$1 million BYU project may save A.F. millions

Goal is to clear up the garbled data transmitted in fighter-jet test flights

Published: Friday, March 11 2005 9:51 a.m. MST

An AIM-9 Sidewinder missile begins its separation from an F-22 Raptor in a test of the fighter's ability to fire an air-to-air missile from an internal weapons bay.

U.S. Air Force

PROVO — Test pilots might have equipment developed at Brigham Young University on board when they begin tests of the new Joint Strike Fighter jet next year at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The Department of Defense has committed nearly $1 million to a promising BYU project that might clean up garbled data transmissions that have plagued test flights for nearly two decades.

Barrel rolls and bandwidth problems have made it difficult for the Flight Test Center at the base to cleanly capture the massive streams of data generated about a plane's performance during each test flight and sent from antennas on the plane to a receiver on the ground.

When the information is scrambled, the expensive tests must be repeated.

"The military has to put each airplane through a series of maneuvers to test the stresses, the strains and the temperatures it might experience so when the plane is in combat and flies dozens of sorties, it won't break down," said Michael Rice, the BYU professor who developed the solution to the data dilemma.

The 412th Test Wing at Edwards still attaches a single antenna to the bottom of many of the planes it tests, but the signal to the receiver is often blocked when the plane banks away or turns over, breaking the link between the antenna and the ground receiver.

A second antenna is added to the top of the planes for most test flights now, and both antennas send the same signal back to the ground. But that apparent solution stopped working when the planes and their weapon systems grew so complex that the amount of information overwhelmed the signals.

"When the data rates are low, the second antenna works fine," Rice said. "It's when the data rates get high that the signals interfere with each other. The border is about 5 megabits per second."

That's far more flight information — or telemetry — than Apollo spacecraft sent back to Earth during missions to the moon in the 1960s and '70s.

"Fighter airplanes today are more sophisticated than those moon landings were," Rice said. "In the movie 'Apollo 13,' you saw rows and rows of engineers with pocket protectors and black glasses monitoring numbers rolling across their screens. Each screen and engineer was dedicated to one thing, like battery levels or astronaut vital signs.

"Our contract is to build a piece of hardware that receives similar data in real time for monitoring by test engineers."

An easy answer to the problem would have been to dedicate a separate radio frequency to each antenna, but the military has auctioned off its extra frequencies to satellite radio companies like XM Radio and Sirius.

"We need to be more efficient with what we have," said Saul Ortigazo, executing agent for the 412th Test Wing/Engineering Test Instrumentation Group. "BYU's project is one we have high hopes for. It eliminates the problem so we get a nice, robust stream of data. It's pretty exciting."

Rice's solution was to transmit a different signal from each antenna and give the two signals a special mathematical relationship that is decoded on the other end. It all works on one frequency because the system can recover all the data even if the link to one antenna is severed.

The technology was tested at Edwards during the flight of a small test plane in February 2004. Data from the test was stored on a DVD and mailed to Rice, who analyzed it and found it worked.

The next step is for Rice and graduate assistants Tom Nelson and Adam Anderson to build a prototype that will provide results in real time instead of only for post-flight analysis.

"It's a high-tech radio box that's going to look like a satellite receiver," Rice said.

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