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What does the future hold for Ship Air Integration?


Adam Robinson

QinetiQ has been conducting trials at sea for almost 80 years. As part of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Chief Naval Test Pilot Eric Brown, landed Sea Hurricanes and Seafires on British carriers; his aptitude for deck landings led to his posting for the testing of carriers' landing arrangements before they were brought into service.

Ship Air Integration - picture of AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin Helicopter on ship

In 1945 he went on to fly the Sea Vampire as the first pure-jet aircraft to land on and take off from an aircraft carrier, by which time, he had amassed over 1,500 deck landings on 22 different carriers. Six years later, the RAE conducted its first ship-borne helicopter flight trial. For those past 80 years, MoD Boscombe Down and Farnborough have been completely integrated into Royal Navy flight trials; each time a new ship has needed the ability to use air power, or an aircraft has had a requirement to land and take-off from a vessel, there has a been a requirement to safely assess the characteristics of both in order to determine the safety of aircrew, ground crew, and the ship’s company, thus providing the Navy with an operational airborne capability.

Traditionally, that capability has come as a result of modelling and lengthy, comprehensive flight trials once the ship has been launched - prior to acceptance by the Royal Navy - but often after it has truly entered military service. That capability is often the last to be certified as part of the war-fighting system but it is usually the most useful to have in the early stages of ship acceptance. Accordingly, temporary clearances for helicopters to operate is common, so it is QinetiQ’s view that Ship-Air Integration should take place as an integral part of the ship’s design, from the devising of early CAD drawings, to the thoughts of the first cutting of metal.

By doing this, the potential for design mistakes can be avoided and the aircraft, whether it’s helicopter, fixed-wing, or as is increasingly common, UAS, which is being considered as an integral capability, rather than the traditional highly-desirable add-on. QinetiQ is uniquely placed to support this evolution within the UK as it maintains years’ worth of data from its previous trials, along with the most modern Air Flow Air Pattern data and Computational Fluid Dynamics, giving the capability to combine a read-across from history with accurate modelling, thus providing expert advice to both the customer and manufacturer. This will de-risk the trial process, provide the ability to conduct large elements of it earlier, offering an inherent Ship-Air operating capability from the day that the ship is launched.

QinetiQ’s position in industry is envious. It is a commercial company, giving the agility to be able to adopt best commercial practice but it is also a collaborative partner with the MOD in many areas of the test and evaluation field. Flight trials are both MAA and EASA approved and delivered under the Air Test and Evaluation Centre (ATEC) construct, comprising QinetiQ and the Air and Space Warfare Centre.

It is QinetiQ’s desire to embed this inherent capability into the core of the ship’s management system, aiding the war-fighters’ decision-making process so that the bridge or operations room of a warship is no longer filled with paper copies of Ship-Helicopter Operating Limits (SHOLs). Instead the ambition is to have SHOL embedded within the system, giving timely, direct advice to the Officer of the Watch. In future, that officer will only need to accept the mission system’s advice, giving permission to launch the aircraft, whilst also looking to recover a UAS, and tow a sonar array in the correct direction, balancing the needs of all three simultaneously.

QinetiQ’s future strategy is to give a targeted, early capability, devising a SHOL by analysis and conducting gap analysis through exploitation of the available data, reading across where available.

Where the data isn’t available, we intend to work together with the customer, the manufacturer, and look wider into academia, to fill those gaps so that we can make early recommendations. These can then be acted upon, giving an iterative approach, which develops through the life of the ship and the aircraft. In turn, this living capability can be utilised beyond the immediate needs of the ship through the provision of data for future research and development. Once the data is collected, it can then be used many times over. Ultimately, this level of cooperation could lead to a centre of excellence, which will incorporate industry, the military, academia, and the science and technology community, all able and willing to share data and experiences both nationally and internationally.