A VETERAN, 74-year old Douglas DC-3C is being used by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to flight test AFRL’s state-of-the-art AgilePod prior to its integration on the MQ-9A Reaper UAV later this year. The aircraft, N92578 provided by Airborne Imaging Inc, has had the pod mounted under the fuselage between the main undercarriage.
Details of the programme were announced by AFRL in a press release on June 15. The flight demonstrations as part of the Sensors Directorate Blue Guardian Project Harvest Reaper follow a year of cutting-edge technology development and prototyping by AFRL teams. A series of flight tests of AFRL’s AgilePod have now been undertaken on the DC-3. The pod is flying in multiple configurations with a mixture of sensor systems and technologies on board, with the goal of optimizing the pod for operational activity and longevity.
“AgilePod is a game-changer,” said Captain Russell Shirey, Blue Guardian Program Manager at the AFRL Sensors Directorate. “This is a unique opportunity to highlight the benefits of modular open system architectures for airborne platforms.”
AgilePod, the first fully government-owned, multi-intelligence, reconfigurable pod, was developed using agile manufacturing technology and a modular open mission system approach to software design, resulting in a system capable of supporting rapid integration and mission agility to address emerging threats in new environments.
The Blue Guardian team, in collaboration with the Manufacturing Technology Division of the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and the US Air Force Sensors Program Office, integrated Blue Guardian Open Adaptable Architecture into the AgilePod, culminating in a cross-directorate technology push. Open Adaptable Architecture is constructed on the US Air Force’s Open Mission System (OMS) common set of software standards, and takes advantage of Sensor Open System Architectures, which are industry electrical and mechanical standards, to enable mission system interoperability.
“Common connections and standards allows a greater suite of sensors to be rapidly integrated on the pod, enabling new capabilities. Having standards helps ensure an operator can successfully command a sensor to turn on or off, left or right, similar to turning a key in the ignition in a car, without having the change the other aspects of the system,” said Luke Borntrager, Blue Guardian Lead Engineer.
Unique to the AgilePod is that it is flight-line reconfigurable, enabling operators to meet a variety of mission demands with multiple sensors on a single platform. A mixture of different pod configurations, ranging from 28in to 60in in length, are being tested on the DC-3, enabling simultaneous testing of multiple sensors including high-definition video, radar, infrared sensors and more.
“Current sensor capabilities on aircraft are built for specific mission tasks, such as close air support or targeting, using proprietary software and hardware. Open system architecture standards combined with a single AgilePod having ‘plug-and-play’ capabilities and configurations enables one pod to perform hundreds of different mission sets. This is key for cost savings and increased sustainability,” said Shirey.
A standard data link and command and control system enables multiple sensor data analysis and command and control, enhancing capability and situational awareness. Additionally, a simulated MQ-9 Ground Control Station inside the DC-3 enables operators to test data links and fine tune them prior to operational deployment on the Reaper.
“The ability to rapidly test multiple configurations on the DC-3 aircraft gives us a ‘Lab-In-The-Sky’ concept and allows our team to wring out any issues before we move forward to the unmanned MQ-9, where we will not have the luxury of engineers in the cockpit,” said Shirey.
Though the pod is currently in flight demonstration and testing, engineers are already looking toward future capabilities when it transitions to the MQ-9. Once transitioned, it will support operations by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Air Combat Command, Air Force Special Operations Command and others.
The fact that the AgilePod is a government-owned system—meaning that the government fully owns the digital data underlying the manufacturing of the platform—also plays into OMS design as it will enable industry to invest money into improving US Air Force capabilities by creating new sensors, with the knowledge that they will be compatible with current and future platforms.
“This bends the cost curve for sensor capabilities, processing and integration,” said Shirey. “It also opens up greater opportunities to partner with industry developers to enable the best capabilities for Air Force operational platforms.”
Government-owned data rights also allow for requirements and technology transitions to be competed across vendors. In other words, if a new sensor capability is required, a wider range of vendors will have the data required to compete for the contract.
“Industry will play a major role in the future success of AgilePod,” said Shirey. “Response has been great, as they like the idea that they have the opportunity to put their sensors on the MQ-9 and other platforms through the AgilePod in the future.”
“In a memo earlier this year, the Secretary of Defense challenged the acquisition community to rapidly innovate and leverage industry advancements to defeat the adversary. AgilePod allows us to team with industry to develop the best solutions,” said Mark DiPadua, the AgilePod team lead in AFRL’s Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.
“Our goal is to ensure intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities can be more affordable and operationally flexible for the warfighter,” said Shirey. “That’s what these demonstration flights will help us achieve as we head towards the future of ISR.”
The AFRL Blue Guardian programme aims to research, develop and demonstrate advanced sensor and rapid integration technologies using open system architectures to bridge the gap between the laboratory and the warfighter. For the Harvest Reaper project, Blue Guardian is working with the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s AgilePod team to demonstrate the cost saving benefits of an open architecture, reconfigurable C4ISR pod system.