The futuristic helicopter that results from the ongoing Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program will be faster and more maneuverable than current designs, but its baked-in ability to rapidly integrate new sensors and mission-system software may be its most potent weapon, according to rotorcraft program managers from the Army and Marine Corps.

FVL will eventually result in a family of futuristic helicopters with a baseline design that is then scaled to perform attack, utility and heavy-lift missions. Before that program of record gets underway, the ongoing Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program will validate both the aircraft and subsystem technologies on which FVL will be based.

A concept image of Bell Helicopter's V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft.
A concept image of Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft.

Concurrent with the JMR demonstration is a pair of software and systems-level capability demonstrations to prove out the modular, open mission systems software architectures that will be common among the fleets and services.

While JMR validates the air worthiness of two basic aircraft designs,a parallel effort – the mission systems architecture demonstrations – polishes the common mission and avionics systems that will operate both. The Army should not be so enthralled by the physical aircraft that sufficient attention is not given the software that allows them to provide the exceptional leap in performance, said Col. David Phillips, rotary wing program executive officer for Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

“Our collective challenge is going to be to prioritize those efforts along with the speed, range and payload that we’re going to see in JMR-TD,” Phillips said Dec. 9 at a panel on FVL hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “For FVL to provide value to SOF commanders, given its expected costs, it must provide those capabilities in all weather, all environments, and we have to be able to execute our missions when the enemy least expect it. Integrating open architectures with emerging sensor technologies is a way to do that but it can’t be cost prohibitive.”

Artist's rendering of a potential Boeing-Sikorsky future vertical lift platform. Photo: Sikorsky.
Artist’s rendering of a potential Boeing-Sikorsky future vertical lift platform. Photo: Sikorsky.

While the physical air vehicle resulting from JMR likely won’t change for another 50 years, its mission systems will be almost continually reconfigured, upgraded and enhanced throughout the aircraft’s service life. Some of the technologies that will define FVL will be retrofitted into legacy aircraft like the H-1 Huey, AH-64 Apache and H-60 Black Hawk fleets that have already undergone significant upgrades during their decades-long service lives.

Col. Erskine Bentley, director of FVL capability management at Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), said the program offers the opportunity to design in open architectures and growth margin from the get-go. That will save time and money over hammering on new sensors and boxes as technologies emerge, as has been done with legacy aircraft, he said.

“That allows us to plug-and-play and rapidly integrate new technologies into the aircraft,” Bentley said. “So, if we go to more of a there’s-an-app-for-that approach … with a clean-sheet design we can design all of this into the aircraft up front.”

Two teams are approaching JMR, and subsequently FVL, from two fundamentally different airframe design and propulsion angles. Boeing [BA] is teamed with Sikorsky, which is now owned by Lockheed Martin [LMT], in developing the SB-1 Defiant, an evolutionary version of Sikorsky’s X-2 technology that uses rigid coaxial rotors and a tail pusher prop. The team is building its first SB-1 air vehicle while simultaneously constructing a propulsion-system test bed. Defiant is a scaled-up version of the S-97 Raider that is in the middle of a two-year flight test campaign.

Rockwell Collins [COL] is heading up the mission system architecture demonstration, or MSAD. Industry has understood open systems architectures and their advantages for some time, but only in recent years has begun to arrive at solid definitions for what it means to design open systems, he said. Heavily software-dependent programs like FVL are forcing industry to adopt modular, open systems approaches to software and hardware development.

The three main capability enhancements being sought in FVL are increased speed, range and payload capacity. Col. John Barranco, director of rotorcraft requirements for the Marine Corps, said the interoperability of common, open software systems is just as important, if not moreso, than speed and range at improving survivability.

“Shared information and shared situational awareness is its own form of threat reduction,” Barranco said. “The ability to have this open architecture and have all of our aircraft linked, sharing threats, sharing friendly locations and enemy locations, mission data … in real time simultaneously on the battlefield, that is one of the greatest aircraft survivability pieces.”

SOCOM’s Phillips agreed, saying that FVL requirement managers should prioritize sustainability – which includes sustainment of software and sensor systems with the most up-to-date capabilities – alongside speed, range and payload.

“The key point I’d like to make is that operational suitability is not just about speed, range and payload,” Phillips said. “Operational suitability really includes sustainability and survivability. Those are the kind of things that help build combat power for all of our forces. After we get those five things, then we should fold that in and carefully consider better mission equipment. Better hardware, better software, better mission architectures. Those architectures must be agile enough to keep up with the environment and stay ahead.”

The Army generally has succeeded with improving the mission systems and upgrading the capabilities of its rotorcraft over the past two decades, Phillips said.  

“But it is littered with examples of how we didn’t really live up to our expectations for open architecture systems,” he said.