In response to the U.S. military’s need to improve situational awareness, Airbus is aggressively developing new sensor systems that function both on board and on the ground.
“For more military helicopters, the trend is to install more passive sensors, and to use the information from different sensors to derive and correlate a tactical situation,” said Tomasz Krysinski, Airbus vice president of research and innovation. “Not all sensors will be carried by the helicopter consolidating the tactical situation. Some will be installed on collaborative unmanned platforms.”
“On board, they will provide the crew better information about the environment overflown,” Krysinski added, speaking at the AHS International's 74th Annual Forum & Technology Display earlier this month. “In this R&D area, many applications are being investigated to detect and inform on obstacles, intruders and cables — and to compensate for degraded visibility due to fog, white- and brown-outs and night time.”
From the ground, Airbus is focused on merging data on weather, terrain database, no-fly zones, and conflicting operations to enable route processing before a mission.
“On-ground monitoring permanently analyzes flight parameters deeper than other systems could do on board and assists crews in the case of unexpected events,” Krysinki said. “New kinds of ground systems, connected in real time to flying aircraft, can participate a lot in enhancing situational awareness.”
While new sensors will pursue maximum range and accuracy of detection, Airbus’ strategy is to integrate them with other technologies to enhance safety, reduce minima of operations, automate guidance and reduce pilot workload. Its vision is for a new generation of sensors based on infrared and radar. Airbus is also looking at augmented reality capabilities for merging environmental information through intuitive symbologies superimposed on the outside world.
On its own, new sensor technology is inadequate to close gaps with situational awareness, Krysinki said. How pilots interface to transmit information to crews and new cockpit designs are being assessed.
Two years ago, the company began an effort to provide “eyes” to helicopters through its Eye for Autonomous Guidance and Landing Extension (EAGLE) project, Krysinki said. EAGLE aims to federate a helicopter’s image-processing functions and feed them into its avionics system. Automating and securing approaches, takeoffs and landings in demanding environments lessens pilot workload. The technology is designed for integration on a range of existing and future vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles.
Airbus’ Rapid And Cost-Effective Rotorcraft (RACER) demonstrator, unveiled last year for civilian use and developed in a CS2 airframe, is another example of the company’s emphasis on systems integration. Final assembly of the demonstrator is expected to start in 2019, and a first flight is scheduled for 2020. Dozens of European partners helped developed a simple architecture focusing on speed, cost-efficiency, sustainability and mission performance, he said.
“It could become, after the demonstration phase, a game changer in inter-city mobility and establish a new benchmark for faster emergency medical services and search and rescue operations,” Krysinki said.
“Mechanical transmissions and related maintenance are very simple. Beyond speed and climb performances, outstanding maneuverability allows very aggressive nap-of-the-earth flight capability,” Krysinki said. “Its propellers allow rapid step-turns, fast heading and aiming, also in controlled dives. These characteristics could fit with many military requirements, especially for armed reconnaissance and scout missions.”
Most adaptation work would cover systems integration, with special attention paid to containing aerodynamic drag to preserve performances, he added. “Airbus Helicopters has a lot of experience in the militarization of its civilian platforms.”