Driving commonality in test and measurement systems
Defense electronics integrators faced with reduced funding want test and measurement systems that can be used across multiple platforms instead of having one test set for every weapon, radio, etc. This push toward commonality and standardization is driven by today’s budget-constrained environment in the Department of Defense (DoD).
Sustained budget cuts in defense typically mean a push toward commonality. Military program managers want technology that they can use across multiple weapons, aircraft, and radios – old and new. This is especially true for test and measurement equipment. Having a separate test set for every radio or avionics platform brings excessive procurement costs, creates more downtime, and increases training time and expense.
As aging platforms – be they air, land, or sea based – are forced to operate long beyond their operational life, maintainers will need test equipment that can work with legacy systems as well as new technology to keep costs down and enable more efficient training.
“The DoD is seeing that they have to extend the life of more aircraft than initially planned and is adding more smart munitions to the older platforms,” says Steve Sargeant, President and CEO of Marvin Test Solutions (MTS) in Irvine, Calif. “This also means they have to procure better and more capable test equipment to extend the life of modernized weapons and avionics.”
The GSA data and procurement record for RDT&E (research development test and evaluation) and O&M (operations and maintenance) is down year after year – 10 percent per year since FY 2012, says Darren McCarthy, Marketing Manager for Rohde & Schwarz in Beaverton, Ore. “People have less money to spend on equipment and customers are selective with the dollars they spend, focusing on fulfilling immediate needs.”
“The current budget environment has directly affected the test and measurement market by limiting the ability of the military to modernize their test equipment inventory,” says Lou Salzano, Vice President, SIM, Training, and Test Solutions for Astronics Test Systems Inc. in Orlando, Fla. “System aging is increasing maintenance costs and total cost of ownership. We have found that when the government experiences a reduction in the military budget, they have a tendency to maintain their current capabilities and expand their focus on prime mission requirements. Since recent military budgets and funding for new starts is limited, maintaining capability through technology insertion is more likely to keep legacy systems current rather than complete replacement of aging equipment.”
“You need to balance common sense with funds available and competition for those funds,” Sargeant says. “The sequestration challenge will be if test equipment can rise up far enough on the selection list so it exceeds weapons or avionics upgrades. The military can buy all the modern stuff they want, but without the proper test equipment it’s difficult to maintain mission readiness. The same goes for older weapon systems and aircraft. To keep them viable in a combat environment and keep mission capability very high you have to have at least a modicum of modern test equipment. Test systems in this environment will need to be able to work across multiple platforms that a country or service owns – new and legacy platforms. Maintainers have a hard job to do and having a different test system for every weapon or aircraft only makes it harder, more time consuming, and more expensive from a training and procurement perspective.”
“Companies who design their test systems for dual use navigate these conditions best,” McCarthy says. “You don’t want to design test systems just for military radios. Fortunately commercial use drives this market. Take envelope tracking for example. It is driven by the cell phone (and consumer) industry, not military radios. In other words it’s a matter of billions of cell phone units vs. maybe the tens of thousands of radios. Test and measurement companies must follow the volume markets, but this also benefits the military user who takes advantage of innovation from the commercial sector.
“Dual use enables tech insertion advantages as well,” he continues. “We can emulate the older (legacy) systems, bring new tech insertion in and still support the old system through software. That helps ease transition and support sustainment. While new technology is important you still have to be able to test the older equipment.”
“Military customers are pushing to reduce the inventory of test equipment and to replace aging equipment,” Salzano says. “The use of synthetic instrumentation fulfills this need, providing a multi-platform, multi-technology solution. Our customers are also becoming more interested in modular synthetic instrumentation solutions with a focus on the PXI/PXIe platform as the norm going forward in either replacement or next-generation radio test systems for functional testing.
“Ease of use (reduced training) and automated testing of radios both in the depot, and in the field using over-the-air techniques, are high on the list of requirements,” he continues. The ability to reduce no fault found [NFF], cannot duplicate [CND], or retest ok [RTOK] represents a cost savings and an expedited return to service instead of returning usable radios back to the OEMs. Doing more with less and reducing the overall life cycle cost including training, spares, and support is a common desire.”
One test system for all
Having a test system dedicated to every radio or weapon can be counter-productive and costly to procure. Hence the demand for flexible test sets that work across different applications by using universal interconnects and software defined instrumentation.
“Having so many radios makes it difficult to define test boundaries,” McCarthy says. “If you have 100 different radios you can’t afford to have 100 different test profiles. That would not be cost effective. The best solution is to represent test conditions that you can best infer performance from, picking out specific test that give representative performance to other waveforms.
“The test challenge here refers to software filter and timing errors,” he continues. “We have software-defined instruments that can define what the test boundaries are, which helps reduce uncertainty. For receiver testing it takes a disproportional amount of time, therefore radio designers depend a lot more on time receiver performance. This makes it important to define the commercial interface to test their commercial waveforms. We provide analog to digital interfaces to our instruments so we can design the radio directly to an instrument.”
“Our customers are leaning towards replacing their classical instrument-driven ‘rack and stack’ test environments with modular synthetic instrument solutions that include common hardware building blocks,” Salzano says. “This approach reduces the footprint and cost of ownership (calibration/repair) and with our equipment, increases the testing throughput of radios and equipment with the automated test programs that we supply. The flexibility of our modular synthetic instrumentation allows our test systems to be utilized throughout the depot to test not only military communications equipment but other electronics systems and subsystems.
“The Astronics Test Systems (ATS) Freedom 2 family of testers includes a bench top – ATS3000A – and a portable version – the ATS3000P – of our radio test systems,” Salzano says. Both systems are based on synthetic instrumentation and currently include 23 instruments. Each system includes automatic testing support for most tactical radios used by the military and can also be used for electronic maintenance testing, he adds.
Commonality in testing smart weapons
Enabling commonality in the testing of smart munitions is also accomplished through software. Many older aircraft are getting new smart weapons that will not work with legacy test sets. However, the new test sets still need to work with older munitions. This flexibility can be achieved through software.
“We achieve commonality at MTS with our test systems because we can tailor our solutions to different aircraft via software,” Sargeant says. “The software is tailored to a different operational flight profile or operating system. The steps the maintainers have to follow are very transparent and easy to implement. They can move from one airplane to the next using the same equipment. For hardware, universal adapters or connectors are used to work with existing cables if they are still serviceable. Using existing cables helps keep costs down when upgrading test equipment.
“For example, if our MTS-3060 SmartCan test set is used on A-10 aircraft today and maintainers that move from that aircraft to any other using the SmartCan – be it an F-16 or a fifth generation fighter such as the F-35 – they will not have to retrain,” he continues.
Testing smart weapons
“In the early days flying an A-10 or F-16, the most sophisticated weapons we had were the Maverick missile and some laser-guided bombs,” Sargeant says. “The test equipment for these weapons becomes obsolete. Moreover, the sophistication of the weapons has increased significantly and many are smart weapons. However, today there is more test equipment available to raise confidence with smart weapons. Knowing the aircraft is thoroughly checked beyond stray voltage and continuity provides confidence to the pilot and crew that when they are faced with a sortie they won’t have to worry about interfaces not working properly.”
Today you need something that ensures higher mission readiness and lowers the cost of flightline equipment, he continues. “We do that with the MTS-3060 SmartCan, which is a universal O-level aircraft armament test set for legacy aircraft, employing smart weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition [JDAM]. It is capable of testing not only the continuity, but also the functionality of the MIL-STD-1760 interface.
The hand-held device can standardize and consolidate armament test equipment across 4th and 5th generation aircraft, including F-5, Hawk, TA/ FA-50, A-10, F-15, F-16, and F-18.” SmartCan also has pre- and post-flight audio and video channels for troubleshooting legacy systems such as AIM-9 and AGM-65, he adds.
“MTS engineers recently added test capabilities for the AIM-120 to SmartCan, enabling maintainers to test the full functionality of the AIM-120 interface by emulating the missile,” Sargeant says.