DARPA’s “Sandblaster” Program is On
In March 2007, United Technologies subsidiary Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT received Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract for a program called “Sandblaster.”
Sandblaster? Being under a helicopter’s rotors can certainly feel like that, especially in sandy or dusty areas. That’s a problem in current operations, as “brownout” leaves helicopter pilots attempting to land blind – or unable to land at all. Since 1973, the US military says that there have been 21 MH-53 and 10 HH-60G brownout-related accidents within the combat search and rescue force alone. Future operations can also expect to encounter these conditions on a regular basis.
Advances in computer processing power and display technologies have led to the development of “synthetic vision systems” for commercial aircraft, and even for some ground vehicles. Could a set of sensors combine their data in a synthetic vision system that lets rotary-wing pilots see, even in total brownout conditions?
- Project Sandblaster
- Sandblaster and CSAR-X
- Contracts and Key Events
- Additional Readings
“Sandblaster is a high priority effort to develop and demonstrate effective affordable solutions to the problem of helicopter landing in BROWNOUT as well as other Degraded Visual Environments (DVE). Solutions are urgently needed for the brownout phenomenon, which causes deadly accidents during helicopter landing and take-off operations in arid desert terrain. Intense, blinding dust clouds stirred up by the aircraft’s main-rotor down-wash during near-ground flight can cause helicopter pilots to suddenly lose all visual cues. This creates significant flight safety risks from aircraft and ground obstacle collisions, rollover due to sloped and uneven terrain, etc. Sandblaster is focused on the rapid development and demonstration of sensor/visualization-display systems that will effectively provide an affordable, landing capability in brownout/DVE conditions where the visibility is temporarily as low as zero with zero landing-zone infrastructure and limited knowledge of the terrain comprising the landing area. Sandblaster must be affordable and self-contained, and include necessary sensors, instruments and displays to provide robust effective landing guidance to the pilot. Sandblaster must be compatible with upgrading existing military rotorcraft like the UH-60 Blackhawk. System A-Kit must be configurable to integrate with MH/UH-60 A/L/M Blackhawk Helicopters.”
Sikorsky is teamed with Honeywell and with Sierra Nevada Corp. Honeywell will design and produce a Sensor data-driven, Localized, External, Evidential Knowledge base (SLEEK) capability integrated with the company’s synthetic vision system, which is already used in a number of commercial aircraft. Sierra Nevada Corp. will provide see-through sensing technologies.
To see who else was interested in competing, check DARPA’s Proposer’s Day Workshop attendance list [PDF].
Sandblaster and CSAR-X
Brownout has been mentioned as an issue for the CSAR-X combat search and rescue helicopter program as well. In Jane’s Defense Weekly, October 31, 2006: “OPINION – Beating brownout is a CSAR priority”:
“Helicopter brownouts are probably the most significant of all military operational concerns when landings are required in the desert environment. Brownout-related mishaps account for a significant number of incidents resulting in severe injury, loss of life and aircraft.In September a US Air Force Research Laboratory/Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency researcher, Major Peter Doty, briefed that since 1973 there are estimated to have been 21 MH-53 and 10 HH-60G brownout mishaps as pilots lost visual reference due to blowing dust and debris”
CSAR-X was recently forced into a re-compete, and Sikorsky’s H-60 derived HH-92 Superhawk is one of the 3 competitors. CSAR-X competitor Boeing (HH-47 Chinook, winner before re-compete) also sent personnel to the DARPA Sandblaster Proposer’s Day Workshops; so did Lockheed Martin (US101), though those attendees were from the Missiles & Fire Control division.
Contracts and Key Events
March 11/09: Honeywell announces success in limited February 2009 flight demonstrations of its enhanced synthetic vision system and sensor fusion capabilities on a Black Hawk helicopter at the U.S. Army Aeroflight Dynamics Directorate (AFDD), AMRDEC at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.
Actual landings were not performed due to airfield and aircraft restrictions. Instead, a total of 3 flights were conducted with 3 different test pilots; each flight accumulated nearly 2 hours of flight time. The tests included 5 approaches to 3 different landing zones, in a variety of terrain and obstacles. During each approach, the test pilot used the heads-down feature of the synthetic vision system to pick a safe landing point before moving to the next approach. The installed equipment sustained no failures.
2007: Under the terms of a $6.9 million, 18-month sub-contract from Sikorsky, Honeywell will design, integrate, and demonstrate the avionics processor that hosts the synthetic vision and sensor fusion capabilities for the UH-60 Black Hawk test helicopter’s cockpit system.
The Honeywell system integrates radar-based sensor information with terrain and obstacle data. Radar returns determine whether an area is occupied or not, and if the slope across the landing zone is within aircraft limits. This is combined with the virtual 3D model terrain and obstacle database and the aircraft position to ensure correct alignment to an exact point on the earth. When combined with the pilot’s synthetic vision system, it provides a highly detailed three-dimensional graphic view of the landing environment on a primary flight display, regardless of outside conditions.
Honeywell’s Integrated Primary Flight Display synthetic vision systems (SV-PFD) are also being developed for a number of business jet types, though their focus is on night and all-weather operations rather than brownout conditions.
March 16/07: DARPA issues the initial Sandblaster contract to Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT. It’s a $10.3 million increment, as part of a $16.6 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract.
Work will be performed in Arlington, VA and is expected to be complete by Sept 8/08. This is a sole-source contract initiated on Sept 6/06 by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W31P4Q-07-C-0182).
- Sikorsky (May 2/07) – Sikorsky Wins Contract to Find Eye of the Sandstorm.
- Special Operations Technology (Oct 6/06) – Sandblaster