By Keith Button|May 2018
BRIG. GEN. THOMAS TODD III
Brig. Gen. Thomas Todd III is leading the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office-Aviation to a potential revolution in rotorcraft technology and toward retirement of some of the workhorse helos from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army is considering whether to embark on its first clean-sheet helicopter design since the 1980s, and Todd’s engineers at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama are in the midst of analyzing the alternatives: the Valor 280 demonstrator, a tilt-rotor rotorcraft from Bell that started flying in 2017, and Boeing-Sikorsky’s coaxial-rotor demonstrator, the SB-1 Defiant, slated to fly this year. Todd also is in the process of retiring the TH-67 Creek training helicopters and also the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior armed scouts that served as the Army’s armed reconnaissance workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan. I spoke by phone to Todd, who was in his office at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.
IN HIS WORDS
Power of software
The number one change I have seen is the proliferation of ones and zeros throughout all our hardware. If you think about it, years ago even when we started with the Black Hawk, and the Apache, and the Chinook, [they] largely didn’t have a whole lot of software. Software brings with it a lot of attributes, but it also brings with it some instability in that you have to maintain it. Going forward, the challenges for our soldiers really will be for us to take advantage of the software attributes that allow us to be agile. We need to bring new capabilities into those aircraft, both for the aircraft itself as well as mission equipment packages. And at the same time we need to keep it stable, maintain it, and keep it at the high qualities and performance that we expect.
Our biggest trends outside of the software arena are technologies that allow for new types of engine performance, whether it be composites or new materials. And then, concepts for vertical lift. The demonstrators that are currently flying today, whether it be a tilt-rotor variant, some sort of a unique X-wing, or what I would consider to be a compound coaxial design — they’re showing promise today that quite frankly we were unable to achieve before software and fly-by-wire entered the equation. Engine performance has been specific to the current fleet and things that we can do, but there are significant changes in concepts of vertical lift, that are going to help us cross the thresholds of speed and range that we’ve never been able to cross before.
In the Army, we operate very close to the ground, and what the fly-by-wire capability allows us to do is get us to a flight handling quality that reduces pilot workload; allows us to operate in environments that we perhaps would not have been able to operate in — i.e., obscure environments, whether it be brown out or weather. At the same time, [we can] potentially introduce what we consider in Army Aviation to be supervised autonomy, or supervised autonomous flight. Some people call it optionally manned flight; optionally piloted.
We have demonstrated that. We have several fly-by-wire Black Hawks that — through a cooperative research and development effort between our labs as well as Sikorsky — demonstrated an optionally piloted Black Hawk using that fly-by-wire technology flown from a common controller on the ground. And so, we know it’s possible. We know there’s going to be areas in the future battlefield that require us to deploy assets for critical resupply of materials. Food and water, or ammunition, and deploying an optionally piloted or autonomous vehicle into that environment will be something that we would do that we perhaps would not do with people on board. So fly-by-wire is really paramount, and flight handling characteristics achieved by that fly-by-wire are going to be paramount in all those different environments in the future.
The workforce here is committed to bringing the future of vertical lift to the U.S. Army as well as the Department of Defense. We are really at a crossroads. We have tried before concepts that take us where really the physics don’t allow us to go in air speed, and reach, and payloads. But the promising technology demonstrations that we have ongoing now, as well as what we’ve been able to do to modernize the current fleet really bodes well for the future of vertical lift where we, I believe, will take a pretty big leap in capability in performance of these airframes over the next 10 to 15 years.
Analysis of alternatives
Currently inside our organization, we have the [program manager] for future vertical lift, and he is supporting the Army analysis of alternatives, which is ongoing this year and is expected to conclude early next fiscal year. There are two demonstrators that will be flying, and our science and technology partners are really leading that charge. [One of] those demonstrators, one the Valor 280, has already flown and the Boeing-Sikorsky Defiant should fly over the next year. And those are the two flyable demonstrators that they plan to have flying. Those will inform that Army analysis of alternatives this year, and affect the path forward that we move out on next year.
Existing aircraft as solution
Now to be clear, the analysis of alternatives is to help the Army make a decision on [whether] we pursue a new clean-sheet program like that, based off what we’ve learned, or is there something that already exists that wouldn’t be considered a developmental program that we could pursue to achieve, really, what is the goal of going farther, faster, and with more than ever before.
[Also], because of the scale of the Army and the number of platforms that we require, sometimes double and triple what other services require in vertical lift, we always have to take into account unit cost and cost per flight hour. That assessment will also take into account affordability of any approach.
How they perform obviously would go into what kind of proposal they would be able to put forward. But we would anticipate a full and open competition should we be asked to move forward. They would be able to compete, and certainly they would have made advancements, but we would expect the full and open competition to really select the best design. There’s no down-select planned out of the demonstration.