Tech Talk / By Mr. David B. Cripps: We in Army Aviation are engaged in a consumer electronics technology footrace, and we’re falling further behind. The pace that new products with creative functions & capabilities come to the market by far exceeds the pace that “the system” can formally assess and authorize their use.
And sometimes these new electronic devices may have functionality that might be attractive to bring aboard aircraft to add to or enhance mission capability. Examples include tablet computers with clever applications, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, compact digital video cameras, Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers, and a host of other devices. The use of many of these is rapidly growing in the civil sector, as they are widely available and relatively inexpensive. In earlier Army Aviation Magazine articles, we have written about the lack of actual qualification of many of these devices in terms of reliability, accuracy and precision, so I won’t repeat any of that. Rather, I will focus on a growing trend of use of such devices despite that realization and a need for Command awareness and prudent standardization.
Air Worthiness Assessment
Every aircraft operator’s manual includes a statement that reads something like “No electrical/electronic devices of any sort, other than those described in this manual or appropriate airworthiness release and approved by the USAAMCOM RDMR-AE are to be operated by crewmembers or passengers during the operation of this helicopter.” Additionally, Army Regulation 70-62, Airworthiness Qualification of Aircraft Systems, states, “Development or adoption of commercial off the shelf (COTS), carry-on equipment with a mission requirement for operation in-flight will include an airworthiness assessment. The airworthiness authority will be consulted in the determination of which operation of carry-on equipment would or would not measurably affect the airworthiness of an aircraft system, subsystem or allied equipment. Based on the assessment, a determination will be made of the extent of airworthiness qualification and appropriate documentation required for in-flight operation.” In other words, from a purely legalistic perspective, unless a particular device has been “through the system” here at Redstone Arsenal, it shouldn’t be powered up aboard an Army aircraft. But we’d have our heads in the sand if we really believed there was tacit compliance. You don’t have to search too hard on social media to find videos taken with personally owned GoPro cameras, or talk with many aircrew to determine who is using some device they purchased at Sporty’s Pilot Shop or Best Buy.
When the Army fields a piece of equipment, not only have we (the collective we, the Generating Force side of the Army) sought to qualify it for its intended use and operation, but we have also generally embraced a “total package fielding” approach, taking into account initial and recurrent training, sustainment, spares, standardization, and other support functions. In the case of COTS consumer electronics, that simply doesn’t exist, and well-intentioned folks are left to fend for themselves. Sometimes they put a well-integrated program together, but often not. And often the desire to “just use common sense” takes the decision to use this kind of equipment out of the hands of the commander.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There is an established process at Redstone Arsenal for gaining official approval. It takes a little time and money and involves the right players, typically the affected aircraft program manager’s office and the Aviation Engineering Directorate (AED). If you have an operational requirement to make use of carry-on electronic equipment on a repetitive basis, contact us. Every Airworthiness Release (AWR) contains contact information for folks within AED who can get you in touch with the correct people to exercise the system. If you have an operationally urgent matter for which the standard process isn’t going to be responsive enough, contact us and we will work with your command to best inform a risk decision by your commander. AED can assist in better understanding the airworthiness implications, but there are other operational aspects where organizations such as the Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization (DES) at Fort Rucker have much more information and lessons learned and can provide assistance.
We all want the same outcome – maximized capability while maintaining safety.
Mr. David B. Cripps is the deputy director of the Aviation Engineering Directorate of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, AL.