Military Embedded Systems

Military helicopter avionics upgrades embrace COTS, FACE


March 04, 2016

Sally Cole

Senior Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Many military helicopter avionics upgrades are currently underway to enhance communications and situational awareness, leveraging the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) standard and supporting integration of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software and hardware. Meanwhile, avionics designers are also addressing cybersecurity concerns in modern aircraft cockpits.

Glass cockpits outfitted with flat-panel displays and high-performance embedded computing systems are becoming the new normal as military planners upgrade helicopter cockpits so they can last another decade or two. Avionics designers enable this longevity by leveraging COTS technology, open architectures, and common standards such as the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE).

A number of military helicopter avionics upgrades are currently underway; the charge is being led by avionics integrators such as Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Maryland; Northrop Grumman in Woodland Hills, California; and Honeywell in Phoenix, Arizona.

U.S. Air Force combat rescue helicopters

Sikorsky selected Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to provide the U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program with state-of-the-art avionics and mission equipment, including the cockpit flight and mission display system, navigation radios, and the ARC-210 VHF/UHF communication system.

“The CRH is a Black Hawk derivative, and we’re supplying the four multifunctional displays across its instrumentation panel,” says Dan Toy, principal marketing manager of Airborne Solutions for Rockwell Collins.

CRH replaces the aging HH-60G helicopter with the HH-60 Pave Hawk, the Air Force version of the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, modified for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) in all types of weather situations, says the Department of Defense (DoD), according to the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 budget request documents. The CRH program is expected to eventually procure 112 aircraft. The FY 2017 request funds Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) activities, including developmental efforts on aircraft, mission systems, training systems, and associated product support, according to the DoD. It also funds the acquisition of the five System Demonstration Test Article (SDTA) aircraft. Total funding in the FY 2017 request has risen to $319 million, up from $156 million in FY 2016.

Rockwell Collins engineers are providing not only hardware, but also the majority of the software that goes into these displays. This is equipment that the company already has on the U.S. Army’s Black Hawk. “Sikorsky chose essentially the same cockpit design for the Air Force CRH program, but we’re modifying the software – with very few other changes overall – to meet their requirements,” notes Toy.

In terms of displays, Rockwell Collins is “using the exact same hardware that’s already in production for the U.S. Army,” which the company is delivering currently. “Only small software changes are being made to allow Lockheed Martin to go in and efficiently integrate their CRH mission systems on the aircraft,” Toy says.

While Rockwell Collins’ advanced technology group is exploring how larger pieces of glass can be used in the cockpit in the near future – the technology to go larger is ready – many questions remain about the ruggedization of this type of technology for helicopters. “Because we’re dealing with cockpit avionics, we need to worry about not only ruggedization but also long-term survivability, the need for redundancy, and ballistic survivability,” Toy elaborates. “What happens if you take a bullet through the glass? Does the pilot suddenly lose everything on the display or is it designed so they only lose part of it?”

Another concern centers on how pilots can effectively use that large surface area: How can they most effectively manage the display surface to be able to provide the right information at the right time so the pilot is not overloaded with information?

“We’re focusing on how to help reduce pilots’ workload … not simply giving them a bigger surface and pushing more information up in front of them,” Toy says. “We don’t want them to have to sort through the information or data they see. The goal is to bring up what’s important for them in the phase of the mission they’re on. So these are areas we’re studying before these types of technologies can be effectively fielded for the warfighter.”

How do military avionics differ from nonmilitary avionics? Two key differences: ruggedization and performance. “The Black Hawk display system, which is being used on the CRH, offers higher performance. It has more embedded processing and the displays are smarter than those used within the commercial world,” Toy explains. “By embedding more processing into the displays, we can minimize the amount of extra or remote-mounted mission computers that need to be added to the aircraft.”

One more key difference is that displays on the CRH and Black Hawk tend to be designed to eliminate over-the-component cooling. All of the cooling air gets “circulated through the chassis of the display – none of it is blown directly over the electronics,” Toy points out. This layout is to ensure that within high sand or dust environments, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the equipment will perform reliably throughout the entire mission. These displays must also be able to handle exposure to ocean saltwater spray or any of the other harsh environments military electronics might encounter.

Yet another way military avionics differ from that of civilian craft is that the displays typically provide greater luminance levels and are fully night-vision goggle (NVG)-compliant, Toy adds.

Like other military helicopter upgrades currently underway, Rockwell Collins is leveraging COTS components directly out of the consumer electronics industry. “We’re able to use microprocessors and Ethernet components … many of these parts can be brought into our designs very easily,” Toy says. “This gives us a great advantage in terms of continuity of supply and ensures that we’re delivering the latest technology to our customers.”

FACE standard

Rockwell Collins is also embracing the FACE standard for this upgrade. “We use software that comes from the avionics systems that our commercial systems organization produces, such as Pro Line Fusion,” says Jeff Howington, also a principal marketing manager of Airborne Solutions for Rockwell Collins. “For our flight management software, which is brought over from the commercial side, the core pieces come to us ‘as is’ and we add to it to meet the needs of Navy, Army, or Air Force programs. The power of FACE is gathering these standards and organizing them in a way that all military vendors can use.”

In the past, much of the avionics capability “was implemented as part of the hardware,” adds Howington. “Now, it’s transitioning to software. So the industry is moving toward standards like FACE … to help capture this trend on the technology side.”

U.S. Army Apache helicopters

Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Maryland, is bringing high-resolution, near-infrared, and color imagery to AH-64E Apache helicopter cockpit displays as part of the Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS) upgrade.

These upgrades are designed to help pilots identify targets at farther distances by adding another field of view and extended-range picture-in-picture capability.

“Our enhancements enable faster situational understanding for aircrews and more accurate coordination with ground troops,” says Matt Hoffman, M-TADS/PNVS director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “The Apache is expected to be in service through 2045, so we’re continuing to invest in sensor upgrades to ensure aircrews have the capabilities they need to address emerging threats.”

The AH-64E Apache program is a remanufacture effort that results in a zero-time Longbow Apache, which restarts the Apache’s service life and upgrades the aircraft with updated technologies and performance enhancements to keep the Apache viable throughout its life cycle, according to the DoD FY 2017 budget request. The FY 2017 program funds the remanufacture of 48 AH-64D aircraft to the AH-64E configuration in the first year of a five-year multiyear procurement contract (FY 2017 through FY 2021) and continued development of upgrades to enhance operational capabilities. The program looks to procure four AH-64E aircraft, with total funding – procurement, research, and development – in FY 2017 decreasing slightly to $1.132 billion from $1.419 billion in FY 2016.

U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters

Northrop Grumman is supplying the mission avionics equipment for a digital cockpit upgrade of the U.S. Army’s UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, now designated as UH-60V. (Figure 1.)


Figure 1: Northrop Grumman is supplying and integrating mission avionics equipment for a digital cockpit upgrade of the U.S. Army’s UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman Corp.

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This upgrade includes a scalable, fully integrated mission equipment package that replaces older analog gauges with digital electronic instrument displays.

“Our integrated mission avionics solution is built on mature, proven technology and an open architecture approach for superior performance, affordability, growth potential, and reliability,” says Ike Song, vice president of Situational Awareness Systems for Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems.

Northrop Grumman’s design has been demonstrated through a flight test on a UH-60L helicopter. It features a centralized processor with a partitioned, modular operational flight program with an integrated architecture that enables new capabilities through software-only solutions, rather than hardware. The system is also smaller in size, lower in weight, and requires less power than legacy processing systems.

It’s worth noting that this next-gen avionics system is aligned with the FACE standard as well and supports integration of COTS software and hardware, to enable rapid insertion of capabilities while reducing cost and risk for system integration and upgrades. Additionally, Northrop Grumman is providing unlimited government-purpose rights to technical data software to eliminate vendor lock-in and to mitigate obsolescence issues.

The President’s FY 2017 budget request for the Black Hawk funds the continued development of the digital upgrades to the UH-60V (UH-60L) as well as procurement of 36 UH-60M aircraft in the first year of a follow-on five-year multiyear procurement contract (FY 2017 – FY 2021), according to the DoD. Total funding in the FY 2017 request decreases from $1.768 billion in FY 2016 to $976 million.

Cybersecurity of aircraft electronics a shared priority

One common challenge all of these contractors face today is that of cybersecurity, the effort to protect military avionics and aircraft from attacks or hacks.

“Cybersecurity is becoming more of a recognized threat within this realm,” acknowledges Rockwell Collins’ Toy. “We see it within our business computer systems, and we’re concerned about aircraft electronics as well. Much of the functionality on flight decks is software-driven, so this means that computer architectures are involved and they’re vulnerable to attacks. We don’t know just how vulnerable … so we’re working closely with the government to understand how to do vulnerability assessments. And we’ll fix any problems we find.”

Rockwell Collins is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as lead contractor on the High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS) cybersecurity program for unmanned air vehicles. The goal is to develop cybersecurity solutions with applicability to other network-enabled military vehicles. Software that’s designed correctly from the start is “paramount to guaranteeing” the security of military computing platforms, says the company.


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