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CHIPS Articles: Naval Innovator Improves MH-60S Aircrew Situational Awareness

Naval Innovator Improves MH-60S Aircrew Situational Awareness
By DON Innovation - November 9, 2017
The MH-60S Armed Helicopter is the Navy's premier rotary wing small unit warfare platform. Despite its many state of the art capabilities, the aircraft lacks a moving-map display, which is a critical tool for crews’ situational awareness. A software and hardware update is currently being developed to address this long-standing deficiency; however, it is years away from fleetwide implementation.

Currently, crews are able to draw a minimal number of monochromatic routes and airspace boundaries. The fidelity of the system limits aircrew integration, battlespace awareness, and tactical aircraft employment. Lt. Sean M. Skalski, under his own initiative, researched available alternatives, designed, and built a low-cost alternative to address this limited capability. His design uses commercially available technology to feed live tablet screen information onto the existing mission display (MD).

Due to the rapid rise in commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions to fill existing capability gaps, the hardware and software to provide an interim solution for the MH-60S already exists. The Electronic Kneeboard (EKB) Program of Record (PoR) is a COTS hardware solution for a durable, lightweight tablet. The currently funded program combined with the existing aircraft interfaces can provide an extremely cost effective moving map stopgap measure.

Many military pilots purchase and fly with their own tablets due to the situational awareness that it provides. Once the EKB is released to the fleet, it will alleviate the need for military pilots to personally purchase tablets for flight purposes. There are a multitude of aviation applications that are available for both Android and Apple tablets. These applications provide timely, critical information in a significantly more compact package than any paper chart could.

The MH-60S currently has the ability to display analog video input on its Mission Display (MD). This feature was designed to playback recorded sensor footage. The Digital Video Recorder (DVR) sends this footage to the MD via an analog video connection with the Digital Map Junction Unit (DMJU). LT Skalski recognized that he could send other video feeds to the mission display using the same DMJU to MD connection.

Using commercially available electronics, he built the connection to provide the real time display of a tablet onto the Mission Display. The allows the ability to view, but is not limited to, mission data, a moving map, approach plates, airport diagrams, synthetic terrain, obstacle data, and imagery. Current aircraft software allows either pilot the choice to view this tablet information with the push of a button. No current capabilities are removed from the cockpit, only the option to display more relevant flight information.

The possibilities are only limited by the capabilities and applications available on the EKB or other tablet. The FAA has already identified the enhanced safety and improved situational awareness that tablet based applications offer. These tablets, if paired with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) antenna, would provide aircrews the ability to see air traffic around them as well. By January of 2020, ADS-B out capability is required in civilian aircraft operating in airspace where a Mode C transponder is currently required.

These COTS antennas would not broadcast ADS-B out for the MH-60S aircraft, but having the ability to electronically acquire civilian aircraft utilizing ADS-B in far surpasses the current capabilities of the aircraft and crew. These antennas also provide subscription free in flight weather including NEXRAD radar, METARs, TAFs, TFRs, AIRMETs, SIGMETs and NOTAMs. The benefits to safety and mission execution of having tablet information integrated into the cockpit only continue to grow with technological advances in tablet software.

By displaying tablet information on the MD for both the pilot and copilot to reference during flight, Lt. Skalski opened the door for aeronautical and tactical information to be presented on any MD. This simple and cost-effective design places critical information right in front of the pilots, thereby enhancing the mission capability, safety, and combat effectiveness of the crew. For example, using an off-the-shelf program, the flying pilot would have a geo-referenced sectional, an airway chart, an approach plate or an airport diagram available on their display.

Additionally, with tactical software, a pilot, copilot or aircrewman would be able to input real-time tasking information on battlespace imagery to increase the crews situational awareness. The technology could be further expanded with the ability to receive tasking via a network that would then display on the MD. The Marine Corps uses this technology regularly to support close air support (CAS) missions. Real-time wireless information transfer would require additional hardware not covered under the purview of this article.

Furthermore, by using a tablet as an interface, an aircrewman has the ability to push visual information to the entire crew, therefore getting the entire crew more involved in the mission with more SA and better crew resource management (CRM) than has been available previously. This frees the copilot to use onboard sensors and to run the mission as needed.

This technology would decrease the likelihood of flight violations, midair collisions, ground or taxi mishaps, and improve the tactical effectiveness of the MH-60S in all mission areas. Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron FIFTEEN (HSC-15) utilized this technology to provide a moving map solution while operating a shore-based logistics detachment from Oahu, Hawaii. The increased situational awareness provided in the cluttered airspace of Honolulu International Airport, Fleet Area Control, and Surveillance Facility (FASFAC) Hawaii was instrumental in HSC-15 operating successfully, safely, and without incident.

This cost-effective COTS solution can be implemented immediately throughout the fleet. It would instantly enhance crew situational awareness, thereby improving safety and increasing the mission capability of the MH-60S helicopter. Furthermore, this capability is not limited to EKB tablets, which have not yet arrived in the fleet. Instead, this capability can be utilized from any device that provides a video output capability, including the tablets that are currently utilized by many military pilots.

Innovation in technology usually occurs during project development; however, this design is truly the byproduct of a gifted junior officer. Lt. Skalski demonstrated true innovation when he recognized a significant capability gap in the MH-60S and designed a low-cost solution to mirror a tablet display in the cockpit. His simple and cost-effective design provides numerous options of relevant information to the pilots, thereby enhancing the safety and mission effectiveness of the helicopter and crew.

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Lt. Sean Skalski, now of HSC-6, is pictured in front of an MH-60S. U.S. Navy Photo by AWS2 Aaron White
Lt. Sean Skalski, now of HSC-6, is pictured in front of an MH-60S. U.S. Navy Photo by AWS2 Aaron White
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