July 6, 1998 How do you transform a complex older aircraft, which requires three people to fly, into a state-of-the-art system that can be successfully flown by two?
That is the challenge faced by Kaman Aerospace and its partner, Litton Guidance and Control of Northridge, Calif., in refitting almost a dozen Kaman SH-2 Seasprite helicopters for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
The straightforward part of the job is in stripping the surplus Seasprites purchased by the Australians down to the airframe and refurbishing them to be almost new, or "zero hour" airframes. The challenge for the companies is in developing a completely new flight system for what will be, essentially, a new type of Seasprite helicopter.
That is where human factors researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute's (GTRI) Electronics Systems Laboratory come into the picture as a subcontractor for Litton. Led by Senior Research Scientist Dr. Dennis Folds, they are making sure the strengths and limitations of humans will be considered central to the redesign.
"It (the redesign) is an extremely interesting process," says RAN Lt. Commander Stuart Harwood of the Naval Aviation Systems Resident Project Team. "You don't realize what goes on behind (the scenes), getting to where you can fly."
Numerous steps and processes are involved, Harwood notes, and designers have to make the machine as smart as possible so the crew can concentrate on its proper job. "Georgia Tech is playing an extremely important role," Harwood says. "Georgia Tech is helping us to get it right."
The key to "rightly" developing this new Seasprite variant is not in helping develop or select the technology, Folds says. "It is getting the technology where people can make the best use of it."
The researchers are focusing on details — from the placement of controls to the development of computer software screens that will be the heart of the new flight systems. They work with pilots, tactical coordinators, and Kaman and Litton representatives to develop and refine every design aspect so the meshing of machine and people is as smooth and seamless as possible, Folds says.
He and his colleagues are also drawing upon previous experience. Folds has been involved with aviation-related projects since being a master's degree student. And when not working in aviation, he helped design and develop intelligent transportation systems. Work he and GTRI did with Litton on a U.S. Marine Corps cockpit upgrade helped lead to this challenging assignment, Folds says.
Modifying the cockpit of an existing aircraft is a lot different than designing a new cockpit, Folds says. With modifications, you can't always do what you would like to do; things always have to be built around or worked around, he notes. In this project, the basic cockpit dimensions cannot be changed, and state-of-the-art displays and controls must be placed in the existing cockpit shell.
The new system is indeed state-of-the-art, similar to the advanced systems on the new Boeing 777. Replacing the mechanical gauges and other devices used for decades are four computer display screens and advanced electronics. Using these screens, and the powerful systems behind them, a two-person crew can fly the helicopter, conduct search-and-rescue operations or fight in combat.
Because of the increased workload — not to mention the intense environment of flight — the screens must be intuitive, Folds says. Operations or emergencies are not the time to be concentrating on how to use the system, but on using it.
Ensuring that it is usable, that machines do what machines do best and people do what people do best, is what the GTRI human factors team does best. Combine this expertise with that of Kaman, Litton and the Royal Australian Navy, and this Seasprite will indeed, "Get it right."
Editor's Note: The original news release, complete with related links and images, can be found at http://www.gtri.gatech.edu/res-news/SEASPRIT.html
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