The evolution of avionics suites

cormorant rcaf
A new era

Dr Joetey Attariwala finds out more about the technology that is breathing new life and capability into existing air rescue helicopter platforms

New aircraft acquisitions often take much of the limelight when it comes to news coverage, but a greater story lies in the modernisation of aircraft, particularly when considering new avionics systems. Avionics upgrades are done for three key reasons: the first is that it is cheaper to upgrade a platform than acquire a new one; secondly, to maintain compliance with regulatory changes; and thirdly, to increase operational effectiveness by increasing safety and reducing pilot workload. The latter aspect is particularly important when considering aircraft that are tasked with Search and Rescue (SAR) and aeromedical evacuation duties.

Avionics include communications, navigation, the display and management of multiple systems, and the hundreds of systems that are fitted to aircraft to perform individual functions

Avionics include communications, navigation, the display and management of multiple systems, and the hundreds of systems that are fitted to aircraft to perform individual functions. This can be as simple as adding a new radio, or the complete modernisation of the flight deck, but no matter the extent, avionics upgrades essentially breathe new life into older platforms through enhanced situational awareness and increased mission capabilities. Such upgrades also tend to improve the performance of aircraft as technological advancements typically mean reduced component size and weight as older analogue systems are replaced with solid state parts. These newer components often include built-in diagnostics, which is an added benefit compared to legacy systems. The frequency of avionics upgrades is totally dependent on the operator, however, there are times where regulations make avionics upgrades mandatory.

helicopter cockpit

Provider options

Countless companies around the globe offer avionics upgrades, with a growing trend towards open architecture. Companies like Honeywell have been leading providers of navigation, display systems, flight controls, and flight management systems since the early days of aviation. The company is one of a handful that have led the evolution from electromechanical instruments to cathode ray tube (CRT) displays, and from CRTs to high-performance colour liquid crystal displays. Honeywell accelerated the transition away from analogue cockpits with the introduction of the Primus 1000/2000, which presented flight data on a need-to-know basis, and an advanced three-axis autopilot. Honeywell’s next generation Primus integrated avionics system is at the core of the Primus cockpit family, which consists of the Epic / 2.0, Apex and Elite 875 / 885.

Thales’ expertise in avionics has yielded their new FlytX solution

Thales’ expertise in avionics has yielded their new FlytX solution, which, according to the company, is designed to reduce pilot workload and offers the highest level of efficiency in terms of human-machine interaction. This ‘flight deck of the future’ allows faster access to information, coupled with a synthetic representation of the outside environment. With a large display area, it facilitates crew interaction, closely integrates with all the other aircraft systems, fuses information and enables more informed and intuitive decisions. Gil Michielin, Executive Vice-President – Avionics at Thales said: “The FlytX solution will fully meet the new standards in military aviation. This intuitive flight deck with touchscreen interaction allows pilots to familiarise themselves with the system in record time. The FlytX avionics suite is also available for civil helicopters.”

Canada Air Force helicopter

Master Corporal Johanie Maheu, 14 Wing Imaging

Mandated avionics requirements

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has deemed it critical to move from ground-based surveillance and navigation to more dynamic and accurate airborne-based systems and procedures to modernise America’s air transportation system. In 2007, the FAA published a notice of proposed rulemaking to mandate ADS-B Out. ADS-B equipment is an advanced surveillance technology that combines a Mode S transponder (1090ES) ADS-B transmitter, Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), and the deployment of ground-based surveillance systems, to create an accurate surveillance interface between aircraft and air traffic control. ADS-B Out periodically broadcasts information about each aircraft, such as identification, current position, altitude, and velocity, through an onboard transmitter. A final rule in August 2010 mandated that all aircraft operating in US airspace have ADS-B Out technology operational by 1 January 2020. Aircraft operating below 18,000 feet in the US will require either a Mode S transponder, or a Universal Access Transceiver (UAT). UAT equipment provides the ability to receive traffic and weather data provided by the FAA ADS-B network. Deployment of ADS-B is a worldwide effort, and it is not only American airspace that will be impacted.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) laid down requirements that from 7 June 2020, all aircraft that weigh more than 5,700 kg, or have a maximum cruise speed greater than 250 knots, will need to be equipped with ADS-B capabilities

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) laid down requirements that from 7 June 2020, all aircraft that weigh more than 5,700 kg, or have a maximum cruise speed greater than 250 knots, will need to be equipped with ADS-B capabilities. This represents a great business opportunity for numerous supplemental type certificate applicants who have experience in avionics installations. However, according to EASA, an ADS-B installation is much more than a ‘simple’ change of transponder, and it may not be as easy to handle as it might initially appear, as applicants have to approach the certification by considering the ‘end to end’ ADS-B system (e.g. including sensors and control panels), and not solely the installation of the Mode S 1090ES transponder.

US Air Force helicopter cockpit

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Matthew Seefeldt

RCAF invests in the future

Speaking to AirMed&Rescue, Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), shared his thoughts on avionics upgrades: “I’ve learned in my career that aircraft are incredibly flexible and avionics upgrades allow you to leverage a platform’s inherent capability to do many different things. I think back to the work we did two decades ago to configure night vision goggles into the Griffon helicopter. That allowed us to operate the aircraft more effectively, so I would suggest that avionics upgrades add overall safety and capability, and that makes aircraft more employable across a broad range of mission areas.”

A notable upgrade programme in Canada today is for the RCAF CH-149 Cormorant, a dedicated SAR derivative of the Leonardo AW101. Although not old by most standards, its systems are ageing and becoming difficult to support, so the Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) programme presents a low-risk solution to ensure continuing airworthiness;

the Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) programme presents a low-risk solution to ensure continuing airworthiness

provide greater operational capability; improve the reliability and availability of the helicopter through the introduction of state-of-the-art technologies; and make continuous improvements to maintenance activities. Mid-life upgrades like CMLU also result in a reduced cost of ownership, the resolution of obsolescence issues and a rationalisation of the supply chain.

The CMLU capability improvements are based on Norway’s AW101 SAR helicopter – itself based on the AW101-612 standard – which enhances overall mission effectiveness by incorporating the latest avionics and mission systems, with advanced radars, sensors, vision enhancement and tracking systems. 

The AW101-612 standard includes a modern five-screen, fully integrated Collins Aerospace cockpit, and advanced SAR mission equipment including Leonardo’s Osprey multi-mode 360-degree AESA radar system, four-axis digital Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS), onboard Obstacle Proximity LIDAR System, two rescue hoists, searchlight, a cell-phone detection system, and an electro optical/infrared sensor.

Speaking to AirMed&Rescue in September was Stefano Villanti, Senior Vice-President of International Government Sales at Leonardo Helicopters. “Canada has identified Leonardo Helicopters as the company which will conduct the CMLU programme. We are working with the Canadian MoD for the project definition phase, and that is moving quite smoothly, so we are expecting to reply to a RFP [Request for Proposal] in the next few months,” said Villanti. “One of the key points is to get a configuration that is as common as possible with the Norwegian configuration, which is the latest model that we are producing. That configuration has got the latest sensors, so it will be an important step up in terms of avionics and capabilities.”

One of the key sensors integrated into the Norwegian AW101 is the Osprey AESA surveillance radar system, which consists of three arrays that provide 360-degree coverage

One of the key sensors integrated into the Norwegian AW101 is the Osprey AESA surveillance radar system, which consists of three arrays that provide 360-degree coverage. “For the Canadian CMLU, we are proposing something in that direction, but the exact configuration will be defined by the user as required,” said Villanti. “The way operations are carried out in Norway is different from how they are carried out in Canada, so there are still discussions to keep operations as they are, or to adapt them for commonality. That process is a core of the definition phase which is an optimisation of the aircraft and operational requirements.”

The avionics in the Norwegian AW101 SAR helicopter allow crews great flexibility in the use of onboard systems. For example, crews are able to overlay marine Automatic Identification System information onto moving maps, or can merge AESA radar information with GPS co-ordinates. All of this can be coupled to an advanced autopilot.

US Coast Guard Dauphin

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dylan Walters

US Coast Guard modernises the MH-65

US Coast Guard MH-65 helicopters are being upgraded with a new avionics architecture from Collins Aerospace, and in common with the Coast Guard H-60 medium range recovery helicopter. The upgrade results in the new designation as MH-65E, and includes large-format all-glass digital displays that deliver a number of video and imaging options as multiple video sources from outside and inside the aircraft can be displayed. Some of these include video from a hoist camera for a better view, and a cabin camera so the pilot can observe activity in the back of the helicopter. The system allows the pilots to save images and video to a mission data recorder for immediate review or a later download off the aircraft.

“Pilots will have increased situational awareness and a reduced workload, which can make a huge difference in challenging situations when every second counts,” said Heather Robertson, Senior Director of Rotary Wing Solutions for Collins Aerospace.

Pilots will have increased situational awareness and a reduced workload, which can make a huge difference in challenging situations when every second counts

The Collins system is designed with open architecture, which allows for the reuse of applications developed on other programs to be hosted within the avionics system. This includes third party applications maximising pilot capability with minimal cost to upgrade the system. 

The upgrade includes Collins’ integrated civil and military flight management system. Search and rescue capabilities will be improved with a full integration of Collins’ DF-500 direction finder into the new flight management system and display. The DF-500 receiver continuously scans for emergency beacons over a large frequency range and pinpoints the location of any detected beacon on the digital display. The pilot can set the system to fly directly to that position, fly a search pattern if needed, and also view the point or the flight plan on a digital map, weather display or terrain map.

“We worked very closely with the Coast Guard to develop these new capabilities that will improve safety and effectiveness in future missions,” said Dhiraj Raghwani, Programs Manager, Maritime and Civil Systems at Collins.

Heavy helicopters

On the commercial side, Coulson Unical, a joint venture (JV) with Unical Aviation of Southern California, is rapidly expanding as the premier Type 1 Helicopter Operator in the world, specialising in aerial firefighting as well as natural disaster response. The JV is delivering helicopters with a new generation of avionics based on a complete Garmin suite consisting of Dual GTN750s, TCAS with ADS-B, and G500H TXI touch screen synthetic vision displays. This equipment is paired with a Cobham Digital Audio System for clear radio communication. In addition to the Garmin package, Coulson is also working with a head-up display (HUD) provider to provide even more situational awareness to the crews, further enhancing the safety margin.

“This package provides our flight crews with the latest and greatest technology to enhance the safety of the crews and aircraft,” said Mel Ceccanti, Coulson’s Rotary Wing Director of Flight Ops. “The situational awareness provided by the Garmin Synthetic Vision is second to none and there are no other utility aircraft in the industry with this type of capability.”

This article is but a glimpse into the vast arena of avionics upgrades, but what it is clear is these upgrade efforts are key to breathing new life into existing platforms.