DSEI Roundup: Air Based On-board Computing Solutions
This year’s DSEI brought with it many highlights, none more noteworthy than the aircraft displayed in the Air Zone. A large cross section of defence aviation was represented, including fixed wing and rotary crafts. Impressive future-conscious designs utilised the latest materials and technologies to improve effectiveness, range and performance, and I approached with a view to where specialised computers can further improve their systems.
The static aircraft displays allowed visitors to access and in some instances, enter them. As an engineer, it was interesting to view compositions of traditional aviation instrumentation and digital equivalents. With a great variety of aircraft, ranging from the Apache, to the Merlin, Sea King, Wildcat, Chinook heavy-lift and of course, the Typhoon Eurofighter, there was more than enough to observe.
As with land and sea applications, computing elements integrated within aerospace have their own environmental requirements to consider and account for. Shock and vibration remain a common challenge within the environmental specification of components, and in the defence industry as a whole. The same goes for applicable power issues and their need to have protection from electrical anomalies, etc.
Once airborne, atmospheric transitions become increasingly problematic. In addition, consideration must be taken for operation at altitude, as well as rapid shifts from positive to negative g-force. These factors can influence electrical, electronic and mechanical design
When designing any computer for hostile conditions, it is important to begin by assessing basic needs and fundamental requirements. From environmental considerations all the way through to operational life and compliance testing, every aspect must be considered in its entirety.
As with designing for any extreme, the first challenge is coming up with a solution that works. The remaining challenges are keeping it working, making it replicable, and being able to produce it cost effectively, all whilst retaining suitability for the subtle demands of the particular application.
For example, unlike some of the ground and marine craft at DSEI, almost everything bolted down in a military aircraft is considered mission critical. Otherwise, it will usually not make it onto the aircraft at all. Every ounce of weight and every inch of internal space is carefully considered, and every item is selected for reliability, durability and robustness of design.
The crafts were outnumbered by the land systems, outsized and outranked to some extent by the scale of the ships. However, the aircraft, for their level of engineering excellence and sophistication, were equal stars of the show for me.
The Merlin Mk2 impressed me especially. It featured radar enhancements, improved user interfaces and mission systems processing. In addition, there were updates in instrumentation including a cleaner look to the observer or crewman console, integrated touchscreens and larger flat panel displays.
In peacetime, expect to see this aircraft assist in operations such as disaster or humanitarian relief. It is also capable of casualty evacuation of up to a dozen stretchers, and even counter-piracy duties. This is a capable and flexible aircraft and was praised positively by its aircrew.
Also of note were the evident capabilities of the imposing and authoritative Apache. With its all black paint scheme, there was no doubt that it means business. The Apache was technologically exceptional, and although it has been around a while now, it did not seem to have aged at all.
Living close to Yeovil and being an occasional guest of the Westland site meant that a lot of the rotary wing craft had a particular significance for me. Boyhood memories resurfaced so strong I could almost hear the engines spinning up. Not just aircrafts with Westland involvement, but also memories from the early 1980s of Chinooks passing overhead. The sunset drone of the Hercules reverberating across the Blackmore vale caused hillsides to echo with the distinct sound. This often gave the impression the aircraft were close overhead, looming in the sunset and vanishing into dusk seconds later, returning the vale to silence almost as quickly as the sounds had arrived.
It is true that for me a certain amount of nostalgia was in the air at DSEI. However, although much appeared unchanged, on closer inspection, a number of subtle external tweaks, and many internal ones were in evidence. No matter how advanced the aircraft may have seemed, they had been subject to substantial technological upgrades. This attributed them with sport performance and capabilities far and beyond their original scope.
As you’d expect, computing technology is now commonplace. This provides not just enhanced capability and visibility for the crew, but solutions that perform critical roles faster and more effectively than ever before.
As with land and sea, air is experiencing increased demand for real-time communication and interaction with multiple sensors, communication channels and distributed computing. Resultantly, the IoT is no longer constrained by earthbound matters. This has given rise to the Internet of Flying Things (IoFT). Wireless communication protocols and technology now enables enhanced capabilities in drones, such as swarm activity. The benefits to both civil and military operations are clear, and information has become available faster to decision makers and with more detail than ever before.
The real power however, is in the ability to apply intelligence to decisions and automate processes to mitigate human error, or make decisions at computational speeds. In the air, this will increase efficiency, performance and safety while enhancing the capabilities of airborne devices.