Collins opens FVL tech center near U.S. Army aviation HQ

By Dan Parsons | October 7, 2021

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 24 seconds.

Collins Aerospace recently cut the ribbon on a customer experience center aimed at allowing Army aviation officials to try emerging rotorcraft technologies before the service buys them for use aboard Future Vertical Lift aircraft.

Building immersive “experience centers” to show off emerging tech has been a trend for some time. Major aerospace players like Lockheed Martin and Bell have built similar facilities in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from lawmakers in Congress. Bell in July announced the construction of a dedicated FVL technology laboratory in Arlington, Texas.

Inside Collins Aerospace’s new Army Customer Experience Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Collins Photo

Now comes Collins’ new facility in Huntsville, Alabama, which brings together all four major business divisions of parent company Raytheon in close proximity to Army aviation, which is headquartered at nearby Fort Rucker. The new facility allows the company to bring diverse technologies from its various divisions — Collins alone has dozens of product lines in six business units — to one place in the neighborhood of Army aviation, according to John Esposito, vice president of strategic pursuits at Collins. Unlike the quick-hit meetings that trade shows afford, the experience should grant more time for vendors to meet with uniformed and civilian Army officials as they pursue FVL. 

“One of the things that our Army customer has impressed on us and on industry is the need to fly before they buy,” Esposito told Vertical in an interview. “It’s a procurement strategy where they really are looking for more-mature advanced technology, things that aren’t going to take years and years to mature. We saw that as an opportunity, with this experience center, as a way to co-locate near Redstone Arsenal and Army leadership where we could actually demonstrate our capabilities and our industry partners’ capabilities.”

The new facility is equipped with a helicopter mockup with a flight simulator into which emerging technologies can be integrated. As Future Vertical Lift progresses, the Army plans to buy onboard technologies from various vendors and all of those systems must play together in the same digital environment. Collins now has the ability to integrate that gear and let Army officials fly with them in the simulator. 

“It’s basically a helicopter, with rotors, that has an [electronics] bay where we can plug in our products and the customer can climb in it and fly with them as they go,” Esposito said. 

The facility represents a “several million dollar” investment by Collins to give Army officials access to component technologies that are being pitched for use on board the Future Attack Recon Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), Esposito said. 

“If you think about our normal engagement with our customers . . . the trade show environment where periodically, less than a handful of times a year you have a booth and you’ve got product displays, a meeting area, even a small area to do demonstrations, but it’s very fast-paced,” Esposito said. “You get little slices of time with your customer to be able to communicate a message. Very difficult to do if a general comes for a 20-minute flyby of your booth.” 

“To demonstrate our products, we usually go to the customer,” Esposito added. “But when you travel to a customer with a roadshow in suitcases, you’re limited as to how much you can show.”

Collins is a component supplier to all three industry teams participating in the FARA and FLRAA programs. The new center also includes an engineering, test and software development group at the facility that employs more than 100 and is expected to grow as the company continues working with the Army, Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky to integrate technologies onto those future platforms, according to Harold Tiedeman, chief engineer for FVL at Collins.

“It’s more than concept exploration, we’re actually doing meaningful TRL advancement of these technologies,” Tiedeman said. “We’re not doing a paper mockup or whatever. We’re actually building the real thing using real components.” 

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