Battlespace Tech

Army upgrading Apache's 40-year-old sensors

Parts of the military’s modernization efforts are focusing on upgrading and retrofitting established platforms with newer sensors to increase accuracy and lethality. One of the more recent efforts concerns the Army’s Apache attack helicopter, which has been getting some improvements to its 40-year-old technology. 

The Modernized Day Sensor Assembly (M-DSA) and the High Reliability Turret will be available to AH-64 Apache pilots in the E-model scheduled to go into manufacturing in fiscal 2019, the Army said.

“Both items are legacy components from 1984. They have not been upgraded since the Alpha models of Apache,” project manager Col. Jeff Hager of the Program Executive Office for Aviation said. “We will see the new components on all Echo models. They are real important for reliability and maintainability.”

New enhancements will include near-infrared and color capability to cockpits for high-resolution video of targets, match medium and narrow field-of-view video of nighttime Forward Looking Infrared nighttime vision sensors to allow for easy transition between day and night video. The upgrades also will add blending video feeds from each sensor source, provide better stability for longer range viewing, provide picture-in-picture capability to allow pilots to simultaneously view a target from bird’s eye and close views, provide a laser pointer mounted on aircraft’s gimbal for better air-to-air and air-to-ground coordination, add eye safe lasing capability for urban environments and support two-level maintenance so most repairs can be made directly on the flight line. 

"New technology has evolved. Obsolescence issues have creeped in with existing technology. So, it's time to address the issue," said David Belvin, Apache Programs director for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, which is developing the new technologies for the Army. Forty years ago, Apache sensors were considered state of the art, enabling day and night visibility as well as allowing turrets to communicate sensor data to pilots. 

"[I]t is easier for the guy under combat, under stress, to have a smoother transition between the day side or FLIR…change over with zoom out or zoom in. Right now, there is too much transition between the day side and night side," Hager said, referring to day and night sensors not transitioning at the same view position. He added that a pilot using zoom with the day sensor has to readjust to zoom when moving to the night sensor, running the risk of losing the target. Avoiding this step with the new blending capability creates better situational awareness.

The retrofits will also lower costs over time, the Army said. 

The Army has also made strides in creating smart sensors that can talk to each other. The Integrated Sensor Architecture will allow sensors to not only communicate, but deliver information to soldiers without physical integration. Using a dynamic system, ISA allows sensors to find and communicate regardless of computing platform allowing soldiers to find a sensor and obtain information without any previous knowledge. As with the Apache retrofits, ISA is less expensive than deploying sensors in the field.

Meanwhile, the Army also has been working on integrating Apaches with unmanned aerial systems, late last year demonstrating manned-unmanned teaming and data sharing between an Apache and a Gray Eagle UAS. Earlier tests also gave Apache pilots control of a Gray Eagle and Shadow while in flight. https://defensesystems.com/articles/2014/10/09/army-apache-uas-interoperability.aspx

The Air Force has also taken to upgrading sensors, though its efforts are more focused on transitioning sensors from older platforms it seeks to eventually phase out – such as the U-2 – to more modern platforms, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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