The development of a new test asset for Army aviation sensors brings results and solutions at a faster pace.
Named the Mobile Apache Sensors Telemetry Trailer, the new sensors test trailer, a collaborated development effort by the Apache Project Office and the Redstone Test Center’s Aviation Flight Test Directorate, can travel anywhere in the continental U.S. and enables testers and engineers to conduct various sensor testing in different environments. Moreover, engineers and developers both are able to have rapid access to real-time aircraft information during testing.
Sensors are by nature complex. What goes into the actual fabrication of the system is unique.
“The tolerances are into the thousands of an inch, and if any piece of optical gear or terrain is misaligned or miss-set, then the system will not function properly,” Dr. Wayne Hudry, deputy product manager for Apache sensors, said. To the pilot inside a cockpit, it may look like the sensor is functioning properly but in reality and through instrumentation, the performance of the sensor system might be slightly off.
Therefore, testing of any sensor system must be precise, thorough and adaptable.
For the past two years, Hudry’s team has developed what they described as a “three-legged stool” for test instrumentation that is specifically designed for the Apache sensor suite. Those components include the Apache aircraft, ground targets and the test instrument trailer, which is the last leg of the suite.
To test the Apache sensors in various environments, the team conducts testing at different locations. Testing of the Apache’s Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight while it was in development, for example, was conducted at the upper regions of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. They also tested the system at Fort Rucker to see how it would perform in high humidity environments, and at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.
But special targets are necessary to test with the Forward Looking Infrared or night vision sensor.
“At 2 o’clock in the morning, the FLIR sees things that the human eye can’t see,” Win Miller, assistant division chief for AFTD’s attack/reconnaissance division, said. “There has to be a special set of targets that we use called the Field Equivalent Bar Target that are located at Yuma.”
The targets at Yuma, however, are either fixed or static. “They’re large targets, and you can’t take them on the road to different locations,” Miller said. “Yuma has a perfect, pristine environment. It has very low humidity for an IR (infrared) system that makes it easy to see at long distances.” Resources such as the aircraft, pilots and maintenance personnel, must also be mobilized to Yuma, which can be costly.
“The problem we then encounter is that if we test anywhere else, how do we get all that data on a real-time basis?” Miller said. Yuma and RTC have very good and complex instrumented mission control centers, but they are not mobile.
That’s where the test instrumentation trailer comes in. “We’re able to test in environments now that are not solely exclusive to a military test range or an instrumented military test range,” Miller said. “There are plenty of test ranges but very few are like Yuma that offer targets to give us the fidelity we need. Now, we can go any place at any time.”
The Mobile Apache Sensors Telemetry Trailer has 10 workstations where testers and engineers can see the test data in real time. It has its own power source in the event testing has to occur in austere environments.
The test trailer includes wireless headsets so that test team members can walk anywhere they need to go without being limited by wires. An expandable mast can be raised up to 40 feet, allowing testers pristine telecommunications even in a dense area or when they have to be somewhere with tall trees around them. Additionally, the mast allows the team to communicate with aircraft and other test locations. Several antennae are also located atop the trailer. The trailer is also reconfigurable for different types of testing.
“What I absolutely find incredible about this is that this trailer was designed and built by people who actually do testing,” Hudry said. “The little things that a person like me would never think about have been built into this trailer.”
Things such as an awning has been incorporated into the trailer so testers can continue their work without interruption during a rainy day when they have to step outside. Electrical ports are available outside the trailer so the test team can plug in any equipment from the outside.
Lessons learned from a prototype test trailer that AFTD built a few years ago to test the MH-60 Black Hawk, which are flown exclusively by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, have been incorporated to improve sensor testing for the Army. Miller also gathered all the test team members that use the prototype trailer on a daily basis, and asked them what they would change if they were to rebuild it.
“They gave me a long list of do’s and don’ts, then we sat down with the guys that built this trailer from the ground up out of Kalispell, Mont.,” Miller said. It took less than six months to redesign, develop and deliver the new test trailer, which was received by AFTD in June 2012. “We did all the outfitting here for about two and a half to three weeks, and it was on the road immediately for testing,” Miller said.
Since then, the Mobile Apache Sensors Telemetry Trailer has been in demand and is seldom at its home station on Redstone Arsenal. When on Redstone, it is part of AFTD’s test network. “That’s how we update it,” Miller said. “We make patches to the software, update its IA (information assurance) requirements so that it can hook up to the network.”
In February, the test trailer was driven to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., for a missile shoot. In March, the Apache Sensors Product Office and AFTD will conduct “fly-fix-fly” testing of the MTADS sensor at Lockheed Martin in Orlando to develop a new software for the system and where they will see big dividends with the test trailer.
“The engineers who designed the software can sit down in the same test location with the guys who are actually coding it, and they both will be able to talk to the pilot in real time and make changes immediately,” Hudry said. This saves about two-thirds of the overall flight test time because all the engineers are directly involved and able to work together in one place. “That is where the real cost-savings lie,” Hudry said.
“Anything that we can do through the testing, or the tweaking of these systems or the modifications of these systems to make them perform better has a direct impact and feedback loop to the safety of the pilot,” said Hudry. This investment, he added, in the mid- to long-term, will help the Army save plenty of time and money, in addition to providing a better product.
Although currently dedicated to the Apache Project Office, the test trailer is an asset that is available to any organization for sensor testing.