The future of helicopter tech will come in waves, according to one Army aviation official. As the Army fights to ensure funding for its effort to field a brand new class of choppers, known as joint multirole rotorcraft, some Army officials are hoping to advance the state of the art in chopper tech through gradual but significant upgrades to existing helicopters. This technology, once proven on existing birds, could reduce the cost and time required to build a brand new helo.
One such example is how Col. Shane Openshaw, the Army's AH-64 Apache program manager is eyeing F-35-style distributed aperture sensor (DAS) tech for use on the Apache. "We're thinking about how to do integration" with DAS-style technology on the third development phase of the Block III Apache sometime later this decade, Openshaw told me after a Boeing luncheon this week. "It's very much in the realm of the possible."
The F-35's DAS system consists of six infrared cameras mounted in the airplane's skin providing a 360-degree sphere of coverage around the jet. Video filmed by the cameras is fed directly onto a screen on the pilots helmet visor allowing him to literally look down through the bottom of his aircraft. Now, the system is still having its teething issues, especially the helmet part, but an F-35 flying over Maryland and Virginia recently tracked a missile launch in Florida by using its DAS system.
Now, the Apaches may not necessarily use the same system as the F-35, but its the concept that Openshaw likes. The miniaturization of sensor tech could someday allow him to install a network of tiny but powerful sensors around the Apache's airframe and feed their data back to the cockpit. He pointed out that this could allow him to remove the 400-pound sensor turret on the helo's nose. The reduced weight would improve the aircraft's speed and fuel and weapons load.
Combine this with advancements in engine and blade tech that are already in the works -- and possibly even pusher propellers mounted on the aft of the chopper -- and modified versions of the basic Apache design could inch Army aviation ever closer to achieving the speed, altitude and maneuverability breakthroughs that the service wants from its next generation helo fleet, said Openshaw.
He also pointed out that the choppers must have a truly open software system that allows the helos to accept a variety of small sensors ranging from infrared cameras to threat warning receivers and a variety of weapons and countermeasure systems that can all be installed on a 'plug and play basis' similar to a USB stick on a computer. (Raytheon is even working to build tiny but powerful Active Electronically Scanned Array radars that be embedded in an aircraft's skin.) This would not only allow the choppers load to be customized for missions but would ensure that new technology could be quickly developed for and installed on the aircraft.