U.S. Army acquiring ‘brown-out’ assistance for helos

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. Army is in the ear­ly stages of respond­ing to an Oper­a­tional Needs State­ment ask­ing for high-tech assis­tance for pilots to bet­ter nav­i­gate “brown-out” con­di­tions where ter­rain becomes obscured.

Spc. Jose Palomi­no, Spc. James Cobb, and Spc. Ken­neth Waller, look at a mod­i­fied M240 machine gun that is mount­ed in a mock-up door frame from a CH-47 Chi­nook heli­copter dur­ing the 2011 Army Avi­a­tion Asso­ci­a­tion of America’s Annu­al Pro­fes­sion­al Forum and Expo­si­tion in Nashville, Tenn. The M240’s tur­ret mount has been mod­i­fied to ensure the weapon does­n’t hit the win­dow frame
Click to enlarge

The Army plans to acquire five high-tech, 94 Giga­hertz mil­lime­ter wave radar sys­tems called Heli­copter Autonomous Land­ing Sys­tems, ser­vice offi­cials said April 3 at the 2012 Army Avi­a­tion Asso­ci­a­tion of America’s Pro­fes­sion­al Forum and Exhi­bi­tion in Nashville.

The sys­tems will help pilots nav­i­gate through what’s referred to as a Degrad­ed Visu­al Envi­ron­ment, or DVE, said Col. Antho­ny Potts, project man­ag­er, Avi­a­tion Sys­tems.

The idea for the DVE radar, which emerged out of a spe­cial­ly-formed Heli­copter Sur­viv­abil­i­ty Task Force start­ed in 2009, is to lever­age the best exist­ing tech­nolo­gies able to help pilots nav­i­gate through obscured or “brown-out” con­di­tions as a path toward con­duct­ing a Lim­it­ed User Assess­ment of the tech­nol­o­gy by the end of next year, Potts explained.

The efforts of the task force result­ed in a study titled U.S. Army Pro­gram Exec­u­tive Office Avi­a­tion Report and Rec­om­men­da­tions on Ter­rain Aware­ness Aspects of Rotor­craft Mishaps in Degrad­ed Visu­al Envi­ron­ments, Aug. 11, 2011.

“We made a deter­mi­na­tion with­in that study, the great­est threat to our air­craft was what’s called Degrad­ed Visu­al Envi­ron­ment. This refers to when a pilot’s approach to the land­ing zone in desert con­di­tions becomes what is com­mon­ly referred to as a “brown out,” where pilots lose their visu­al ref­er­ence with the ground,” Potts added.

The dan­ger of a DVE, Potts explained, is when pilots lose their sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness regard­ing what’s referred to as the “drift” of an air­frame, where­in an air­craft catch­es or col­lides with the ground or near­by obsta­cle, caus­ing a heli­copter to roll over.

The Rotor­craft Mishaps in DVE study, led by PEO Avi­a­tion with sup­port from the Army’s Avi­a­tion Cen­ter of Excel­lence and the Army Com­bat Readi­ness Cen­ter, Fort Ruck­er, Ala., and the Avi­a­tion and Mis­sile Com­mand, Red­stone Arse­nal, Ala., was geared toward look­ing at ways to help heli­copter pilots min­i­mize or avoid what’s often called Con­trolled Flight Into Ter­rain, Potts said.

The Army, which has bud­get­ed $226 mil­lion for DVE tech­nolo­gies from 2011 to 2015, plans to deliv­er the first five DVE sys­tems with­in 18 to 24 months, he added.

At the same time, PEO Avi­a­tion, Project Man­ag­er Avi­a­tion Sys­tems Pro­gram Office is expect­ing that the field­ing of the first five sys­tems in response to the ONS will help inform a sub­se­quent pro­gram of record for DVE tech­nolo­gies.

“We have an Ini­tial Capa­bil­i­ties Doc­u­ment and we are get­ting ready to pro­duce a Capa­bil­i­ties Devel­op­ment Doc­u­ment. We’re hop­ing for an Mile­stone Devel­op­ment Deci­sion, or MDD by the fourth quar­ter of this year” Potts said.

PEO Avi­a­tion is work­ing with the Spe­cial Oper­a­tions com­mu­ni­ty as well as the Army’s Tech­nol­o­gy Appli­ca­tions Pro­gram Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to estab­lish a “back­bone” archi­tec­ture able to accom­mo­date a num­ber of valu­able DVE-type tech­nolo­gies, Potts explained.

“There are a lot of sen­sors out there. We’re work­ing toward a soft­ware back­bone that can become sen­sor agnos­tic so that it is not tied to a spe­cif­ic mate­r­i­al solu­tion. We’ve found some great part­ner­ships,” Potts described.

There is some dis­cus­sion among experts regard­ing which sen­sor might be best suit­ed for DVE-type solu­tions, with poten­tial options includ­ing laser appli­ca­tions, ladar, long wave and infrared radar, Potts said.

“What we’ve found is that the mil­lime­ter wave radar had the best capa­bil­i­ty to pen­e­trate the dust obscu­rants that are in the air. Basi­cal­ly what it does is it paints a pic­ture of the ground in front of you, so that pilots can see the ground from a radar-paint­ed pic­ture,” Potts said. “Also, it will paint an obsta­cle that might be there, whether it’s a Humvee put in your land­ing zone, a ditch or a small hole that your map did­n’t show was there — and it gives you that vis­i­bil­i­ty.”

The Army’s cut­ting-edge air­craft mod­els such as the AH-64 Block III Apache attack heli­copter, UH-60 M‑model Black Hawk util­i­ty heli­copter and the CH 47 F‑model Chi­nook car­go heli­copters all have advanced dig­i­tal flight con­trols and mov­ing map dis­plays bet­ter able to help pilots nav­i­gate, Potts said.

U.S. Army

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