Future Vertical Lift Takes Rotorcraft Sustainment to New Heights

Future Vertical Lift Takes Rotorcraft Sustainment to New Heights
November 15, 2021

The battlefield is undergoing an evolution. We are now in an era of all-digital design, spurred by modern technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, nanotechnology and robotics, which means today’s warfighter is encountering a dramatically shifting landscape. In order to maneuver effectively in this new environment, the U.S. Army is turning to a vision of future warfare known as joint all-domain operations (JADO) which seeks to meet adversaries across numerous domains in a simultaneous, coordinated action.

As the U.S. Army works to realize JADO, the change marks not just a shift in warfare itself, but in the operational landscape of rotorcraft and rotorcraft sustainment. Both of Sikorsky’s aircraft offerings for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs, including RAIDER X®, Sikorsky’s offering for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and DEFIANT X™, the Sikorsky-Boeing solution for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), integrate revolutionary advances in sustainment building on two decades of investment in analytics and artificial intelligence by both Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin. This investment includes the development of over a hundred platform-agnostic, predictive-maintenance algorithms and the development of on-board maintenance diagnostics and prognostics that will enable both maintenance-free operating periods (MFOP) and increased operational availability in austere environments and lower life cycle costs.

“The operational requirements for military use of helicopters are changing and sustainment needs to change along with it,” says Tony Guarino, business development lead for Lockheed Martin.

“With the shift to a joint all-domain operating environment, the single, large-brigade sustainment model is moving towards distributed platoons across the theatres of action. Sustainment now needs to change with that paradigm and provide higher reliability, lower logistics footprints while embedding real-time prognostic and predictive maintenance decision points on the aircraft,” says John Steiner, senior program manager at Sikorsky.

To meet this paradigm shift, Lockheed Martin is taking lessons learned from programs like the F-35, CH-53K and S-92 aircraft to usher in a more predictable and manageable rotorcraft sustainment landscape. FVL promises to increase efficiency, reduce life cycle costs and accelerate the development-to-battlefield timeline.

Decreasing Maintenance, Increasing Availability, Lowering Life Cycle Costs

From infrastructure to analytics, RAIDER X and DEFIANT X are designed to reduce maintenance and improve operating time on several fronts. First and foremost is the digital thread and 3D virtual environment, allowing maintenance teams to look “inside” aircraft with digital tools and models so that teams can provide maintenance on an as-needed basis instead of an inflexible time-based schedule.

“The Army’s legacy fleet uses a limited Health & Usage Monitoring System (HUMS) and the aircraft are sustained with limited information,” says Steiner. “RAIDER X and DEFIANT X will deliver much more actionable maintenance data, providing commanders with real-time information to accurately assess the health state of the weapon systems as well as the ability to self-diagnose maintenance and predict aircraft availability. That increases the operational readiness and availability while reducing life cycle costs associated with the platform.”

This condition-based maintenance approach taps an advanced health usage monitoring system that reduces the Soldier’s burden and enables maintenance teams to more easily understand the exact condition of a helicopter, ultimately providing the information that teams need to service rotorcraft more efficiently.

The Sikorsky Customer Care Center
The Sikorsky Customer Care Center, shown here, is designed to improve aircraft availability and customer satisfaction using the latest intelligence and analytics capabilities.

The Lockheed Martin approach builds on a foundation of sustainment success in both the military and commercial fleets matured over the last two decades. Simon Gharibian, director, Global Sustainment Centers of Excellence, Lockheed Martin Rotary and Missions Systems says, “We deployed our first health and usage monitoring system in 2004 on the S-92 helicopter. We’ve been collecting flight data ever since, meaning we have collected nearly two million flight hours. This has provided us with more than a decade to continuously mature the technology and algorithms while introducing new artificial intelligence techniques and proving their relevance in driving improved operational availability.”

Gharibian continued, “This process has driven state-of-the-art forecasting analytics, resulting in a near 90% fully mission capable availability rate, technology that we will use in concert with the U.S. Government to make revolutionary changes in FVL sustainment.” Lockheed Martin has done similar work on predictive maintenance for the F-35 and the FVL team will leverage the platform-agnostic algorithms that have been developed and deployed under that program.

For RAIDER X and DEFIANT X, Sikorsky will use these algorithms and the data from the sensors on the aircraft to enhance the digital model created during aircraft design and production to create a digital twin of the aircraft that is continuously updated to reflect the aircraft’s true condition once in use. This means that crews can more accurately track what the rotorcraft actually goes through during its missions – the loads it carries and vibrations it experiences – extending the life of components on the aircraft if they experience less than the “typical” wear and tear. It also enables predictive maintenance meaning maintenance teams can track when a component might be ready for overhaul at a future date, allowing crews to conduct maintenance on their terms and driven by mission requirements.

“We’re taking all of that maintenance history and we’re out building analytics behind it to correlate those events with external factors, like operational conditions, environment, location, number of flight hours, etc. And then you can start to draw corollaries,” explains Gharibian. 

“This approach to sustainment drives down overall life cycle cost, because you’re maximizing the use of your components for every individual aircraft. Ultimately, you’re reserving parts and maintenance for the aircraft that truly need it,” says Gharibian.

Advanced Sustainment Capabilities to Meet Tomorrow’s Mission Needs

Our approach to transformational predictive maintenance positions FVL to not just reduce maintenance, but to meet the Army’s ask for MFOP and is the direct result of a comprehensive sensor network combined with AI & advanced analytics that indicates precisely when parts must be pulled and serviced.

Moreover, fleet commanders can aggregate information from individual aircraft based on operational requirements, aircraft health assessment and maintenance flow to generate combat power while optimizing readiness and aircraft availability across the entire fleet. 

“A battalion commander can look at his or her 30 aircraft battalion and instantly understand the health of each one of those aircraft and base the selection of the aircraft for the next mission on that information, prioritizing – or at least maximizing – the use of their fleet,” says Gharibian.

Ultimately, decades of experience from both Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, and a four-decade relationship with the U.S. Army, have allowed sustainment efforts to move into the 21st Century.

“We have 20 years of maturing prognostics and advanced sustainment technology and couple it with 40 years of lessons learned on designing, producing and deploying rugged military hardware,” says Gharibian. “All of those lessons learned are rolled into the fundamental design of the aircraft and then we’re layering on the most advanced health state awareness and prognostics that Lockheed Martin has to offer. That’s our offering for Future Vertical Lift – all our work coming together in one system.”

First published: August 6, 2020 – Updated: November 15, 2021