It’s a safe space to explore the possible and rule out the deadly.
When the Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center cut the ribbon on the Software, Simulation, Systems Engineering & Integration Directorate’s new flight modeling and flight model applications labs this summer, it was more than just a celebration of additional workspace – it was a new chapter for Army aviation.
Its very name, Helicopter Engineering Laboratory Interoperating Extensibility Lab – emphasis on extensibility – reveals the mission: to extend, stretch and make room for new rotorcraft capabilities and functionality so the warfighter is more lethal and agile in the air, all at a lower cost to the taxpayer. The two labs that share the space will focus on two subsets of work: development of flight models and the application of those flight models.
“Welcome to the HELIX lab,” said Dong Tran, lab manager and aerospace engineer.
To the casual observer it might look like a videogamer’s home set up – large screen TVs and some flight simulation controls – but in reality it’s a place where AvMC engineers can test out capabilities and experiment with new ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a process that comes with virtually no consequences – aside from the time spent to get from “maybe this will work,” to a definitive yes or no.
“With this new space there’s unprecedented flexibility in what we can do,” Tran said. “There’s practically no limitation in simulation. If we feel like there’s some notional idea that’s coming down – let’s say academia innovates with a novel modeling methodology. We can come in here and try to see what that would look like, is it possible? Is it viable? It might not be realistic, but we can throw these concepts in the simulation and see what it would do here without interrupting the primary mission – which is producing trainers for our aviators.
“It’s kind of this weird mad scientist zone, like a flavor lab laboratory. Let’s put ketchup and ranch together, something strange like that, and see what happens. It might be good, it might be terrible, but at least here it gives us a safe space where we don’t impact regular operations if we want to test novel ideas.”
Not every idea they attempt may be grandiose; some may be as simple as making sure a new operating system doesn’t cause any issues. But the bottom line is a big deal – reducing the amount of time it takes to get a change out to a fielded product and properly train the warfighter.
“This is our best representation of real-life physics,” Tran said. “Our job is to make sure that we’re simulating the behaviors, the consequences, the cause and effects, of all those certain things, because it can be a very small thing that causes a cascade of failures. You want to make sure that the aviator has a realistic experience. So that, God forbid, if they do encounter something in real life, they’ve trained for it and can properly respond with corrective action.”
Not only is the software developed in-house, but most of the testing can now be conducted in-house as well, just feet away, so if a change is needed, it’s a quick and easy fix. Prior to the lab opening, models would be developed and then engineers would have to schedule a time to test on a Black Hawk engineering unit. If something didn’t go as planned, they’d have to go back and make the change, and then find another time to resume the test.
An added bonus – gone are the days of trying out experimental simulation models on the engineering unit.
“We can use the HELIX platform to simulate any type of aircraft – real or notional,” Tran said. “It’s platform agnostic, for whatever we need to support the warfighter.”
Designed by the AvMC S3I Aviation Trainers Branch, resources were provided by the Program Executive Office for Aviation Utility Helicopters Project Office to create the space. The two labs will be used in the research and development of a new Government Purpose Rights physics-based flight model environment and applications for that new environment.
Headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, CCDC AvMC has over 1.9 million square feet of laboratory space devoted to innovative work on sensors and electronics, propulsion systems, aerodynamic structures, modeling and simulation, life cycle software development and technical testing.
The first product produced in the HELIX lab will be the CRUSADER flight model environment, which will replace a costly and proprietary commercially-procured environment for the Army’s fleet of Black Hawk Aircrew Trainers.
“CRUSADER is going to take us from 2020 to year 2070, ‘80 and beyond,” said Jody Creekmore, branch chief for the Aviation Trainers Branch/Trainers Division/Hardware in the Loop & Virtual Simulators. “This is the bridge that gets the government from relying on old ways of modeling flight to the way we need to be modeling flight for future aircraft and beyond.”