An Update on the Distributed Aperture System

SLD talked with Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems’ Mark Rossi about the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) on the F-35, which together with the helmet provides 360-degree situational awareness for the F-35 pilot. Mark has served as the Director of the AN/AAQ-37 Electro-Optical Distributed Aperture System (EO DAS) for the F-35 platform, having management responsibility for the product development and production of the EO DAS hardware and software.  He joined Northrop Grumman in 1984 and has held numerous positions of increasing responsibility in Technical Subcontract Management, Business Development and Program Management.

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SLD: The Distributed Aperture System (DAS) is one of the reasons why the development of the F-35 is about the next 30 years of military aviation, not the past 30 years. Yet folks have not really wrapped their heads around what DAS is or can and will do for the warfighter.

Mark Rossi: The biggest problem facing DAS is the fact that it is a complete unknown to most people, but as they become more familiar with its value, they begin to realize just how revolutionary this system will be for the warfighter. DAS changes the game. If you consider radars for instance, the utility radar brings to the fight has been fundamental to the mission of our armed forces for decades.

Practically everything since WWII has been equipped with radar; and our radars just keep getting better and more capable.  The technology is evolving with the advances in electronics.  We just keep building on prior capability. The capability DAS brings to the fight however is new – and will change the way the game is played significantly.

No more dogfigth: with DAS, the missiles do the turning, not the aircraft (credit: Electro Optical..., ibid, slide 6)

With DAS 360-degree spherical situational awareness capability, there is no need to dogfigth: the missiles do the turning, not the aircraft (credit: Pete Bartos, Electro Optical DAS Media Briefing, Slide 6, Northrop Grumman, 2010)

The services have never experienced anything like the unprecedented capability provided by DAS. While pilots who have witnessed demonstrations of our capability are typically wowed by our imagery and performance metrics, few have any real idea of the magnitude of the capability they are actually receiving with the DAS system. The key discriminator that DAS brings to JSF is full, 360-degree spherical situational awareness. We create this bubble around the airplane where we see everything of interest, all the time, simultaneously. Spherical situational awareness will significantly change the game.

SLD: Is this a man-machine interface we’re talking about?

Mark Rossi: Yes, but we make it easy for him. From a situational awareness point of view, the pilot does absolutely nothing. We are monitoring the world around him all the time and then differentiating and reporting things that occur in that global scene that are important to the pilot. It’s only when we determine that something important has occurred that he’ll even know anything’s going on – except, of course, for day/night imagery that is presented to him continually on his Helmet Mounted display and on his panoramic cockpit display.

SLD: DAS provides 360-degree spherical situational awareness for the individual pilot on the F-35, but is there any reason that we couldn’t take that fused data and share it?

Mark Rossi: There’s no reason we couldn’t share DAS data short of any limitations of the current data links in the aircraft.

SLD: But the point is that you’re standing up a basic capability on the first production aircraft and there’s the opportunity to take this capability, which is unprecedented, and figure out new ways to share data and new ways to battle manage.  In other words, you’re investing in the future by buying this capability.

Mark Rossi: Absolutely.  There is no telling how the services will want to use or potentially enhance DAS functionality in the future – on or off-board a single JSF – as the users become more familiar with the capability DAS has to offer.

SLD: So the point—focusing on the individual aircraft now and the pilot managing the aircraft—this allows him to have capabilities to see 360 degrees and understand the threat envelope around him so that the pilot can declutter the battlespace and focus on the most important priorities.

Mark Rossi: We declutter it for him automatically. We classify the world into things that the pilot would care about such as air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles as well as airborne objects like aircraft within range and only present to him only those things that he should focus on.

SLD: Why is the DAS so misunderstood or underestimated?

Mark Rossi: First of all, the users don’t really understand what DAS is going to do for them.  They have no real point of reference. Again this capability is revolutionary. But more importantly, many currently fielded missile warning systems are fraught with error producing high false alarm rates. The reliability and accuracy of the DAS ensures a whole new level of trust and confidence in the capability we provide to the warfighter.

The reliability and accuracy of the DAS ensures a whole new level of trust and confidence in the capability we provide to the warfighter.

SLD: How does the new helmet for the F-35 interact with the DAS?

Mark Rossi: The DAS provides 360-degree NavFLIR (Navigation Forward Looking Infrared) capability that is projected on the helmet display.  FLIR is an archaic term because FLIR stands for forward looking infrared. We’re not forward looking; we’re everywhere looking. But it’s a term that people are familiar with so we stick with it. So if you think about it, all the information is already being collected as part of the situational awareness and missile warning modes. We simply determine the line of sight of the pilot based on his head position and process the raw image data for enhanced display on the HMD.

He can basically see anywhere he turns his head—even if he is looking right through the floor of the plane because we see everything in 360-degree spherical space!  We also provide a separate video feed to the Panoramic Cockpit Display that displays a pilot-selected line of sight, at his discretion. All of this functionality replaces bulky night vision goggles that are significantly challenged in urban lighting situations. When we have demonstrated our NavFLIR capability to Navy pilots, they tend to be awestruck at the possibility of even seeing the horizon clearly, let alone seeing the carrier and its wake.  DAS is going to revolutionize night landings on aircraft carriers.

DAS is going to revolutionize night landings on aircraft carriers.

SLD: You mentioned fusion. The fact that this data is fused… can you tell me a little bit about what advantage that brings?

Mark Rossi: The fusion that we do at our level is relative to the integration of the six sensors installed throughout the aircraft. It’s fused into a singular unit that does not lose track of things across sector or camera boundaries, and provides seamless imagery between sensors regardless of line of sight.

Being able to stitch the seams to the point that we don’t lose a track across a boundary in inertial space is critical to meeting our performance requirements.

SLD: You’re providing technologies, tools that really allow the pilot to act very differently, function very differently.

Mark Rossi: This kind of technology will not be foreign to the next generation of fighter pilots. They will expect it, because the young kids who are going to be flying these airplanes will have grown up playing virtual reality-based video games. DAS will fit very well with their expectations for 5th generation capability. DAS can also potentially expand the operational envelope of the JSF mission.

Since the numbers of aircraft are great, one can only begin to imagine the possibilities for non-traditional uses of the kind of data DAS provides. Ground activity for instance, which is currently suppressed because it is not of interest to our current mission, could be exploited with simple algorithm enhancements. The potential uses for DAS are only limited by our ability to imagine them!

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*** Posted on July 7th, 2010

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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