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F-35-Style Sensors on Helos? It Could Happen

We all know about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's wild infrared sensor technology, called the Distributed Aperture System, that will (someday) allow pilots to see in a complete bubble for miles around their airplane. If, and when, the system comes online, it will allow F-35 jocks to literally look through the floor of their aircraft by viewing images collected by tiny infrared and electro-optical sensors mounted all over the plane on their helmet visors.

These sensors are so powerful that DAS-maker Northrop Grumman claims a test plane flying over Maryland and Virginia have accidentally tracked rocket launches in Florida with the system. If it sounds too good to be true, it is for now. Engineers are having trouble broadcasting high-quality images from the DAS onto the F-35 helmet's curved visor. In fact, Lockheed just issued a contract for a backup helmet that won't receive DAS info, for now anyway.

Still, this technology will likely be fielded eventually and it may appear in more than just JSF cockpits. Boeing's Bill Sunick, director of V-22 business development, explained that we could see DAS-style sensors on future helicopters.

"I can see a migration eventually happening because that's a good thing," said Sunick during an interview at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference here in Washington last week. "You don't have your FLIR [sensor] ball out in the nose and you're combining sensors because they use the same sensors for IR [and electro-optical images]. So, you're constantly looking for ways to reduce weight and create synergies -- distributed apertures are a good thing and with the 360 degree, above and below. So, you can get rid of the FLIR, you can get rid of all the separate missile sensors and have [all of that sensor info] stiched together and now you can do some innovative things like have crew awareness" where all members of an aircrew can be looking for threats all around the aircraft.

DAS integration isn't the only example of how innovations in fighter tech can trickle into helo designs, as Mark Ballew, Boeing's CH-47 Chinook business development director explained.

"We want to be a capabilities type of organization, so within the mobility division we have C-17, tankers, Chinook and V-22 and the strike division has Apache, F/A-18 and F-15 and that's to take advantage of synergies between what we're doing for the Air Force of Navy programs that could benefit the Chinook and Army," said Ballew after I asked if conformal fuel tank technology that Boeing is using on its F-15SE Silent Eagle program could find its way into future helicopter designs as a way of saving drag while increasing range.

This comes as Boeing is looking at various ways to improve the performance of the venerable CH-47 as it serves in the coming decades through design tweaks to the aircraft.

"We're looking at what can we do to increase the lift and reduce the weight" of the Chinook, said Ballew. "Overall, what can we do to the drive-train, what can we do for weight reduction, is there a way of increasing the amount of fuel with increasing the drag signature of the aircraft? Are there new materials or components we can use to reduce weight? With the mission equipment, is there a way to get equal or greater functionality out of some of the mission equipment in smaller boxes as technology advances."

As we've written before, the U.S. military helicopter industry is in need of some serious advances -- the V-22 Osprey is the only brand new design to have entered service in decades. With the military looking to field a new class of chopper in the 2020s, you can bet that companies will start looking into integrating advanced tech -- already developed for fighters -- onto those designs.

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