Interview: Thomas von Eschenbach
Value through collaboration and innovation: AirMed&Rescue spoke with Thomas von Eschenbach, Director, Program Management, Army Rotary Wing Solutions & Huntsville Site Lead for Collins Aerospace, about the important move towards a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) to avionics
MOSA is a key priority for the US Army, both for Future Vertical Lift (FVL) projects and the current fleet. “MOSA offers the army several critical benefits,” said von Eschenbach. Including:
- Reduced integration time
- Enhanced mission flexibility
- Improved obsolescence management
- Avoidance of vendor lock
When systems are built with common languages, it also enables efficiency and cost reduction for upgrades, add-ons and training.
While the Bell V-280 might have won the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft contract for the US Army, the actual deployment will take time to come to fruition. In the meantime, ensuring value and ongoing life for existing platforms is key. Helicopters are used around the world for multiple roles by military and civil organizations – from search and rescue to medical evacuation and soldier relocation. The ages of these platforms vary, and not all nations are lucky enough to have the spending power or the scale of the US military. But even they haven’t had a new platform deployed since the Army Aviation branch started in 1983. What is true of all of them, however, is the need for users to get the best value for money from these existing platforms. “MOSA allows users to keep machines that exist already up to date,” said von Eschenbach. “It keeps them affordable and usable.”
Seventy per cent of the life-cycle cost of a rotary-wing aircraft lies in sustaining it, he explained, and if we can drive down that cost, then the user benefits from enhanced value over a longer time period.
Skills development and essential learning processes
Getting the right skilled professionals into the right team is key to the success of MOSA. And not for the first time, we note that one of the common trials in the aviation sector is finding talent and keeping it. “From an avionics perspective, software engineer recruitment can be challenging,” von Eschenbach agreed. “Open systems approaches are not just about technicalities. It’s about changing business processes and development.”
This means continuous learning and redevelopment, and for Collins Aerospace, this applies internally as well as externally, especially on complex certification and recertification processes. While these are gradually changing, and becoming ever more streamlined, it is a real cultural shift and will take time. “We are still defining deliverables, proving how multicore processors can be integrated and certified for multi-use,” said von Eschenbach. “We are still codifying requirements.”
MOSA used to stand for Modular Open Systems Architecture. Now the A refers to approach
Part of the process of evolution is, interestingly, in the name itself – MOSA used to stand for Modular Open Systems Architecture. Now the A refers to approach. “Architecture implies a specific implementation,” explained von Eschenbach. “Whereas approach is much broader and implies more flexible application of achieving open. It allows for a fundamentally wider approach, where we utilize ‘building blocks’ that can be customized to meet the needs of a customer.”
MOSA also brings other benefits – collaboration and competition. While some companies might be threatened by these ideas, others use it as an opportunity to innovate and push the whole industry further ahead. Collaboration with companies that could otherwise be competitors also drives value for users – which ultimately means happy, and repeat, customers.
Demonstrating the value of MOSA
Speaking of customers, Collins Aerospace invested in constructing a Customer Experience Center (CEC) to help clients understand the value of MOSA and demonstrate how open system approaches can be integrated into existing avionics systems. The Center includes a helicopter simulator in which clients are shown the latest updates and their value to pilots. It is a first-of-its-kind facility for Collins that provides a venue for collaboration with the army, industry, different divisions within Collins, and its sister businesses across Raytheon Technologies. The Center serves as a testbed and demonstration area for emerging technology and supports the Army’s ‘Fly Before You Buy’ approach. “To date, we’ve already hosted several demonstrations at the Center with industry partners. For example, working with General Atomics, Tektonux, Palantir Technologies, and Parry Labs, we demonstrated how UAS control will work from the cockpit using MOSA,” said von Eschenbach.
By demonstrating how upgrades work, Collins can show the value of the products once they have been developed. But what if the client wants something specific that doesn’t exist yet? “One of our closest working relationships is with the Special Aviation Regiment,” von Eschenbach told AirMed&Rescue. “While I can’t say exactly what we are working on with them, what I can say is that they often come to us with a request – either to integrate a new capability that already exists or create a new one altogether. This open, two-way dialogue around capability increases the affordability of our systems.” Such communications also allow Collins the chance to recognize limitations of systems and design them out of future ones that are still in the development phase.
Of course, not everyone can have the latest technology all the time, straight away. Not every helicopter platform will have the very latest avionics systems – the cost for many is prohibitive. And herein lies the value of MOSA. If customers can upgrade their avionics platforms in smaller increments in the same way they upgrade other pieces of tech, then they can benefit from the latest advancements without having to upgrade an entire system. They have the ability to improve performance by only upgrading the portion they need – the part that will most benefit their particular scope of operation.
Test, test and test again
Integration of partial upgrades can come with dangers. What if there are compatibility issues? Everyone’s upgraded their phone software to fix a bug, only to find that while it’s sorted one thing, it’s broken another. “Comprehensive testing before certification is a must. There are no compromises when it comes to testing new systems,” von Eschenbach said. “Safety is the ultimate priority and we cannot, and will not, roll out an upgrade to any part of the avionics system of a helicopter without first checking and double checking that the enhancement will not affect any part of the machine it was not intended to.” One method to help achieve this confidence is a technique known as partitioning, which helps with assuring determinism – you can, and have to, predict what output effect your input will have.
Small changes, big differences
A further benefit of MOSA is that engineers can make use of existing programs and projects in new ways. One example was Collins’ UAS cockpit control demo. “Working with industry partners, we found an effective way of integrating a pilot vehicle interface from ground systems and modifying it slightly for use by pilots,” he said. “It wasn’t originally tailored for pilots to use. In fact, soldiers on the ground were using it to fly drones. It was transferred to pilot use through changing the interface but keeping intact most of the architecture. You don’t always have to start from scratch – just altering what you need to can make a product effective for your requirements.” Von Eschenbach added: “Don’t focus on the product, focus on the process. Working together, we can make elegant and affordable solutions from existing products.”
Ultimately, whether civilian or military, all users of vertical lift platforms want ‘plug and play’ solutions. MOSA allows this with a scalable control interface – the power of MOSA lies in its flexibility and adaptability. And, furthermore, it gives users the chance to improve standards because by sharing best practice and the latest technology, the vertical lift sector – whether manned or not – can benefit from new tools to fly faster, more efficiently and more safely.