Because the focus of my research and analysis is U.S. national security, in general, and force structure and programmatic issues, in particular, I have plenty of opportunities to learn about new, innovative and even radical ideas for military capabilities. Over time it is easy to become jaundiced about what you are told. There are lots of ideas that sound terrific but never get beyond the viewgraph stage. Many concepts that initially show great promise in the laboratory fail to meet standards for operational effectiveness or simply take so long to reach the field that the requirement disappears or new and better technologies emerge.
So when I come across an idea that appears not merely clever but potentially revolutionary and which is real, I take notice. I am referring to Raytheon’s Advanced Distributed Aperture System (ADAS), a system intended to dramatically improve helicopter survivability and flight operations. One of the most difficult challenges facing U.S. helicopter crews in Iraq and Afghanistan is low-level flight at night and/or in complex terrain. Another challenge is that of “brownout,” when a pilot’s vision is obscured by the intense dust clouds stirred up during a helicopter’s takeoff or landing. Current night vision goggles and collision avoidance systems are inadequate. Just look at what happened during the raid by SEAL Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden. One of the stealthy helicopters was damaged during the nighttime landing and had to be destroyed. These two problems, together with flying into objects near the ground and failing to detect and respond in time to hostile fire, are by far the leading causes of helicopter losses and fatalities according to a 2009 Congressional study.
ADAS exploits concrete advances in multispectral sensing, computer processing, data fusion, object recognition algorithms and helmet-mounted displays to provide helicopter pilots and crew with the ability to see in the dark and deal with crowded airspace and complex environments. The key to the ADAS system is the ability to collect and process data from a variety of sensors (near infrared, millimeter wave and acoustic) and provide that information to as many as four helmet-mounted displays. By positioning sensors all around the helicopter ADAS allows the pilot and crew not only to “see” in low light but to look through the helicopter. To deal with brownout, ADAS creates an artificial picture of the landing zone that is superimposed on the obscured environment and changes to reflect the movement of the helicopter.
In addition to decreasing dramatically the risks associated with flying at night or in potential brownout environments, ADAS makes a number of other important contributions to helicopter survivability. Using a combination of infrared, millimeter wave and audio sensors, ADAS can provide real-time warning of hostile fire from the full range of threats to helicopters: small arms, anti-aircraft artillery, rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and surface-to-air missiles. You might recall that it was an RPG that downed a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan last August 6, killing 22 Navy SEALs, eight other Americans and eight Afghans. The same set of sensors also enables ADAS to warn of flying hazards such as towers, wires and cables, as well as to locate and track other aerial platforms, including hostile aircraft and helicopters.
One of the keys to the effectiveness of ADAS is its advanced helmet. The fourth-generation helmet-mounted display provides the wearer fused images of his surroundings, threat warnings and artificial pictures used to fly through brownouts. The pilot does not have to look at his windscreen or down at his instrument panel to fly the helicopter. Helmets are available for up to three other crewmen and each individual’s display can be customized to meet specific mission requirements (e.g. door gunner, crew chief or co-pilot). The helmet also provides such creature comforts as reduced weight and active noise reduction.
Unlike a lot of high-tech concepts ADAS actually exists and has been flown repeatedly. But before you put ADAS on your Christmas list, it is important for me to tell you there is still some work left to be done. The Army just awarded Raytheon a $14 million contract to take ADAS from its current status as a successful Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstrator to a system in production. The focus of this new effort will be on improving visual acuity and reducing the images on the helmet-mounted display to be refreshed. Also, Raytheon needs to ensure that installing ADAS will not impose any weight or space penalties. Significant weight savings may be generated by removing systems rendered redundant by ADAS. So within a year or, at the most two, ADAS may be ready for prime time. When that happens, helicopter operations will never be the same.
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