US Army tackles DVE issue, but what proposals will come to fruition?

Are we finally making progress overcoming the scourge of helicopter operations that is flying in degraded visual environments (DVE)?

The issue took centre stage at the recent AUSA exhibition in Washington, DC, where the US Army – who could give lessons to other Western services about how to proactively engage with the media – outlined its approach.

It’s unsurprising that progress is likely to come from one of the world’s largest operators of helicopters – from 2002 to 2015, the US Army recorded around 400 Class A and Class B accidents as a result of either controlled flight into terrain or DVE conditions.

Class B accidents result in damage costing $500,000 to $2 million, while Class A include accidents are over $2 million. That has resulted in costs totalling around $1.4 billion; although more significant is the human cost – 152 service personnel killed over 13 years, mainly during combat missions.

The US Army now plans to set out requirements for a DVE solution on its rotary-wing aircraft as soon as next year.

An analysis of alternatives of DVE technology has already been completed, paving the way for the service to develop an RfP and conduct a limited user assessment with serving personnel.

The army’s DVE solution is known as the Brownout Rotorcraft Enhancement System (BORES), which will likely consist of sensors and synthetic vision technologies to provide cueing information for pilots flying in obscurants such as sand or dust.

The service is now gathering data on how current technologies from industry can penetrate obscurants and sensor data can be fused into a single synthetic picture.

Any DVE solution will likely comprise three basic elements: symbology information to the pilot; active sensors such as LIDAR; and improving the flight characteristics of helicopters.

As our intrepid reporter Grant Turnbull found walking the halls of AUSA, some of industry’s biggest players are now taking an active interest in the DVE/BORES programme.

Northrop Grumman, for one, believes that there is not one single DVE sensor and a likely way forward for the US Army will be to utilise existing equipment. This could include IR countermeasures systems, fire control radars and EO/IR cameras.

One of the key enablers to combining existing sensor information for DVE will be processing, and the boffins at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control pointed out that for a DVE solution to be viable it has got to have an intelligent architecture that is expandable and modular.

The company also believes there are a number of platforms that have pre-existing sensors that could combine the added utility of processing and conceive a DVE solution in a short period.

Elsewhere, others argue that an initial baseline DVE solution might include passive sensors and a helmet-mounted display (HMD) to present symbology to the pilot. Companies promoting their HMD and head-tracking expertise at AUSA included BAE Systems and Elbit Systems.

The advantage of such an approach is that it is sensor-agnostic, while additional information such as flight routes, enemy threat domes, blue/ red force tracking and obstacles can also be displayed to the pilot using similar symbology.

Rockwell Collins is developing a sensor-agnostic system dubbed the Synthetic Vision Avionics Backbone (SVAB), and the company has been carrying out a series of demonstrations at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground using a variety of different sensor types, including 2D imaging and LIDAR.

All positive progress then, but the slow pace introducing a viable solution still rankles, given how long this has been recognised as a critical issue.

We might also have to keep the celebratory champagne on ice for a bit longer – while the army plans to conduct a limited user assessment next spring at Yuma, programme managers admitted to us that there was currently no acquisition timeline for DVE/ BORES beyond the RfP phase.

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