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Addressing Brownout – from Research Priority to Program of Record

April 2012

The old joke is that “everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”  Less humorous is the Army Aviation corollary that “everyone talks about brownout, but no one does anything about it.”  That might be changing.

The Brownout/DVE Challenge

The human and materiel costs of brownout – U.S. military rotary-wing aviation operating in brownout, whiteout, or, more formally, degraded visual environments (DVE) – are well known and they are high – greatly surpassing the community’s losses to enemy fire.

According to Layne Merritt, a retired Army aviator who today manages Science & Technology (S&T) priorities and programs as Assistant Program Executive Officer for Engineering and Technology within the Army’s Program Executive Office Aviation (PEO Aviation) at Redstone Arsenal, between 2002 and 2010 there were 69 Class A accidents (accidents that result in a destroyed aircraft, more than $1 million in damage, fatality or permanent disability) that resulted in 94 fatalities and $688 million in Army materiel loss. 

PEO Aviation officials acknowledge that despite the fact that Army leadership recently ranked “operating in DVE as the number #1 priority in the list of threats,” little of its roughly $100 million in annual Science & Technology (S&T) funding has historically been allocated to addressing the program.  They also observe that this is changing now, with $257 million presently allocated to addressing DVE through 2016.

Testing Brownout Solutions on the Battlefield

While each of the Military Services – including the Army Aeroflightdynamics Directorate (AFDD) and the Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD), the USAF’s Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) – as well as the Special Operations community and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- has sponsored and supported industry validation of a range of novel Brownout/DVE technology solutions, none of these solutions has found way to the battlefield.

PEO Aviation is changing this.  

Mr. Merritt, tasked with addressing DVE for Army Aviation, tells DSJ that PEO Aviation S&T (with and through PM Aviation Systems) officials, having evaluated a number of Brownout/ DVE solutions at Army senior leadership direction and with an Urgent Operational Needs Statement in hand, will in 2013 launch a year-long limited operational (field) evaluation of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Helicopter Autonomous Landing System (HALS). 

HALS, a 94 GHz radar that can see through smoke, fog, dust, and sand that is fused with DoD digital terrain maps and presented on cockpit displays with advanced symbology, was developed by the Army Aeroflightdynamics Directorate (AFDD) and the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) working with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

This PEO Army-sponsored “Quick Reaction Capability” (QRC) will see five units of a version of HALS fielded with an operational UH-60 Blackhawk unit in Afghanistan.  The results of this trial, according to Mr. Merritt, will inform a future PEO Aviation decision to launch a formal Program of Record to deploy a Blackout/DVE solution Army-wide (presently more than 3,800 aircraft). 

According to Pat Garman, another former Army aviator, presently Vice President at SNC and prime mover behind the company’s DVE efforts, SNC will, upon receiving a “Phase B full award” contact for the effort in the weeks ahead, commence an 8-9-month effort to ready the HALS system (now a TRL 7 system) for battlefield deployment.

While HALS was evaluated on a Blackhawk at the Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds some three years ago, Garman tells DSJ that the system will require refinement as well as airframe integration prior to being sent to the theater for prolonged use and evaluation.  The company will also work with the Army to develop formal HALS tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for operations as well as formal personnel training plans for the system. 

A Program of Record?

Mr. Merritt stipulates that the HALS UH-60 QRC – irrespective of its outcome -- does not mean that the Army has already endorsed the HALS technical approach and in no way precludes an open competition for Brownout/DVE solutions in the future.

Indeed, Mr. Merritt notes that the HALS system weighs in excess of 100 pounds and the Service would like to see the system weight for an eventual production system to be less than 50 pounds and he observes that there is not necessarily an Army desire to have a one-size-fits-all DVE solution for all Army platforms.  (SNC’s Garman notes that the company had a 60 lbs. prototype system at hand.)

Future DVE Solutions

At the same time that PEO Aviation is pushing HALS to the theater of operations for an operational evaluation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) continues its efforts – launched in the groundbreaking SANDBLASTER program – to validate state-of-the-art DVE solutions.

DARPA’s Multi-Function RF Program (MFRF) – under the direction of Bruce Wallace – is developing a multifunction onboard sensor to perform a variety of tasks that enhance the survivability of rotorcraft and provide lethality improvements for combat missions. The sensor is intended to give pilots ability to land safely in brownout/whiteout conditions; collision avoidance with other aircraft, obstacles and cables; terrain following; weather avoidance; and ground mapping. Planned lethality enhancements include ISR for target detection and ID, weapons guidance, and data link. This program does not intend performance of all of these functions at currently accepted frequencies but seeks to develop a common RF system that will use agile frequencies, waveforms, and apertures to optimally interweave these functions according to the aircraft's missions.

DARPA’s MFRF program seeks to demonstrate a multifunctional, software-adaptable system architecture that will provide for future expanded capability without adding new hardware. It is expected that this “plug and play” multifunctional system could be employed as a replacement sensor on existing aircraft, as an insertion into future aircraft, such as the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) aircraft, or as a sensor suite suitable for UAS. This will require antenna architectures that are flexible and that consume as little area and power as possible. 

Cooperation on DVE Solutions

Mr. Merritt notes that while Army aviation DVE solutions necessarily derive from a unique set of mission requirements that likely precludes joint Service materiel solutions, he notes that he and his colleagues coordinate often and closely with other Military Service officials working on DVE solutions to share findings and relevant solutions.   

Further, he notes, the Army is working with U.S. industry partners participating in NATO’s Land Capability Group (LCG 8) “Study on DVE Solutions.” Sikorsky Corporation will chair this industry-staffed study group, with its kick-off scheduled for 14-15 May.