Search and rescue (SAR) includes many specialty sub-fields. In aviation, SAR is typically rendered by fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, although unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are slowly making their way into the domain, albeit strictly in a search capacity as they currently struggle to provide rescue capabilities. However, SAR for the new generation, across aircraft and the equipment which operators utilize, will undoubtedly enhance safety of rescuers and victims, as well as improving the efficiency of operations.
CC-295 Kingfisher to rejuvenate Canadian SAR fleet
Without question, the most significant new-generation SAR capability in the world today is the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) CC-295 Kingfisher, which was born from Canada’s Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) project. The US$2.4-billion contract calls for the procurement of 16 aircraft, which will ultimately replace the CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130H Hercules aircraft that are currently tasked with providing fixed-wing SAR in Canada.
Based on the Airbus C-295W, the Kingfisher has been specifically designed for enhanced mission effectiveness in the SAR role. Among improvements are a new Collins Aerospace Pro Line Fusion avionics suite consisting of four high-resolution 14.1-inch touchscreen displays, which allow for improved cockpit human-machine interface, including night vision goggle (NVG) capability, and compliance with future navigation and air traffic control requirements. The cabin operation has been optimized with a wireless intercommunication system and relocation of cargo cabin elements. The aircraft has improved performance with winglets, higher cruise speeds, and new generators which provide 50 per cent more electrical power.
The aircraft is further enhanced with vortex generators on the rear ramp, streamlined exterior lighting, internal HF antenna, SATCOM, a ditching hatch on the forward upper area of the main cabin, and most notably the total enclosure of the main landing gear. Improved Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are provided by the next generation Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS) which is comprised of two consoles consisting of dual-screen 24-inch high-definition displays coupled to modern sensors – specifically the L3Harris WESCAM MX-15 electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) system with short-wave IR capability, a ELTA Systems surveillance radar, Automatic Identification System (AIS) and more, all of which finally brings SAR for the RCAF into the 21st century.
Jorge Tamarit Degenhardt, Head of FWSAR C295 Program at Airbus Defence and Space, said: “We have invested close to one million man hours of engineering in developing the FWSAR version. We have modified almost all the systems in the aircraft, and we have brought the C-295 to the next level. One of the main modifications we have done is related to the aerodynamic performance of the machine.
“One of the challenges we had was to bring the C295 farther and faster, so the Air Force is able to cope with the SAR missions in remote regions within Canada. In rough numbers, we have increased the range close to eight per cent and reduced the fuel consumption around four to five per cent. We have integrated winglets, which are now standard to the fleet, and we have also developed a full enclosure of the main landing gear which is intended to significantly reduce the drag of the aircraft. We have also installed vortex generators in the tail cone of the aircraft.”
Degenhardt also went into more detail about the integration of the Collins Pro Line Fusion: “There are larger tactile displays with loads of information on it — we have terrain awareness and warning system information, overlaid weather radar information, and we have a synthetic vision system through the EVS cameras in the front of the aircraft which can be displayed in the cockpit. The C-295 is an amazing platform for Canada — we made it smarter, we made it faster and it flies even farther.”
Sensor upgrades for Canadian SAR
Speaking about the Kingfisher, Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s Minister for National Defence, said: “The new fleet’s powerful sensors will help you locate people or objects beyond line of sight, and the state-of-the-art communication will help you locate and communicate with people on the ground. This will fundamentally change how we do search and rescue.”
The Kingfisher represents a transformational change in capability for RCAF, according to Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, Commander of the RCAF: “The venerable Buff and Hercules have served us well over the past decades. As we look to the future, the capabilities that the Kingfisher will bring will further enhance our aviators ability to carry out their SAR mission. The transition to the new fixed-wing SAR fleet is a tremendous opportunity for the RCAF, and will take a great deal of dedication, precision, and focus. We’re moving from two fleets of aircraft to one common fleet, all the while having to maintain the continued level of SAR service here in Canada – this is an awesome task.”
To integrate the Kingfisher’s new generation capabilities, the RCAF has reactivated 418 Squadron as a SAR operational training squadron which will be embedded in the SAR Centre of Excellence at Canadian Forces Base Comox, also known as 19 Wing Comox. Once delivered, the fleet of Kingfisher aircraft will be stationed at bases Comox, Winnipeg, Trenton, and Greenwood.
The FWSAR Project includes the construction of a new training center in Comox, which will be used to train both maintenance and aircrews. Built by aviation manufacturer CAE Canada, the center includes 10 classrooms, as well as sophisticated training devices such as a full-flight simulator, a cockpit procedures trainer, a sensor station simulator, and an aircraft maintenance trainer. That maintenance trainer aircraft arrived at CFB Comox in February 2020, after which it was disassembled and then reassembled inside the new training center. Two CC-295 Kingfishers are now in Canada, although are not yet in service as training in earnest has yet to begin.
Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrades
Not to be outdone by their fixed-wing brethren, the RCAF’s rotary-wing CH-149 Cormorant SAR fleet is also set for a new generation of capabilities. The long-range helicopter fleet was introduced into service in 2001, however the fleet is devoid of any modern sensor equipment. The Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) seeks to resolve that issue among others, thereby ensuring the aircraft remains a relevant SAR asset which complies with new and emerging flying regulations and extend the life expectancy of the Cormorant to at least 2042.
The CMLU project is still in the project definition phase, but the upgrade will in part utilize the VH-71 Kestrel aircraft acquired from the United States and increase the overall Cormorant fleet to 16 aircraft.
Speaking about the CMLU, Colonel Dany Poitras, former Commander of 19 Wing Comox, commented: “The upgrade is intended to bring a state-of-the-art avionics system which will be integrated with radar and electro-optical sensors. The upgrade will also deliver a Helicopter Terrain Avoidance System, an upgrade to the Automatic Identification System, and a cell phone detection system. These upgrades will ensure we are compliant with changes in regulations. It is important to note that what is in the scope of CMLU might not be what’s delivered in the end based on pricing and so on, so it’s hard to speak about specifics as we’re negotiating with Leonardo right now.”
ViDAR - offering better situational awareness at a lower cost
Sensor capacity like CASSAR can deliver a new generation of SAR capability to existing platforms. Another sensor which is gaining considerable interest in SAR is Sentient Vision Systems’ ViDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging), the world’s first software-based Optical Radar solution.
ViDAR is a maritime-wide area optical search system that can operate up to Sea State 6. The high-definition system, mountable on fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft and UAVs, is capable of autonomously detecting very small objects on the ocean surface that would otherwise be invisible to a visual observer and other sensor payloads. It consists of multiple fixed Electro-Optic and Infrared high resolution cameras with a combined field of view of about 180 degrees ahead of the aircraft. The system utilizes Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision and Deep Learning to process onboard video imagery in real time.
According to Sentient Vision Systems, ViDAR operates optically so it is unaffected by white caps and other effects that impact technology such as radar. When ViDAR detects a target, it alerts the sensor operator by sending a thumbnail image to the mission system display and a geolocation marker on a moving map display that provides the object’s updated location, bearing and range from platform.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority recently made news when one of its Challenger 604 Tier 1 fixed-wing SAR aircraft, which was fitted with ViDAR, spotted and rescued a boater who was knocked off his yacht.
Sentient Vision Systems has also become an Original Equipment Manufacturer offering a quick install, all-in-one ViDAR pod system – the VMS-5 (ViDAR Maritime Surveillance) Day/Night Optical Radar pod. The VMS-5 pod uses an array of multi-camera EO and Long Wave IR sensors to provide 180-degree search coverage. It is compatible with COTS mounting systems, wing strut mounts or bespoke mounting solutions, and delivers a very low Size, Weight and Power impact.
“ViDAR offers customers much better wide-area situational awareness at a lower cost than anything else available,” said Dr Paul Boxer, Sentient Managing Director. “This is especially the case in SAR operations. By building our own integrated ViDAR pods, we’re able to offer customers an enhanced surveillance capability backed up by dedicated support.” He continued: “One size definitely does not fit all. Which is why we’re developing a range of ViDAR pods and installations for different missions depending on the speed and altitude of the aircraft and whether operations call for day-only or day-night capability.”
Knowledge sharing and best practice
Systems like those mentioned above absolutely deliver a new generation of capabilities, but there is a relatively high cost associated with them, and the overwhelming majority of small and medium SAR operators around the world will find it difficult to adopt them. Speaking to this reality was Rob Munday, Instructor with SR3 Rescue Concepts: “For every large SAR organization, there’s probably 100 who operate on shoestring budgets. So it’s almost irrelevant what new equipment or technology is out there if an operator can’t afford it.
“Everything boils down to good training, so if someone can come up with a portable virtual reality training device with decent hand tracking and a software solution that is reasonably priced, preferably open source, I think that would go a long way to improve SAR for the next generation.”
Adding to those sentiments was Luc Deffense, SAR expert at Deffense Consulting Inc: “Like most new items in aviation, there is a long trial period before new technology becomes accepted in the market as a standard. Too many units find something that works and keep the knowledge of these to themselves. I believe information sharing is the best way to promulgate knowledge and safety so we all become better rescuers.”
Sharing information, best practice, and knowledge about the best tools for the jobs are undoubtedly going to be how SAR progresses for smaller operators in the future. While the military may have all the money, and the ability to be on the cutting edge of technological SAR solutions, the need for these pieces of equipment to trickle down to smaller operators is still there. Open source software that is compatible with a wide variety of virtual reality hardware could open up the market significantly, and allow for a wider adoption of the latest training solutions.