By Lisa Simunaci
The Army is turning to “digital-twin” technology to resolve challenges and boost efficiencies for its enduring fleet of Black Hawk helicopters.
As a first step in this endeavor, an operational Black Hawk helicopter and a separate fuselage began an 800-mile journey Tuesday from Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas to Wichita, Kansas.
Through a partnership between the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command, the Strategic Capabilities Office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Wichita State University, researchers at the National Institute of Aviation Research (NIAR) will create a virtual model of a UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter. Researchers will completely disassemble one of the airframes from Corpus Christi and capture a 3-D scan of each structural part, creating a virtual model – or digital twin – of the workhorse of Army aviation.
“This opens a new door to aviation maintenance and sustainment,” said AMCOM Commander Maj. Gen. Todd Royar. “We welcome a new partnership with Wichita State University, while fortifying our existing relationships across the Army aviation enterprise.”
This is the first Army aircraft to enter a larger military effort with NIAR for legacy aircraft sustainment.
“This is a unique opportunity to bring a game-changing technology to the sustainment and logistics fields,” said Maj. Sam Gray, Program Manager for the Strategic Capabilities Office. “We are excited to continue to grow our partnership with the United States Army.”
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter entered Army service in 1979, replacing the UH-1 Iroquois – also known as the Huey helicopter. The UH-60 Alpha model was the first to enter the fleet, which was followed by the more advanced Lima and Mike models.
The Lima model of the Black Hawk helicopter has been out of production for 15 years, so most of its technology is at least that old, with some parts dating back 40 years. The digital twin opens the door to acquire parts that are out of production while building the capacity to use advanced techniques, such as additive manufacturing, to produce components.
Many industries have turned to digital-twin technology to create and improve opportunities to visualize, analyze and predict performance. The technology provides 3-D replicas of buildings, trains, and air conditioning systems – as well as human body parts – to test scenarios and ultimately boost the equipment’s performance.
“The intent is to enable readiness across the Army and the UH-60 fleets in the joint service and the applicable foreign military sales environment,” Royar said. “At the same time, we generate new opportunities to provide parts that are obsolete, low-volume or small quantity. The result is reduced operation and sustainment costs.”
Among the driving factors for digital-twin technology is easing the sustainment effort to keep the Black Hawk helicopters flying over the next decades. As with other enduring military systems, the Army is often dependent on a single-source provider or faces challenges in obtaining certain parts. In the same vein, potential manufacturers must rely on 2-D drawings, many with changes and updates, that make it difficult to interpret, bid or produce the part.
“Certain low-use or low-volume parts don’t receive any bids from vendors,” Royar said. “When we need those parts, we need the opportunity to get them in the system quickly – not the two-plus years it sometimes takes right now.”
With future sustainment in mind, the endeavor to create a digital twin of the UH-60L connects the NIAR experts with the Army and Sikorsky – the original equipment manufacturer – to convert all legacy 2-D drawings into 3-D parametric models.
“The intent of the UH-60L program is to demonstrate the application of this technology in fleet sustainment operations to increase timelines and operational readiness, reduce the cost of documentation, and increase sustainment affordability,” said Dr. John Tomblin, senior vice-president for Industry and Defense Programs and Executive Director of NIAR at Wichita State University. “The program will also allow the Army to maintain, and in some cases, increase the size of the current functioning fleet.”
Wichita State University has conducted teardown investigations for the Defense Department for the past 15 years and has been performing digital-twin programs with the commercial industry over the last decade. In 2018, it began digital-twin work for the DOD, and disassembly of the Air Force’s B-1 bomber begins this summer.
The Strategic Capabilities Office has been working with Wichita State University and NIAR to improve fleet sustainment efforts, aimed at increasing readiness by leveraging advanced technologies, including the digital twin. Additional efforts are underway to leverage robotics and machine learning to improve repair time of different components which pose potential readiness risks to the operational forces. SCO’s recent ventures in modernizing sustainment and life-cycle management capabilities for DOD platforms demonstrates the critical importance of integrating modern technologies into supply, logistics, and maintenance operations.
“Our goal is to develop a prototype capability which will transition into not just existing platforms within the Department of Defense, but identify the digital engineering requirements for future platform development,” Gray said. “It will be of great benefit to the Army if we can reduce sustainment costs and increase readiness for the UH-60L. Furthermore, this program has the ability to demonstrate a pathway forward to what future life-cycle management could look like across the Defense Department.”
To ensure the digital twin can support future airworthiness activities, AMCOM is working with the Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation and Missile Center’s (CCDC AvMC) Systems Readiness Directorate, which uses drawings, structural reports and physical checks to evaluate airworthiness of ongoing modifications to the UH-60L.
“The digital twin offers significant opportunities for improving the efficiency of airworthiness assessments and the potential to streamline evaluation and modifications from a fit and maintenance perspective,” said Douglas Denno, who serves as CCDC AvMC’s lead for coordinating actions on the digital-twin effort. “This is a thrilling opportunity to bring these key elements of technical data for the Army’s utility workhorse into the digital age.”
As the first step in this project takes place with the aircraft transport, NIAR’s Tomblin said researchers are excited to begin the program with the Army in support of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
“The ability to provide support to the warfighter and increase readiness is a primary objective of this program, and we hope the results of this study can impact future maintenance and sustainment for this aircraft for decades to come,” Tomblin said.
The collaborative effort of this project also includes the helicopter’s original manufacturer. The Army’s 40-year partnership with Sikorsky is marked by evolving mission requirements and advances in rotary-wing innovation.
“This initiative reinforces the Sikorsky-Army partnership and is another critical step to advance our enduring fleets while preparing for tomorrow and doing so by increasing our ability and the rate at which we analyze and solve issues together,” said Sikorsky’s Dina Halvorsen, the program director for Army and Air Force Sustainment.
Halvorsen said Sikorsky is proud to be partnered with the U.S. Army and Wichita State University on this project to digitize the UH-60L Black Hawk. Although the Army is fast-tracking its future vertical lift endeavors, the Army still has orders for the latest Black Hawk model, which is also used by sister services and foreign military partners.
“With a collective focus to improve supply availability and readiness on the Lima platform, this initiative serves as a unique learning and discovery opportunity for all parties involved — particularly on how these next-generation technologies and processes work and how we can apply our findings from this effort to maximize the sustainment capability of both our existing and future fleet,” Halvorsen said.
Beyond resolving supply-chain issues, the virtual technology will also improve maintenance. Repetition and exposure are the best ways to grow mechanics’ and technical inspectors’ skills. But training and repetitive work on operational aircraft has the propensity to cause maintenance issues.
“Digital-twin technology provides a virtual environment that facilitates the crawl, walk, run training philosophy that enables Soldiers to develop confidence in a simulated environment before performing the task on an actual aircraft,” said AMCOM Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Dove. “Virtual environments enable a task to be taught through distance learning with the subject matter expert thousands of miles away.”
The project to create a digital twin and ultimately a catalog of the UH-60L parts, brings academic and industry partners into a collaboration that includes the Office of Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office, several Army organizations, including AMCOM, Army Futures Command and Program Executive Office-Aviation.
“It takes this team of teams’ approach that will benefit not just the military but also academia and industry,” Royar said. “As we embark on this effort, I recognize the hard work being done between and across organizations, and I’m excited about the great opportunities it means for all interested parties and, ultimately, for aviation readiness.”