Military Embedded Systems

Military avionics get sleek with digital glass cockpit instruments and panoramic displays


March 16, 2018

Sally Cole

Senior Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Among the latest in military avionics trends: Digital electronic displays, panoramic displays, software-defined radio (SDR), improved satellite communications, and precise navigation without GPS.

Several intriguing trends are occurring within the military avionics realm right now – here are a few of the latest from Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Harris Corp., and Honeywell Aerospace.

F-35 avionics embrace open architectures

In 2017, Lockheed Martin chose Harris Corp. to upgrade the F-35’s mission system avionics. The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter combines attributes of fifth-­generation fighter aircraft, including integrated avionics. As part of this upgrade, Harris is providing the aircraft memory system and panoramic cockpit display electronic unit, which are based on open architecture and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

Harris’ aircraft memory system provides solid-state mass storage capability for the F-35 aircraft avionics subsystems, which is the repository for avionics operational flight programs, mission and theater data, operational status, audio, display video, and aircraft parametric data. The panoramic cockpit display electronic unit enables ­processing for the panoramic head-down display in the cockpit.

“The new TR3 electronics pave the way for system upgrades well into the future,” said Ed Zoiss, president of Harris Electronic Systems at the time of the announcement last year. “Open systems are the future of avionics and Harris is investing substantial R&D to develop these solutions. These awards affirm the military’s approach to open systems architectures and Harris’ commitment to delivering more affordable, higher-performance solutions than would have been possible using proprietary technology.”

The F-35’s communications, navigation, and identification system (CNI) uses SDR technology from Northrop Grumman, which involves reconfigurable radio frequency (RF) hardware and computer processors to run software that produces a desired waveform. By sharing common power, RF hardware, and computer processors, the avionics system becomes “integrated” CNI, according to the company.

Northrop Grumman’s fully integrated, simultaneous CNI avionics suite includes advanced capabilities such as ultra-high-frequency/very-high-frequency transmit and receive, identification friend or foe transponder, Link 16 connectivity, joint precision and approach landing system, wireless communications, and a cutting-edge multifunction advanced data link for low-observable or stealthy platforms.

Black Hawk cockpits and communication

Many other avionics systems are also undergoing digital upgrades. Northrop Grumman engineers have developed sleek digital helicopter cockpit and integrated avionics solutions for the U.S. Army’s UH-60V Black Hawk, replacing analog gauges with digital electronic instrument displays.

This particular system’s architecture is designed so that it can be applied to many platforms and sustained through a single software package.

Improving satellite communications

Honeywell Aerospace is bringing upgraded satellite communications – in the form of access to real-time Internet, video, and voice and texting capabilities – to Black Hawk helicopters.

As part of this effort, Honeywell is upgrading the Federal Aviation Administration supplemental type certificate for the Aspire 200 Satellite Communications System for commercial Sikorsky UH-60 and S70 Black Hawk helicopters.

This upgrade includes a high-gain antenna, Honeywell’s latest Wi-Fi router, and the Scotty Communication Platform, which compiles and compresses large data files and high-definition video quickly and at a competitive rate. It’s designed to enable communication in real-time video and, according to Honeywell, is the only broadband solution that mitigates the impacts of rotor blades on the satellite signal to ensure connectivity almost anywhere.

U.S. Coast Guard MH-65s get an avionics upgrade

An enhanced digital cockpit and open architecture was also part of the avionics MH-65 short-range recovery helicopters upgrade performed by Rockwell Collins.

Operating helicopters within hazardous conditions at sea is part of the job for the U.S. Coast Guard, and pilots must be able to rely on their avionics to help them perform difficult tasks during emergencies or search and rescue missions. Back in 2016, the Coast Guard awarded a $3.7 million contract to Rockwell Collins for the production of 140 automatic flight control system panels for its MH-65s. By the end of 2019, the MH-65s will be supplied with avionics and missionized application software to support the Coast Guard’s plan to extend the MH-65 fleet’s operational life until 2027. (Figure 1.)

“The Coast Guard mission requires the helicopter’s flight director to be coupled all the way down to 50 feet, which is much lower than other services,” says Matt Mulnik, senior engineering manager of Maritime and Civil Systems for Rockwell Collins. “A pilot having that level of trust in their avionics in that situation is pretty extraordinary.”

What’s being upgraded in terms of displays? One major new feature is all-glass, large-format digital displays to improve video and imaging options, according to Rockwell Collins, so that crews can view multiple video sources from both outside and inside the aircraft.

In other display upgrades, pilots will now be able to observe activity in the back of the helicopter, thanks to video from hoist and cabin cameras. Moreover, the external imaging from infrared radar and electro-optical sensors can also be displayed to allow pilots to save images and video to a mission data recorder for immediate review or to save for downloading later.


Figure 1: Pictured are upgraded avionics in a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65E. Courtesy of Rockwell Collins.



These improved displays give pilots “increased situational awareness and a reduced workload, which can make a huge difference in challenging situations when every second counts,” says Heather Robertson, senior director of rotary wing solutions for Rockwell Collins.

As far as architecture, the system is designed with the latest open architecture to enable the reuse of applications developed on other programs and hosting them within this updated avionics system. This open design can run third-party applications, which maximize pilots’ capabilities to reduce costs to upgrade the system.

The upgrade further includes Rockwell Collins’ integrated civil and military flight-management system, which the company says meets the requirements for area navigation and provides the special mission capability that the Coast Guard needs. It also satisfies aviation mandates to allow the aircraft to fly within civil airspace.

Search and rescue capabilities are also getting a boost: They’re receiving a full integration of Rockwell Collins’ DF-500 direction finder into the new flight-management system and display. This upgrade is important because the DF-500’s receiver can now continuously scan for emergency beacons over a large frequency range to pinpoint the exact location of any detected beacon on the digital display. The pilot can then 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.

Rockwell Collins “worked very closely with the Coast Guard to develop these new capabilities that will improve safety and effectiveness in future missions,” says Dhiraj Raghwani, programs manager of Maritime and Civil Systems for Rockwell Collins.

Other upgrade enhancements include installation of digital GPS and inertial navigation, digital weather radar systems, and digital glass cockpit instruments.


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