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Every helicopter pilot knows the importance of keeping their head up and eyes outside. But you wouldn’t guess that from looking at many modern cockpits. Too often, “advancements” in avionics have had the effect of drawing the pilot’s attention inside the aircraft, to spend more time staring at screens and paging through menu options. Yes, pilots now have more information at their disposal, but that doesn’t mean they’re using it effectively.
Elbit Systems of America is bucking this trend. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company is developing cutting-edge technology to create head-up systems that keep the pilot’s attention outside the aircraft, where it belongs. In Elbit America’s vision for Future Vertical Lift, pilots will have the aircraft and mission information they need presented to them seamlessly, while also being able to take in an enhanced visual picture of the world outside.
“Our company’s core philosophy has always been that pilots need to keep their heads up and out of the aircraft at all times,” said Harry Hewson, Elbit America’s senior director for vertical lift. “Especially when you’re flying a helicopter down at tactical flight levels, you’re really getting busy. You want to have as much information as possible presented to you head out, so you don’t have to come in and look at inside displays.”
In service of this goal, Elbit America is inventing hardware and software technologies that could bring breakthrough levels of situational awareness to helicopter crews in the not-too-distant future. A key element of its product portfolio is the forward distributed aperture system (F-DAS), which uses 11 infrared sensors to create a 190-degree lateral by 90-degree vertical picture of the world for viewing on wide field (62-degree) helmet mounted display. This mature system — which Hewson said is already at technology readiness level (TRL) 6 — allows pilots to clearly see the world around them even on the darkest nights.
Now, Elbit America is also adding LIDAR to the system, which will allow it to “paint” obstacles into a graphics database for display even in degraded visual environments, such as during landings in dust clouds. The company is also exploring ways to integrate other sensors on board the aircraft to enhance pilot awareness. Specifically, the company is tapping into the infrared cameras in its missile warning systems, which can enhance pilot displays as well as mid-air collision avoidance systems.
“Those [sensors] are typically just looking for missile launch indications, but when they’re not being used specifically for that they’re also very good at collecting data,” Hewson explained. “So, we’re going to start incorporating 360-degree coverage around the aircraft and still present all that to the pilot on the head-up display.” Need to see what’s behind you? Just glance up into a “rear-view mirror,” where the display will show you the view from cameras looking toward the tail of the aircraft.
This sensor data will feed into software that can advise the pilot on collision avoidance actions and other measures. It can also be data-linked to the ground or other aircraft for cooperative situational awareness. Ultimately, it could feed information into an automatic flight control system to allow the aircraft to fly itself with reduced pilot supervision.
“It starts with just better cueing for the pilot, and then helping the pilot make decisions, and then ultimately offloading some of the tasks from the pilot, allowing the pilot to be more of a mission manager and a flight leader,” Hewson said.
Elbit America has been investing heavily in making this vision a reality. At its facilities in Fort Worth, the company has established an advanced technology integration demonstrator (ATID). This high-fidelity, rapidly reconfigurable domed simulator allows Elbit America to test and iterate its technologies, experimenting with things like symbology to develop displays that are intuitive and useful.
As valuable as simulators are, however, they’re still no match for the real world. So Elbit America has also invested in an Airbus AS355 TwinStar helicopter, allowing it to further expand on the work being done by its parent company, Elbit Systems Limited, in Israel.
“When you go put your system in a real helicopter, you bring in all the dynamics of the outside world,” Hewson pointed out. “For instance, on a helmet-mounted display, you need to make sure it works very well in bright sunlight, and cloudy conditions, and dark nights. None of that really matters that much in a simulator, but if you don’t have it working properly in the real world, it won’t be a real viable system.”
Elbit America’s Fort Worth flight test team has been using the TwinStar to refine F-DAS and its associated displays for the U.S. military market. The company has also been doing some demonstration flights of the system. Elbit America has additionally been interfacing with the U.S. government and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to discuss how its technologies might find their way onto not only existing military rotorcraft, but Future Vertical Lift platforms as well.
“We’re showing it to the OEMs who are developing these aircraft, so that they can start thinking about how they would work with a system like ours,” Hewson said. For example, in its current form, the F-DAS sensor array exists on a pod that hangs below the aircraft, but for the lightweight, high-speed Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), such a configuration would create too much drag.
Instead, Hewson continued, “you probably want those sensors built into the nose of the aircraft. So, there’s things like that, that we want them to start thinking about: How do you turn that fiberglass nose cone into something that’s going to support all these sensors and give you all this great situational awareness for flying the aircraft?”
This is the kind of holistic approach that is becoming increasingly important to Elbit America as it shifts its focus from delivering products, to delivering capabilities.
“Particularly in helicopters, mission avionics systems have typically been product-based. People were looking for a helmet-mounted display or a specific type of processor, or a specific cockpit display — that kind of thing,” Hewson said.
“And we’ve really moved our systems into something much more capabilities-based. We don’t want to just be the company making a box, we want to bring an entire capability to the aircraft.”
This article was written by Vertical and sponsored by Elbit Systems of America. Learn more about Elbit America’s vertical-lift solutions here.