The ever-increasing cost of acquiring new aircraft gives impetus to air medical and search and rescue (SAR) helicopter operators around the world to modernize their platforms in order to extend their reach and capabilities to perform more difficult missions, and therefore the useful life of aircraft. A key aspect of modernization efforts lies within the heart of any aircraft – the avionics suite. These systems include communications, navigation, the display and management of multiple systems, and the hundreds of systems that are fitted to aircraft to perform individual functions.
Screen modernization and compatability
Research into this topic yielded some trends: one that is indisputable is the utilization of large multi-function color display screens that provide better presentation to the pilot and can also incorporate more information at the same time. These large screens are enablers to sensor fusion, providing pilots with greater situational awareness than ever before. Another major trend in avionics modernization is the desire to adopt open-ended architecture such that devices are upgradable and compatible in the future.
A wholesale upgrade, or just part?
Avionics modernization can consist of a wholesale refresh of an entire platform, or a simple upgrade to a particular system. For example, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is soon to upgrade the search capacity of its Beechcraft King Air aircraft, which are currently fitted with the Leonardo Seaspray 7300E radar. The modernization effort will see that radar replaced with Leonardo’s Osprey – an active electronically scanned array (AESA) surveillance radar. The new Osprey radar will provide optimized overland and coastal imaging capabilities, which makes it ideally suited to mixed environment operations, such as along the coast. This fixed-array radar will provide a generational leap in capability, and will reduce maintenance costs as there are no moving parts.
Companies like Honeywell are focused on avionics upgrades that provide enhanced features to expand the operational capability of aircraft. Its AW139 Phase 8 upgrade for the Primus Epic 2.0 integrated avionics system is based on its proprietary SmartView technology, and is one of the newest products available to customers. According to Honeywell, Phase 8 delivers superior functionality, enhancing visual clarity and improving situational awareness. Among other attributes, the suite provides alignment and correlation between the real world and the synthetic vision display and near photo-realistic terrain graphics using shading, texturing and fading.
The upgrade delivers a new custom approach capability, with more intuitive flight path-based flight director guidance, a new collective power cue, and Cursor Control Devices (CCD) that are superior in comfort and ergonomics. New color maps show major and minor roads along with integrated terrain display and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) symbology. Together, these enhancements allow for safer operations in marginal weather conditions.
Operators demand reliability
Speaking to AirMed&Rescue for this feature was Air Methods Corporation, a privately-owned emergency air medical services operator in the US. Speaking about the impetus to modernize their platforms was Jason Quisling, Air Methods Vice-President of Flight Operations and Director of Operations: “Our mission is to be the most reliable, responsive and sought-after critical care patient transport solution. Many of our flights involve single-pilot IFR operations, night vision goggle operations, and unique situations such as responding to accident locations or supporting disaster recovery. In a typical year, Air Methods will perform nearly 500,000 take-off and landing operations safely. To do this, we rely on high-quality equipment from the manufacturers and sound decision-making by our frontline teammates. With a fleet of over 400 aircraft, we are always working on upgrades and replacements to our equipment. Many of our older avionics systems are being updated to the latest versions offered by OEMs. Improvements in technologies such as navigation, Terrain Awareness Systems, Traffic Avoidance Systems, and autopilot and stabilization systems continue to be important tools in advancing safety outcomes for our teams, our partners and our patients.”
According to Quisling, Air Methods is continually looking at new technologies to make its operations more reliable, efficient and safe. “All of our pilots currently utilize Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) in the aircraft. We have begun the process of upgrading our satellite tracking systems to enhance the capabilities of the EFB, as well as the information that the aircraft can report back to ground locations such as our Operational Control Center and our Flight Operations Quality Assurance program,” Quisling said. “Air Methods is also in the process of upgrading the primary applications we utilize for flight operations.
The goal is to develop a seamless and fully integrated platform of tools that increase safety and enhance operational capability
The goal is to develop a seamless and fully integrated platform of tools that increase safety and enhance operational capability. We continue to work with manufacturers and completion centers to find the best ways to connect the flight deck with other resources, whether they are in the aircraft such as the EFB, or on the ground such as a communications center or emergency room.”
Canada will upgrade the CH-149 Cormorant
One of the most significant avionics modernization efforts underway today is the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CH-149 Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) project. This effort seeks to modernize the existing fleet of 14 Cormorants (AW101-511), which were acquired in the early 2000s. The CMLU project will also modernize some VH-71 Kestrel aircraft (a variant of the AW101 that Canada acquired from the US) to a common CH-149 CMLU standard (AW101-615). The increased fleet size (currently stated as a minimum of 16 aircraft) will enable the RCAF to return the Cormorant to Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario, where it once operated. A larger fleet size will also give the RCAF the flexibility to engage in international humanitarian relief efforts as and when required.
The Cormorant, as configured today, is a very capable three-engined aircraft with extensive redundancy in structures, avionics and critical systems. With that said, the Cormorant’s current configuration is devoid of any significant search sensor capability, which arguably limits its intrinsic potential. It is in fact quite astonishing that the Cormorant does not have a search radar or an Electro-Optical / Infrared (EO / IR) sensor. It is for these reasons, in addition to some parts obsolescence issues, that the CMLU is a critical project for a platform that has decades of life remaining.
The CMLU upgrade is being spearheaded by Team Cormorant, which is led by Leonardo and consists of IMP Aerospace and Defence, CAE, GE Canada and Collins Aerospace. The CMLU solution leverages the non-recurring engineering work that Leonardo has done for the Royal Norwegian Air Force AW101-612 all-weather search and rescue helicopter programme. The intent is to bring the Cormorant up to a similar standard, with some nuanced differences that are currently being defined by the RCAF.
Speaking to this effort was Dominic Howe, New Programmes Manager, Canada, at Leonardo: “We’re leveraging the design and development effort that we’ve already undertaken for Norway; and we’re using commercial off-the-shelf equipment, so that not only reduces risk, but it also brings value for Canada. There’s also a benefit in having a common fleet between Canada and Norway and any future customers, so we can maximize through-life benefits with economies of scale.”
The CMLU aircraft will benefit from new General Electric CT7-8E engines with dual-channel Full Authority Digital Electronic Control that offers greater power, performance and easy management, which reduces pilot workload. The aircraft will be fitted with an advanced four-axis Digital Automatic Flight Control System, which will provide fully coupled search patterns, automatic transitions to / from the hover and navigation approaches, which also reduces pilot workload, particularly in degraded conditions.
The aircraft will also have a dual redundant Aircraft Management System and a Flight Management System providing civil and tactical navigation capability.
The human machine interface will be vastly improved with an advanced Collins Aerospace flightdeck that consists of five 10x8 inch Multi-Function Display Units, which provide primary flight, navigation, power systems and video information from data provided by the aircraft avionic systems. The cockpit displays will mate to a Terrain Database, which couple to features such as the Synthetic Vision System (SVS), and the Helicopter Terrain Awareness Warning System (HTAWS). These systems will deliver improved crew situational awareness in challenging environments, which is further improved with the incorporation of Automatic Identification System and Traffic Collision and Avoidance System.
The SVS is incorporated in the Display System Software and generates a virtual landscape for display on the primary flight display. The system utilizes navigation sensors and precise navigation databases (obstacles, terrain, features) to generate a synthetic picture.
The HTAWS is a module within the Cockpit Display System; it alerts the aircrew of the potential for Controlled Flight into Terrain and / or obstacles. The system utilizes a terrain database to provide forward looking terrain and obstacle avoidance and ground proximity warning to the pilot and co-pilot.
As noted previously, the Cormorant as it exists today has no search sensors. CMLU aircraft will be fitted with an advanced Electro-Optical Surveillance System (EOSS) and high-intensity searchlight that can be slewed to the EOSS position or even coupled to illuminate where the EOSS is looking. Crew situational awareness is further enhanced by an external camera system that provides the crew with a bird’s-eye view of the aircraft in addition to both an underbelly and hoist view.
Another highly anticipated sensor is the Mobile Phone Detection and Localization System (MPDLS). This system uses cellular telephone system communication protocols to detect and locate the target phone. MPDLS supports an operational range of at least 15 km line-of-sight, however, this is dependent upon the network environment, the target mobile phone’s RF performance, signal processing and output power due to the battery state. Localization of the requested mobile phone will include calculated latitude and longitude, range and bearing. The target mobile’s GPS position will also be indicated if the target mobile supports the GPS reporting function.
Once contact is established, text messages can be exchanged with the target phone in order to support rescue.
CMLU aircraft will also be fitted with the Leonardo Osprey 30 radar. This has fixed panels, which negate the need for a radome under the aircraft (normally associated with gimbal-mounted radars). This minimizes the potential risk of damage to a radar when landing in snow or on unprepared surfaces. The Osprey can provide high-resolution wide area continuous ground imaging (Strip SAR) and high-resolution ground imaging of selected scenes (Spot SAR). These independent modes can be displayed simultaneously allowing two users to have different radar ranges and modes displayed.
The CMLU upgrade will also feature a new flat-screen display installed in the cabin; this new capability will allow search and rescue Technicians to have access to sensor information for the very first time. The aircraft will also have a Wireless Intercom System so all crew can communicate without a wired connection to the aircraft.
The CMLU project will vastly modernize the avionics of the Cormorant
"The CMLU project will vastly modernize the avionics of the Cormorant. In it, you’ll have modern sensors and displays, which will reduce the workload of the crew. The whole goal is to make the Cormorant more efficient and more capable in its role as a SAR platform for decades to come,” explained Howe.
HH-60W Tactical Mission Kit
Sikorsky’s HH-60W Jolly Green II is fitted with a new and innovative Tactical Mission Kit (TMK), which delivers enhanced platform capability. Although the Jolly Green II is a new aircraft, the avionics system, with its TMK, is significant enough that it deserves exposure in this feature.
The TMK integrates the aircraft’s sensors, radar, and survivability-enhancing defensive / communication systems that add seamlessly blended, geo-registered situational awareness displays into the aircraft, giving crews more actionable information to make more effective decisions during mission execution.
“This TMK leverages the knowledge we’ve gained from developing open architecture systems that are easily transportable across multiple aircraft and missions, ultimately leading to reduced lifecycle costs for any program,” said Mission Systems Program Director Scott Breen. “The TMK is another example of our commitment to open systems that reduce pilot and crew mission management workload while increasing situational awareness in high task load environments.”
The TMK is aligned with the US Department of Defense Future Airborne Capability Environment Technical Standard, which allows for greater growth and adaptability for easy sensor, data link, threat warning and countermeasure system changes. The software runs on two fully redundant common mission processors that feature powerful multi-core processing and the ability to drive multiple displays in a small, lightweight package.
Speaking to AirMed&Rescue was John Biscaino, a Senior Experimental Test Pilot with Sikorsky. “We’ve taken the basic H-60M product line and developed it further, with the goal of first matching and then exceeding anything the Air Force currently has in the HH-60G,” said Biscaino. “With the new glass cockpit, tactical displays, weather radar, FLIR, the ring-of-fire, which incorporates the Radar Warning Receiver and all the different pieces of information that the pilots and crew can get, all of that will enhance the crew’s situational awareness, so when they are in a threat environment, they will have a lot more information that’s readily accessible.”
Biscaino added: “The legacy aircraft had steam gauges and lights that would give you indications of the status of systems. All of that is now integrated into four multi-function color displays. It’s a glass cockpit in every sense of the word, so switching from page to page of information is done with the simple toggle of a switch. We now have the ability to overlay information from different sources. For example, you could have a night vision picture in front of you with a tactical display, so you can see anything that illuminates you if a threat pops-up. You’ll know exactly where it is because it’s all referenced according to the aircraft. We’re also incorporating multi-function displays for the crew in the cabin, so that means the crew now has the ability to back-up the pilots, and the pilots can request the crew to monitor systems and be more engaged in missions.”
It’s clear that avionics technology is progressing in leaps and bounds, and these technologies are breathing new life into platforms as they enhance safety and capabilities. The only question that remains is: what’s next?