Airborne Mission Planner Highlights Network-Centric Capabilities

December 2004
By Henry S. Kenyon

The French army’s conduct of fires (COFEUX) system is a technology demonstrator designed to provide low-flying combat helicopters with real-time navigational and mission data. Digital maps allow pilots to closely follow terrain to their targets while avoiding detection from enemy radar (top). The onboard computers developed for the program store detailed digital maps of the operational area and can be updated in flight via an airborne network.
System allows European rotorcraft to fly under enemy radar.

The French army soon may benefit from a prototype command and control system for helicopters that allows low-flying aircraft to share data in a tactical network. The technology features detailed digital terrain maps that can be viewed in the cockpit or from a groundstation before a mission. Mission-planning information and text messaging also can be transmitted via this airborne system.

As network-centric technologies become commonplace, many nations are beginning to apply them to a variety of operational platforms. Command and control remains the core function for these applications, but coordinating units such as tactical combat and reconnaissance aircraft still is a challenge for battlefield networks because in low-altitude missions communicating by radio and datalink often is difficult. A solution that helps pilots to navigate around known anti-aircraft threats while using the terrain for cover would greatly enhance the operational effectiveness of military rotorcraft.

In 1999, the French army’s Design and Development Agency, the French Armaments Board and the Thales Group’s avionics division in Valence, France, launched a program to develop and study command and control technologies for helicopters. This effort recently concluded with an extensive series of operational tests. According to Guy Renard, Thales’ commercial manager for helicopter avionics, the goal of the program was to evaluate a digital map system with communication and mission management functions.

The conduct of fires (COFEUX) demonstrator features a mapping and terrain analysis system consisting of two- and three-dimensional maps that are displayed on cockpit monitors and in pre-mission briefings. The maps provide real-time data about the location of friendly and enemy units.

Renard notes that the system is designed to improve the accuracy of helicopter weapons fire by enhancing the aircrews’ target identification capabilities. It allows crews to determine their location immediately and plot their route to an objective while conducting nap-of-the-earth flights. An important display function highlights images of enemy anti-aircraft radar coverage areas, allowing pilots to use the terrain to their advantage to avoid detection, he explains.

Four COFEUX systems were developed for the study. Two units are installed on Gazelle command and Tiger attack helicopters, while the remaining units are used as attack helicopter simulators. Renard adds that the program also uses the three-dimensional mapping technology for simulator training.

Each of the participating aircraft is connected by datalinks to an in-flight network based on the PR4G radio, allowing the aircraft to share real-time mapping, mission planning and other battlefield situational data. The system also tracks aircraft weapons and fuel status. Aircraft can share information about friendly units, targets, threats, commands and reports through the network.

The PR4G combat radios proved to be an efficient communications system for nap-of-the-earth maneuvers. However, army evaluators noted that mission-time tracking data was lost if the network failed. Based on this knowledge, army analysts maintain that future systems will   feature mechanisms to ensure reliable data transmissions.

The digital maps are stored in the helicopter’s onboard computer. Renard notes that each computer’s memory contains enough terrain data for roughly one quarter of France. During the evaluation, this information represented the region around the city of Valence, in the mountainous southwestern part of the country. This area was chosen to test the system’s navigational and nap-of-the-earth flight capabilities.

Because helicopter pilots flying nap-of-the-earth missions must keep their eyes and hands free, the COFEUX system features a voice command technology that allows mission and map data to be cued to the cockpit display (t). The system also can be used to train pilots on the ground (b).
Thales engineers also used commercial digital processor boards for the onboard computer. Renard adds that this approach differs from developing special-purpose ruggedized equipment because “it was not proposed to test the equipment itself, but to evaluate operational functions.”

COFEUX has a man-machine interface designed for ease of use in a noisy and chaotic airborne environment. An important feature of the interface is a voice control system that allows crew members to cue menus and other on-screen data quickly. Because the helicopters operate at very low altitude and perform many extreme maneuvers, the voice-control system is a useful tool as it frees pilots’ hands and eyes, he says.

Renard notes that the French Ministry of Defense has several aircraft navigational and command and control programs underway that are similar to COFEUX, but says that results of this program will appear in a variety of helicopter systems.

One prime candidate is the Tiger attack helicopter that is entering service with the French army in 2006. The aircraft will initially use the Eurogrid situational awareness system, but many of the lessons learned from COFEUX already have been translated into improved technology that has been integrated into the Tiger System. Additional COFEUX functions may be incorporated into the Tiger during its mid-life upgrade in 2020, but Renard cautions that the goal of the program was limited to demonstrating and evaluating technologies that may find their way into future systems. “From now until 2020, a lot of things could happen, and these functions may be implemented in another way,” he says.

After its development period, COFEUX underwent extensive flight evaluations over an 18-month period ending in 2004. Besides validating the operational concept of controlling air-to-ground weapons, the tests also helped to define crew stress conditions and to develop solutions.

Lessons learned from the demonstration will be applied to future command and control systems fitted to the helicopter fleet, Renard maintains. Besides the Tiger, another beneficiary of the program is a proposed army command and control helicopter. Technologies and operational methodologies pioneered by COFEUX will provide the French military with a base on which to build new applications, he says. These future enhancements include electronic cockpit and all-weather guidance systems, an unmanned aerial vehicle command and control terminal, and an airborne command and control system that can be integrated into a network-centric operational architecture.

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