mission Flight Management Software and LPVC-1000 Localizer Performance with the Vertical Guidance Calculator application.

“In the future, Navy aircraft equipped with a FACE compliant system architecture will be more easily upgraded to advanced capabilities through reuse of previously qualified solutions helping address the challenges delaying delivery of needed capabilities to the field,” the company said.