Future Focused

Lifting the lid on next-gen avionics research

Whether it is highly integrated antennas that reduce drag, certifiable data links for unmanned aircraft or simulation tools for Next Gen airspace research, it is not often that a major manufacturer takes the wraps off its internal R&D.

But Aviation Week was given a glimpse inside Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Technology Center (АТС)— and a look into the avionics company’s future—during a visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

John Borghese, vice president for the АТС, says 70% of the research organization’s funding is aligned with the company’s business units and 30% is directed toward long-term growth, beyond the five-year strategic plans of the businesses. Much of the externally funded, far-horizon work is for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

The ATC’s objective is to «burn down risk and transition technologies to programs,» he says. Key research areas include network communications, position and navigation, situational awareness, information assurance and virtualization. But Rockwell Collins also develops its own computing systems, and it is exploring new technologies such as photonics and nanoplasmonics. Airliners today can have as many as 66 antennas (see photo), and 600 lb. of coaxial cabling, while «the weight equivalent to the drag of a blade antenna is around 1,000 lb.,» Borghese says. So the АТС set out to reduce weight and drag by bundling frequencies into one antenna, beginning with L-band for GPS, Mode S and other functions. The resulting highly integrated communication/navigation/surveillance antenna packages all radio-frequency circuitry at the antenna, with an optical link to the radio, which becomes the processor.

«We’ve had some engagement with aircraft primes,» he says, and the next step is to address system design issues. Manufacturers want the integrated antenna to be no deeper than a fuselage rib, to maximize cabin volume, and be replaceable without breaking the pressure vessel, to simplify maintenance. A conformal satellite communications antenna is the ATC’s next target.

With its acquisitions of simulator maker NLX in 2003 and visual-system specialist Evans & Sutherland in 2006, Rockwell Collins became a player in the simulation business, reflected within the АТС by research into inte¬grated live, virtual and constructive (LVC) training. Combining live aircraft with flight simulators (virtual) and computer-generated forces (constructive) to conduct more realistic training LVC was tried in the 1990s, but failed for lack of computing power, data links and multi-level security. «All three are available today,» Borghese says.

While it works under an Office of Naval Research contract exploring how to maintain flight safety when inserting virtual and constructive entities into live aircraft cockpits, the АТС is planning to use LVC to conduct NextGen research. «We can bring in air traffic control, the airline operations center and pilots and use LVC as a prototyping tool,» he says. «We can use LVC to do what-ifs, to prevent automation surprises and look at the precursors to accidents.» Research will begin in June, using a network linking NASA and FAA facilities with flightdeck simulators at Rockwell Collins.

The company entered the unmanned-aircraft business when it acquired Athena Flight Controls in 2008, and now it is bringing its avionics certification and military communications expertise to bear on a NASA contract to develop a command-and-control data link enabling UAVs to operate safely in civil airspace. The research uses the Quint network radio developed by Rockwell Collins for Darpa, which operates at the C- and L-band frequencies identified for civil-UAV command-and-control links.

«We are working with NASA on what is needed to certificate a data link,» Borghese says. Research is focused on link availability and integrity to help the FAA formulate airworthiness regulations, with different certification levels expected for different sizes of UAVs. One potential operating concept is similar to the FAA’s deployment of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast—a contractor-operated nationwide network of ground stations providing secure communication links to UAVs operating in civil airspace.

The АТС also is researching using 4G cellphone networks to provide air-ground links with more than 10 times the throughput of today’s radios for more than 10 times less cost, enabling advanced trajectory-based NextGen operations. «It’s low-cost, for installation and bits, and fits small aircraft. We’ve done a flight test and are in discussions with a couple of service providers,» Borghese says.

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