Tempest design trends are putting data in focus for avionics
Edge processing, modular architecture and integrated systems are making for ‘data-centric’ avionics in the next generation of air platforms. Andrew Salerno-Garthwaite explores key developments.
// Alex Giles, CCO at Iceni Labs
Modernisation in avionics is leading manufacturers to become data centric organisations, exploiting the information coming off platforms to provide a greater understanding to their users in the business space and to the pilots during operations.
Trends seen in the design of the BAE Systems-led sixth generation Tempest fighter, are finding a foothold in wider industry.
Ricky Freeman, the president of Defense & Space at Honeywell Aerospace, stressed a focus on developing enterprise architecture across systems that companies can add capabilities into without significant modification: “The future of defensive platforms is going to require a degree of modularity and open systems architecture in some of the software we bring to bear to ensure that the military has the capacity to replace and innovate.”
Getting the most from MOSA
The Modular Open System Approach (MOSA) employs a modular design that uses system interfaces between components, verified to ensure they comply with widely supported and consensus-based standards. The architecture allows severable components to be incrementally added or removed throughout the life cycle, affording opportunities for enhanced competition and innovation. MOSA brings significant cost savings, reduces scheduling lead-times and enables the rapid deployment of new technology.
If you can now process that data in theatre, you can now present that derived data or that information much faster to the people that need that information instead of piping it all the way back
- Randy Hayes, vice president of Public Sector at VAST Data Federal
“We really are thinking in terms of - not so much evolutionary design - but revolutionary design every few years to keep up with the evolving threats that we find,” said Freeman. “That need for modularity and that open systems architecture that allows that flexibility of engine design and sensor design, going forward, is going to be critical.”
A key example of these principles that can be found elsewhere is in Leonardo’s development of the Integrated Sensing and Non-Kinetic Effects (ISANKE) system for the Tempest fighter. This integrated communication and sensor system incorporates everything in the electromagnetic spectrum that might have previously been looked at separately, including radar, radio frequencies, and electronic warfare technologies.
Under this model of development, it is unlikely that future contractors would procure radar for flight or an electronic warfare system or a defensive suite separately but would instead upgrade entire integrated systems because the benefits of integration compensate against a rise in future threats.
// A model of the proposed Tempest jet fighter aircraft at Farnborough Airshow. Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
Previous generations of fighter jets were designed in a slightly different way to the Tempest, with the difference illustrative of the ISANKE’s primacy in the innovation process. Under legacy design principles the prime contractor would have started with the airframe and later turned to subcontractors for avionics that worked within limitations for size, weight and power, with trade-offs that could bring sub-optimal results for those systems.
However, in the case of Team Tempest, all the contractors have been working together from the start and as a result they able to tailor every aspect of the fighter to meet the needs of the sensor systems. The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has referred to the process as ‘designing it from the inside out’, and with this principal Team Tempest began by prioritising the MoD’s electronic capability requirements then and built the rest of the fighter around meeting those specifications.
The Tempest’s sensor system is built to quickly deliver alerts that a pilot can act on with more confidence than with non-integrated systems. In fighters without an integrated sensor system, an individual sensor will wait until the confidence it has in its detection reaches a certain threshold before notifying the operator.
This high specificity prevents operators from being inundated with false alarms during their mission, but the trade-off is a drop in sensitivity for detecting low-observability platforms.
Integrated sensors like the ISANKE benefit pilots through having the each of the sensor devices communicate with the others. Instead of delaying a decision on borderline results, the sensors cross-reference their findings using different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
You may have been confronted by lots of diagrams that have many lightning bolts on them connecting platforms together. You’ll see them in various conferences. What we are trying to do is to actually make the lightning bolts make sense.
- Mark Ashwell, strategy director of L3Harris UK
In the race to analyse data effectively new territories in edge computing are being explored. Edge capabilities offer processing and dissemination of data during operations in theatre.
“I think about it in terms of ‘full up’ systems and some of the capabilities that Honeywell is leading edge on is, for example, are our synthetic vision capabilities in avionics and in cockpits,” said Freeman. “This is where we are taking the sensor to the next level, synthesising flight information from multiple onboard databases, synthesising inputs from GPS, sensor inputs from inertial NAV and reference systems to create this three-dimensional intuitive rendering of forward terrain.”
Data collection and dissemination
For the collation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, under typical circumstances most of the activity happens far away from theatre. A platform collects a large quantity of images and other forms of information across all its devices during its mission. When the aircraft lands the data storage devices are removed from the plane, taken to a facility, and connected to another computer system for processing, before the output disseminated to other analysts for further processing.
“There’s a lot of steps to this,” says Randy Hayes, vice president of Public Sector at VAST Data Federal, described the limitations of current approaches, “and all that does is delay the intelligence getting to the people that need to actually understand what’s going on in theatre.”
// "Team Tempest", which includes Britain's Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo SPA, MBDA and Saab, on display at Farnborough Airshow, in Farnborough. Credit: Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP
VAST Data Federal are pioneers in data storage capabilities for use in edge computing, having designed systems architecture that expands the lifetime of Flash storage devices, allowing them to be used as primary storage. With their technology it is resource efficient to move the processing of ISR data to the edge of the intelligence system, processing data in the platform during a mission, delivering findings in real time.
“If you can now process that data in theatre, you can now present that derived data or that information much faster to the people that need that information instead of piping it all the way back,” says Hayes. “What we’re starting to see is there is a much more appetite to now probe at the edge.”
Mark Ashwell, strategy director of L3Harris UK, sees the future of systems architecture springing forward in several programmes currently in development. “You’ll hear people talking about Joint All Domain Command and Control in the United States, and in the [US] Air Force the Air Battle Management System. In NATO you’re hearing about the Allied Future Surveillance and Control System which is an eventual replacement for their [airborne early warning] aircraft.”
“We recognise that this move to aggregation alongside integration is a long-term process,” said Ashwell. “The task has many facets; providing the data system, the networks that the data system flows around, the fusion engines that let the data work together, the cryptography and electronic warfare systems that protect the data, and ultimately, the tools to bring the data to decision makers.
As an example of this systems technology, L3Harris produce the RC-135W Air Seeker platform in the UK, operating out of RAF Waddington for signals intelligence. Ashwell emphasises the benefit of this system for addressing hidden concerns. “There is a system called Network Centric Collaborative Targeting, which is to fuze information together. That's when you start to actually reach into the realms of exploitation of artificial intelligence to help decision makers understand what's going on.
“You may have been confronted by lots of diagrams that have many lightning bolts on them connecting platforms together. You’ll see them in various conferences. What we are trying to do is to actually make the lightning bolts make sense.”
// Main image: Avionics' crew work on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora January 21, 2015 Aurora, CO. Credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images