ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., 19 March 2015. A futuristic dashboard could change the way Army aviation operates, allowing for autonomous location tracking and updates on the health of an aircraft even at the material level, according to U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) scientists.
Today, black boxes capture basic flight operational information and are not for real-time monitoring; three decades from now, however, Army researchers hope to provide automated real-time solutions for aviators to complete their missions safely, explains Dy Le, an ARL division chief who specializes in sciences for maneuver.
"It's an integrated capability designed to automatically gauge changes in air, ground, and autonomous systems vehicles' functional state at the material level; assess vehicles' maneuvering capabilities taken into account of measured functional state in the context of upcoming or even ongoing missions; and enable operators or Soldiers to maneuver accordingly to achieve mission requirements," Le says.
The Virtual Risk-informed Agile Maneuver Sustainment (VRAMS) Intelligent State Awareness System would enable total awareness of location and status of all air assets, providing Army commanders with enhanced situational awareness and the decisive edge. Researchers are also aware of the importance of protecting this information.
"This is one of the challenges that we will be working on as we progress through various stages of VRAMS maturation," Le adds. "Data/information assurance to protect aircraft position/identity is one of critical pieces to safeguarding the national aviation infrastructure from real cyber attacks."
The dashboard framework would depend on technologies that currently do not exist but would help air traffic controllers, maintenance teams and commanders detect real and potential system and component damage of aircraft.
The concept was inspired by Dr. Bill Lewis, U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center Aviation Development director, whose desire was to have fatigue-free aircraft to protect from aircraft catastrophic failures, as well as to reduce operation and sustainment costs. The project hopes to achieve the Army sustainment goal, for example, zero-maintenance, by containing or eliminating aircraft structural fatigue using the VRAMS Intelligent State Awareness System.
ARL's futuristic dashboard would give air traffic controllers, maintainers, and commanders a clear view of the health, usage, and location of any air, ground or unmanned vehicle in their fleet at anytime, anywhere in the world. But inside the vehicle, pilots or other operators would see the Vehicle State Awareness Capability screens, which signal to them the current maneuver capability of the vehicle as well as the health status of critical systems (e.g., propulsion, drive-train, structures) Maintenance operators, and most likely commanders, would focus on the Aviation Tactical Operation Panel, which can give them real time assessments of any vehicle damage, stress or fatigue.
Future Vertical Lift
Researchers envision VRAMS for the next generation of Army aircraft, known as Future Vertical Lift, in about 2048. Researchers are also looking at how they can give commanders more flexibility in how they receive and use VRAMS data.
"The current or legacy platforms currently do not have avionic infrastructures and capability that can accommodate VRAMS technology," Le explains. "Legacy aircraft can be retrofitted with VRAMS in the future but it would be much cheaper to do it on new or next-generation aircraft.
"VRAMS can provide essential and strategic information in commanders' hands through a hand-held device to monitor the Army aviation fleet and make the most effective decision to meet mission requirements even when logistical support slows," Le says.
Self-healing technology: inspired by nature
The idea of an aircraft self-healing may sound like science fiction, but Army researchers are pursuing the technology.
"Self-healing capability is envisioned for new aircraft and is a separate technology from VRAMS," Le says. Le uses a bio-inspired analogy to describe how VRAMS would act as a brain with sensors throughout the aircraft acting as a nervous system.
"We envision dynamic feedbacks and self-learning, or artificial intelligence, to sense, detect, assess and act to preserve the integrity of the aircraft," Le continues. "This would all be done autonomously."
The first breakthrough, discovered by the ARL Sciences for Maneuver research team in January 2014, was the identification and capturing of the change in the material (material damage precursor) at microscopic levels before the onset of potential damage.
"The ability to identify and capture material damage precursors is one of key technologies included in the VRAMS core engine," Le says. "VRAMS is envisioned to enable bio-inspired capability, like a pin prick on a finger. You'd recognize that it hurt, you'd feel the pain but there's little that needs to be done to treat it or address it."
Army future vertical lift aircraft will have multifunctional capabilities. Future aircraft structures will sense damage, access the severity of degradation, and repair it to bring the structures back to a full or acceptable operational healthy state.
"VRAMS can also potentially alert Army pilots of certain severe maneuvers to avoid so operational stress can be kept at or below an acceptable level to avoid the structural fatigue," Le explains. "Without being severely stressed or experiencing structural fatigue, the aircraft can last longer than its design life."
In the past, University of Illinois researchers and ARL scientists demonstrated the concept of a micro vascular network, much as in human physiology, embedded with capsules containing self-healing agents for repairing composite material damage. When damage like a micro-crack is detected in a structural component, for example, self-healing agents in the capsules would be released to heal or repair the damage.
ARL researchers are working closely with Navy researchers to develop smart material modeling using material databases while exploring the potential for built-in sensing capability in aircraft structures.
VRAMS relies on real-time multiscale modeling to project the growth of damage and degradation.
ARL researchers are also focusing on capturing incoming information from an aircraft's on-board intelligent system and converting them into a binary format so a computer can prepare input files to execute multiscale modeling in real time autonomously.
The results provide information on how long it may take for a material damage precursor to evolve through various stages of damage and grow to catastrophic failure, if the self-repair capability fails to fix the degradation.
"It's like a brake on a car," Le says. "On the highway, the brake life generally lasts longer versus driving a car on city streets, resulting in shorter brake life, because brakes are used more often to stop for pedestrians, traffic lights, and emergency vehicles for example. [We] aim at developing another capability, incorporated into VRAMS, which can determine what maneuvers will reduce the life of the vehicle."
The system concept would include a capability that looks at load and fatigue stress management and mitigation through maneuver adjustments, algorithms can gauge if the aircraft is flying at, above or below certain stress factors like degree of turn.
The concept is getting support from aviation experts across the government, including the FAA and NASA. Identifying technology gaps to make the concept a reality was a major reason for a workshop at Aberdeen Proving Ground in August 2014. Roughly 80 aviation experts attended from government agencies, academia, and industry.
The ARL team is looking for ways to turn their ideas into technologies that can be tested as early as summer 2015.
Dy Le, the mechanics division chief at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory Vehicle Technology Directorate, is the VRAMS architect and ARL sustainment focus lead. He completed pilot training at Fort Rucker in the 1970s and, in 1986, began his career at the Naval Air Propulsion Center and subsequently at the Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center for 23 years focusing specifically on aircraft systems and components as well as monitoring technologies including the Health and Usage Monitoring System before joining the Army Research Laboratory in 2008.
Article reprinted with permission from the March/April 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on aviation research. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.
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