The U.S. Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement has now entered its second phase, or “NACRA 2.0”, as of last June, according to NACRA Director Timothy Gowen. Movement into the second phase gives NACRA a stronger entry into the area of technology development while building stronger ties with research scientists and engineers throughout the military and civil rotorcraft industry, he told Rotor & Wing.
NACRA was created in 2008 under a 2005 BRAC mandate to develop a center for advancement in rotorcraft technology (See R&W, July 2010). Phase I was to focus on areas such as program management support, science and technology (S&T), research and development (R&D), advanced concepts, rapid prototyping, sustainment, education and investment.
That focus has nurtured an environment where advanced technology can be developed throughout the rotorcraft community and tested on NACRA’s flying test beds.
Gowen noted that NACRA is not involved in the development of improved helicopter airframes. Ideas that are being tried today in rotary wing aircraft such as Sikorsky’s X2 or Eurocopter’s X3 were tried back in the ‘60s, but were severely limited by the materials, flight control systems and propulsion systems of the day. But with the improvements in those areas, the manufacturers are making aircraft that fly faster, farther and safer.
So while the airframes and powerplants will be basically the same, just better, the biggest paradigm will be in the systems that improve the efficiency and capabilities of the aircraft. In the 1960s and ‘70s, when the turbine engine powered helicopter was coming into its own, the major cost of the aircraft was in the airframe and powerplant. Only a small percentage by dollar value went toward the avionics and analog “steam gauge” instrument panel, and weapon systems were of the “shoot and hope you hit something” variety. Today that is reversed, with the major emphasis being on digital multi-functional panels, advanced communication avionics and GPS-INS navigation systems and sophisticated “fire and forget” laser guided weapons.
“So that is where we see the opportunity to bring about changes in [black] boxes and avionics systems and survivability,” Gowen said. “We can’t boil the ocean, we can’t build our own helicopter better. What we are doing at NACRA is making what we can influence better, increasing the efficiency, improving the communications (throughout the industry), and focusing on being a force multiplier in areas where there are potential improvements that will make a difference.”
The mission laid out for NACRA 2.0 is simple—progress the Naval rotary wing R&D acquisition, testing and evaluation community through technology development and demonstration, strategic analysis, education and communication. In other words, “Improve Naval rotary-wing aircraft for current and future warfighters.”
One of the most important practical hands-on applications for that mission is the capability of “T-Rex,” or Testbed for Rapid Warfighter Response and Experimentation. These are two USN UH-1Ns that NACRA has acquired and configured to flight test potential future aircraft systems and sensors.
The first “T-Rex” was delivered in late 2010 (See R&W, Nov. 2010) and was recently joined by the second. The two are equipped with instrumentation racks and electrical systems that allow them to become system simulators for virtually any rotary wing type platform. These simulators operate totally independent of the helicopter itself. This allows systems and/or sensors to be tested—and often recalculated, or tweaked—in flight without the requirement for special flight clearances or regression testing.
“We worked with a contractor last year who was developing software [for an advanced threat warning system], so we put the system into the mission computer, with the contractor company engineer in the back monitoring the data from their sensor that was hanging outside the aircraft. He was tweaking the software codes live while in the aircraft to enhance it more.”
Without NACRA support, the FMV initiative would likely be delayed one year and would have added $3.2 million to the USMC bill.” — Lt. Col. Tim Fetsch
NACRA is entirely self-contained with its own test pilots, flight test engineers and staff. While it is part of the NAS Patuxent River complex, it does not compete with the Navy test squadron, he said. “We offer a totally different capability, which is to put something on the aircraft, test it and give the person or organization that is interested a quick turn around on whether it works or doesn’t work.”
NACRA resides within Naval Air Warfare Center for R&D acquisition, testing and evaluation, which gives it Rapid Warfighter Response capability, allowing it to put together a “Tiger Team” of experts who can very quickly develop, research and test a program to determine if it is viable. “We have the ability to test something from the warfighters to determine if it will work, then give them back an answer within three or four weeks,” Gowen said. NACRA can also provide a limited “quick-look report” in days rather than the months that standard demonstration testing facilities often take.
NACRA has already completed testing and demonstration of two U.S. Marine Corps H-1 programs, a digital interoperability initiative program, or digital systems upgrade (DSU), and a full motion video (FVM) data transmission program. Testing results for the FVM alone has already saved the USMC one year in implementing the system and $3.2 million in costs, according to Lt. Col. Tim (Toolman) Fetsch, H-1 requirements officer at USMC headquarters.
NACRA supports a wide range of organizations to include NAVAIR program executive officers and aviation program managers, Office of Naval Research, National Rotorcraft Technology Center, academia, industry and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This support includes being a test center for engineers trying to determine the viability of possible technological solutions. Engineers from anywhere within the rotorcraft community can approach NACRA with a project proposal to see if it will work
“For instance, we can take ideas that come to them from things they’ve seen in the civilian market, such as a collision avoidance system, and test it to see if it will work in military aircraft.”
In one test, NACRA examined a civilian CAS for the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey program. “The CAS was a great piece of gear, but unacceptable because the V-22 has a mesh windshield that was blocking off all the antenna coverage. So a simple thing like that saved the program manager from making a large investment, then realizing a couple of years down the road that the windshield was blocking all the coverage.”
The key is that NACRA provides a forum for people to use when they have a helicopter issue and are looking for someone to check it out. “Whom do they talk to? They don’t talk to program managers because it isn’t a program of record, so it’s not any program that has acquired any resources to it. They wouldn’t go to any of the engineering conferences because it could cross several conferences. They wouldn’t go to the test and evaluation committee because there is nothing to test. So where do you go if you have an idea or issue or want to talk to somebody in NAVAIR?” Gowen said. “We want to be that initial entry point,” he continued. “Even if we don’t solve the issue, we can pull the right guys together to ensure they are talking.”
NACRA has already completed several technology demonstration projects in 2011, including an advanced threat warning data-gathering system and the full motion video/data transmission system with 4G LTE (long-term evaluation) digital operation.
This year it is continuing with 4G LTE cellular communications with sea trial testing. This system essentially turns the helicopter into a flying mobile telephone cell tower. While the ability to transmit and receive real time ground-air-ground audio/visual communications has been available for years, it traditionally requires relatively large receivers/transmitters.
The new 4G system will allow individuals on the ground, or water, to communicate using smart phones and smart tablets such as iPhones and iPads. These trials resulted from the growing threat of piracy off the horn of Africa and the Navy’s urgent mission critical requirement for a hand-held portable maritime C2 system for the Counter-Piracy Task Force.
This will allow Navy SEAL boarding parties to have direct communications with their ship during and after the boarding operation.
NACRA is also tasked with more mundane projects, to include the expansion of condition-based maintenance for rotary-wing aircraft and the evaluation of fiber optics to improved capabilities and performance of the aircraft while reducing total operating costs.