Military, Products, Services

Science & Technology Roadmap: Q&A With Bill Lewis

By By Keith Brown | July 1, 2012

Lewis currently serves as the director for aviation development at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center. He manages and directs the execution of the Army Aviation Science and Technology portfolio, including basic and applied research, and advanced technology development. A career Army Aviator and experimental test pilot, his duties now include serving as the Office of the Secretary of Defense lead for rotorcraft technology, and as director of the National Rotorcraft Technology Center.

Rotor & Wing: What are your roles and responsibilities as the director for Aviation Development?

Lewis: The primary mission of the aviation development group is to formulate the technology advances that we’re going to implement in the future. And that is both for current fleet and future fleet. This includes development of new air vehicles, both manned and unmanned, as we progress toward Aim Point 2030.


Rotor & Wing:You have a geographically dispersed organization. What are your major subordinate teams and their contribution to your overall efforts?

Lewis: My organization consists of three groups: one here at Redstone Arsenal which does a lot of the planning and preliminary work, the Aeroflightdynamics Directorate at Moffett Field (Calif.) that concentrates on early 6.1 research, and the Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis (Va.) that works applied research—6.2, 6.3 and bridging into 6.4. While these organizations are geographically diverse, we’re working very deliberately to make sure everyone understands it’s one organization working toward a common goal of seamless transition of our developed products into the fleet.

Rotor & Wing:Are you test facilities available to industry?

Lewis: Almost all of our facilities are broadly available to industry, academia and other government agencies through either through joint agreements or CRADAs (cooperative research and development agreements). There are wind tunnels that exist as a part of the NASA infrastructure. They could not be duplicated today. I’m talking billion-dollar infrastructure. As an example, we have a 40-by-80 wind tunnel. And we have an 80-by-120 wind tunnel that’s probably big enough to put your house in. We do full immersion of test vehicles—F35, F22, and Black Hawk. At Langley we have a 14-by-22 wind tunnel. We’re doing work there for the Kiowa PM—looking at the effects of drag on the fuselage in the current configuration and in potential future configurations. We also have structures labs, ballistics facilities, prototyping facilities and a countermeasures lab.

Rotor & Wing: What does the Army Aviation S&T Roadmap look like over the next 5-10 years, and what are the focus areas?

Lewis: The S&T Roadmap is a two-part roadmap. One concentrates on the current fleet—Black Hawks, Apaches, OH-58s, fixed-wing. The second concentrates on the future aircraft—the Future Vertical Lift family of aircraft—that we’re looking at developing. We break our focus groups into propulsion and drives, avionics and mission equipment, the platform pieces and operations support and sustainment. 

During an interview, Lewis holds a model of a potential future rotorcraft conceptual design.
Photo by Keith Brown

Rotor & Wing: With an aging aircraft fleet and the demanding operations tempo overseas accelerating aircraft age, how does S&T address aircraft sustainment and managing some of the associated challenges and risks?

Lewis: [AMRDEC] initiated a lot of what we call condition-based maintenance (CBM) many years ago. In conjunction with the Navy, we did a lot of health usage monitoring. That has evolved into an implementation of the fundamentals that we learned from that early work. Now it’s being populated across the fleet with digital source collectors to allow us to apply condition-based maintenance concepts that we started back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

There’s two ways to get condition-based maintenance. One is on a legacy platform as an add-on system. The second is—if you have a new start—you develop those CBM processes into the aircraft as you design and build it. You then leverage off of certainty, where there used to be uncertainty, to augment your maintenance processes so that you really design a different maintenance and support process for that new vehicle … Anything we do in S&T has ripple effects that go through the [aviation] enterprise. That’s why it’s very important to keep the enterprise communication flowing.

Rotor & Wing: What are some of the operational challenges and strategic drivers pushing us toward Future Vertical Lift?

Lewis: One of the big things, I think we’re going to fight a different fight in the future. Our area of operations is going to expand from 75-by-75 kilometers to 300-by-300—maybe bigger. That’s the ground piece. Depending upon the scenarios that you talk about, we also have a sea-based piece that says we need to go from ship to shore. In the future, the standoff distance from shore is going to be extended. So the aircraft are going to have to be able to go from those ships—across that extended sea space into a war fight, do something and then get back.

We always talk about the things for Future Vertical Lift, the performance issues—the ‘high-hot hover,’ the range, the endurance. But the secondary piece is the O&S cost of operating the system. Seventy percent of the cost of our systems is after we buy the system. So a huge focus of the new aircraft is going to be how to build a zero-maintenance aircraft. But, in order to do that, there must be a lot of embedded technologies. Problems with rotating components and fatigue [must be] overcome. And all of these aircraft are going to have to be fly-by-wire. So, we’re going to have to incorporate algorithms that keep the soldier from going into pieces of the envelope that do damage to the vehicle. If you can keep soldiers from encountering those damaging regimes—the one or two maneuvers that really damage the aircraft—you can increase the life of components dramatically. That’s part of a holistic solution—automate some of the controls [to extend] structural life.

The interdisciplinary nature of the design problem becomes a huge issue. And the organizations building these aircraft have to be able to understand cross-discipline approaches. That’s the beauty of the S&T organization—it’s small enough and agile enough to understand and work hand-in-glove with our counterparts functionally to be able to come up with air vehicles that have those kinds of capabilities embedded in them. Remember too, all of these aircraft that we’re building for 2030 are going to be optionally manned. So they will fundamentally fly themselves. It’s a different way of thinking about the fight.

Rotor & Wing: What’s your organization’s role in Future Vertical Lift?

Lewis: We produce design tools. Analytical codes that help predict what a new design will look like. A lot of that’s based on our wind tunnel testing. That’s our first phase. There are a lot of issues with any design with scaling. We’ve got some ways to go to do some initial testing to understand the effects of scaling and how we can accommodate those scaling issues in a design.

I have a design team right now that’s leading all of the design efforts for Future Vertical Lift. We have four contracts currently ongoing for Future Vertical Lift concepts. And there’s a government team that’s designing three configurations in a government facility to look at the same kinds of issues. So today we’re involved in very early preliminary design of the air vehicle. As we progress and get a flying vehicle, we will be involved more with the safety aspects, data collection, analysis of the vehicle, the application of the configurations, and how it fits in an operational environment.

When a PM is stood up the same team that helped design the technology demonstrators will migrate to that PM—to help [with] their prototype effort, mitigate risk and assist the PEO (program executive officer) in transitioning the technology to the field. One of my focuses is transitioning technology as early as possible into the fleet. Maybe that’s just because I’m an old soldier. When I come to work, I very deliberately think about how to transition technology as rapidly and as safely as possible into the hands of soldiers.

Rotor & Wing: The technology demonstration phase of Future Vertical Lift will require a significant investment in demonstrators. What do you expect to learn and how will this impact future efforts?

Lewis: You learn a lot about the applicability of the different configurations that are selected. Scalability is one of those things. Can you scale something from small to large, or to very large? Or is there a bound in there on a configuration? What’s within the art of the possible? You have to look at that. If today’s art of the possible is a mark on the wall, then hopefully in five years we’ll be able to move that mark a little bit farther to the right to have more enhanced capability. But those are the kinds of things that you have to deliberately manage as you look at S&T. And, we’re looking at a lot of active rotors, variable size rotors, different kinds of engines, propulsion drive train systems, and lifting wings. The more that we learn through these technical demonstrators, the more risk that we mitigate for that Program of Record and the better off we are in the transition—for the workforce, the products, the companies.

Rotor & Wing: How do we leverage commonality?

Lewis: Commonality is going to be a big opportunity. Theoretically, we could come up with an air vehicle, the same airframe that is both a utility aircraft and an attack aircraft. In order to obtain the speeds that we need, 225 and up, you’re not going to be able to have a whole bunch of guns, rockets, sensors, sticking out in the air. It’s going to have to be a very sleek, smooth, aerodynamically graceful airplane to fly at those speeds. Consequently, all of the armament will probably have to be inside the vehicle, somehow, and then come out for operation. So, at that point, you pretty much have a common platform and commonality throughout. The whole logistic support system is going to have to gear up for this common approach. It helps immeasurably.

I mean, think about it, if we have the same transmissions, the same engines, the same rotors, the same vehicle, my training workload goes down. Commonality is a great opportunity, and I think you can get great dividends from approaching these vehicles from a good commonality perspective. The ripple effect is more than just S&T. It will change how we do business.

Rotor & Wing: Do you have sufficient S&T funds to address all of your needs?

Lewis: Our funding has remained relatively level since the mid 80’s. The problem with aviation is that our commodities are expensive. The development of our commodities is expensive.

Given all that, we very deliberately have industry partners who cost share with us who try to help us along the path of coming up with the developments, in the case of some companies, they go out on their own an do some developments. So, could we use more? Absolutely.

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