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Improving Blue Force Tracking for Army Aviation
Imagine you're an Army helicopter pilot coming in fast on an enemy tank, trigger finger squeezing your missile launch button. But is that really an enemy or a friendly tank?
You look at the display screen of your Blue Force Tracking (BFT) system. A red icon at the right side of the screen shows that it's the enemy—the same relative position of the tank as you look out your right window. The blue icons to the left are your buddies on the ground. You fire knowing that the intended target will be hit—and not your buddies.
"BFT gives pilots and ground commanders a clear picture of situational awareness and assists with airspace deconfliction," says Don Parrish, MITRE's project leader for the Army's BFT for aviation in Huntsville, Alabama. "During the Army's campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, MITRE focused on the integration of BFT across the Army's aviation fleet," says Parrish. "We've solved significant technical issues to keep BFT operational."
In collaborating with the various BFT contractors, MITRE helped solve design problems for two-way messaging, discovered the sources of false tracking reports, and resolved interface issues when BFT equipment was integrated with aircraft equipment. In addition, MITRE is helping develop non-line-of-sight voice communications that could save the Army over $1 billion.
Al Abejon, director of BFT-Aviation, says that MITRE has been instrumental in bringing BFT functionality to the Army's aviation fleet. "MITRE has done software testing on the various aircraft platform configurations," says Abejon. "MITRE has also done system troubleshooting for deploying and deployed units, technical training aid development, and leveraging of BFT technologies across other organizations within Program Executive Office Aviation."
One-way to Two-way Messaging
"Going from one-way to two-way messaging was an interesting challenge," says Don Morgan, system engineer for BFT. "Originally, the BFT transceiver only sent out the current position of the aircraft or what we call Blue Situational Awareness [SA]," says Morgan. "Getting SA data into the cockpit for the pilot required the transceiver to handshake with other onboard avionics. Through good engineering on the part of the vendors and the BFT team, we were able to make sure the transceiver's processor shook hands with other avionics boxes and maintained their connectivity."
With the two-way messaging, different types of messages can be sent using a variable message format. For example, pilots can send free-text for common messages, situation reports, and spot reports. A spot report is where a pilot sees a bad guy that nobody has identified with a red icon on the BFT display. "The pilot can key in information that's sent to everybody in the local area so they know the enemy is out there," says Morgan.
Solving the interface issues meant developing procedures for getting data about each aircraft's mission role into equipment such as the aviation mission planning system (AMPS) box and the improved data modem (IDM). Then a training procedure had to be developed for the pilots.
At one point Morgan and his integration colleagues started getting reports that the BFT system worked great for 20 minutes and then went to sleep. "It was like the old days when you unplugged your mouse from a Windows machine and plugged it back in," says Morgan. "The computer wouldn't recognize it. The problem was intermittent communications connectivity between the transceiver and the onboard avionics box. The avionics box would became over-tasked by the aircraft and lose the port for the transceiver. In less than 30 days, we identified the problem, corrected it with a software patch, and sent it to the field."
Another problem came up when the BFT Operations Center changed software versions. "In the change-over process, some of the communications ports were misidentified," says Morgan. "The Ops Center tested against their hardware world and BFT worked fine. But in practice, the IDM operated differently in the way it checked things. Once the problem was identified, we orchestrated the fix."
One day Morgan was using BFT in Huntsville to track an AH-64 Apache helicopter flying out of Ft. Hood, Texas. Says Morgan: "I'm sending the pilot free-text, when he suddenly sends free-text back asking, ‘Who is that following me?'"
The anomalous tracking reports turned out to be false tracking reports: The pilot was seeing a partial ghost of himself. A piece of software called the common object map in the Operations Center was erroneously combining a number of position reports into one dot that kept following the pilot. A patch was installed in the Ops Center and the problem went away.
More than 1,200 BFT systems were installed in combat vehicles, command posts, and helicopters for operation in Afghanistan and Iraq. "As BFT is used on more Army aircraft, MITRE is using BFT as a basic tool to augment Army air traffic control [ATC] radar systems," says Parrish. "For example, we're incorporating unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] locations as BFT location reports for in-flight manned aircraft and ground controllers. Similarly, Army ATC ground systems can now give identifiable positions to Army aircraft flying below or out of range of ATC radar."
Because BFT-equipped vehicles give a near-real time picture of their locations, their last known location can be tracked to assist with lost or downed aircraft if the need arises.
MITRE is also helping the Army leverage its BFT infrastructure for beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) voice communications. Eventually, all of the Army's 600-plus aircraft will use BFT, which uses satellite communications for over-the-horizon messaging. "Adding voice communications to each BFT system will allow the Army's aviation fleet to be upgraded to BLOS voice radio at a minimum cost," says Parrish. Over $1 billion can be saved by avoiding the use of more expensive high frequency or satellite communications equipment and its attendant integration and testing costs.
A flight this summer showed the feasibility of using the low-bandwidth BFT system, which transmits voice over a live BFT satellite feed. MITRE developed the prototype equipment that was integrated with the BFT equipment onboard an Apache helicopter and into an Army ATC ground station. A military field assessment will be made later this year.
Says LTC Anthony Potts, product manager, Apache Modernization and Recapitalization: "MITRE engineers prototyped a solution leveraging existing Blue Force Tracking assets, and successfully demonstrated it for the Army's leadership. This Voice-Over Packet (VOP) capability is being considered for an operational assessment this fiscal year pending results of testing by our Central Technical Support Facility. VOP could have a significant impact on aviation operations in Operation Enduring Freedom."
—by David Van Cleave
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Page last updated: April 14, 2006 | Top of page
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