OpenVPX platform delivers horsepower needed to revolutionize helicopter flying

Design Wins Spotlight focuses on recent design wins using VITA technology. Learn which products/services were chosen and why.

Problem: Raytheon’s Advanced Distributed Aperture System (ADAS) is a system intended to dramatically improve helicopter survivability and flight operations. Helicopter crews face challenges unlike anything in fixed wing aircraft. One of the most difficult challenges is low-level flight at night and/or in complex terrain. Another challenge is that of “brownout,” when a pilot’s vision is obscured by the intense dust clouds stirred up during a helicopter’s takeoff or landing. Visibility in these conditions is critical, and current night vision goggles and collision avoidance systems are inadequate. Additionally, as recently as last May, one of the stealthy helicopters used in the raid by SEAL Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden was damaged during the nighttime landing and had to be destroyed. These two problems, together with flying into objects near the ground and failing to detect and respond in time to hostile fire, are by far the leading causes of helicopter losses and fatalities according to a 2009 Congressional study.

Solution: ADAS exploits rapid advances in multispectral sensing, computer processing, data fusion, object recognition algorithms, and helmet-mounted displays to provide helicopter pilots and crew with the ability to see in the dark and deal with crowded airspace and complex environments. The key to the ADAS system is the ability to collect and process data from a variety of sensors (near infrared, millimeter wave, and acoustic) and provide that information to as many as four helmet-mounted displays. By positioning sensors all around the helicopter, ADAS allows the pilot and crew not only to “see” in low light but to look through the helicopter airframe for 360-degree situational awareness. To deal with brownout, ADAS creates an artificial picture of the landing zone that is superimposed on the obscured environment and changes to reflect the movement of the helicopter.

ADAS makes a number of other important contributions to helicopter survivability. Using the aforementioned combination of sensors, ADAS can provide real-time warning of hostile fire from the full range of threats to helicopters: small arms, anti-aircraft artillery, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), and surface-to-air missiles. The same set of sensors also enables ADAS to warn of flying hazards such as towers, wires, and cables, as well as to locate and track other aerial platforms, including hostile aircraft and helicopters.

Also, the fourth-generation helmet-mounted display provides the wearer with fused images of his surroundings, threat warnings, and artificial pictures used to fly through brownouts. The pilot does not have to look at his windscreen or down at his instrument panel to fly the helicopter. Helmets are available for up to three other crewmen, and each individual’s display can be customized to meet specific mission requirements (for example, door gunner, crew chief, or copilot). The helmet also provides such creature comforts as reduced weight and active noise reduction. The wraparound effect is completed by a 3D audio system that issues threat alerts and crew communications from the direction of their source.

The Army awarded Raytheon a $14 million contract in 2011 to take ADAS from its current status as a successful Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstrator to a system in production. The focus of this new effort will be on improving visual acuity and reducing the images on the helmet-mounted display to be refreshed. Also, Raytheon needs to ensure that installing ADAS will not impose any weight or space penalties.

Inside the solution: Mercury Computer Systems is providing its unique, high-performance sensor processing Application-Ready Subsystem (ARS) that leverages heterogeneous processing elements including FPGAs, GPGPUs, and GPPs, interconnected with various high-speed switch fabrics. Highly ruggedized for harsh and mobile helicopter environments, the system will help improve mission effectiveness and flight safety at low altitude, in poor visibility conditions, and in hostile environments. The standards-based OpenVPX system is designed to allow for rapid future technology insertions, either in terms of processing capabilities or handling new sensors or new modalities. The OpenVPX system’s high-performance computing capability might make it possible to realize significant weight savings by removing systems rendered redundant by ADAS. ADAS will truly push the envelope for VPX, utilizing many of the high-performance processing, data handling, and I/O capabilities of the technology.

“Mercury’s [abilities] to solve challenging technical problems and deliver highly ruggedized, standards-based solutions were key factors in Raytheon’s decision to work with us on their ADAS solution,” said Brian Perry, Vice President of Services and Systems Integration at Mercury Computer Systems.


Early Warning Blog, “Raytheon’s ADAS System Could Revolutionize Helicopter Flying And Save Lives,” Daniel Goure, Ph.D., October 10, 2011,