Major British aerospace, defence and industrial technology companies BAE Systems (BAES), Leonardo UK (part of Italy-based global aerospace and defence group Leonardo SpA), MBDA UK (part of the pan-European MBDA missile group) and Rolls-Royce have reported on some of the advanced technologies they are working on as part of the UK-led Tempest programme. (Italy and Sweden are cooperating with the UK on at least the technology development aspects of the programme.)
Tempest is a high-technology research and development programme aimed at producing a sixth-generation combat jet, intended to enter service in about 15 years. The new technologies under development are intended to provide that aircraft and its pilots with decisive combat advantages over any foe.
BAES engineers are busy developing technologies for what they are calling the ‘wearable cockpit’. “The concept sees the physical controls seen in current aircraft cockpits replaced with Augmented and Virtual Reality displays projected directly inside the visor of a helmet, which can be instantly configured to suit any mission,” explained the group. “Concepts including human-autonomy teaming are also being developed, where a ‘virtual co-pilot’ could take on some of the pilot’s responsibilities. The virtual co-pilot concept is still being developed, but could for example, take the form of an ‘avatar’ built into the cockpit to interact with the pilot.”
Another area being developed by BAES is that of ‘psycho-physiological’ technologies. These include eye-tracking and serve to study a pilot’s cognitive and physical processes in order to improve the understanding of increased pilot workload, exertion, stress and fatigue. Company test pilots are now testing these technologies under controlled test conditions in a Typhoon fighter. The results will serve to increase understanding of pilot brain activity, cognitive behaviour and processes, psychological rhythms and eye movement.
Leonardo UK is the lead company on avionics for Tempest. Company engineers are working on new radar technology that will be able to provide more than 10 000 times more data than current radars. This new technology is designated the ‘Multi-Function Radio Frequency System’ and will be much more than just a radar system. Using all-digital technology, it will collect and process battlespace data on an unprecedented scale – equivalent to the Internet traffic of the city the size of Edinburgh (which has a population of nearly 525 000), every second. “The huge volume of information, processed on-board, will give Tempest a battle-winning edge in combat situations, with the ability to locate and target enemies well before they are targeted themselves,” stated the company. Leonardo UK has already built and ground-tested complete subsystems of the new technology at its facility in Edinburgh. Flight trials will take place in the next few years.
MBDA UK will provide weapons for the future fighter. To ensure that weapons technology concepts and their integration into the aircraft are incorporated early in the programme, an MBDA Human Factors engineer has been embedded with the BAES wearable cockpit team. This will ensure the optimisation of weapons system information and operation for the pilot.
Rolls-Royce is naturally responsible for the new-generation power plant for the future fighter. Its engineers are developing advanced technology for the engine’s combustion system. “The combustion system is where fuel is introduced and burned to release energy into the gas stream,” elucidated the group. “A next generation system will need to be hotter than any previous platform, increasing the efficiency of the engine and meaning it can go further, faster, or produce less carbon dioxide.” To this end, the company has been working on advanced composite materials and additive manufacturing (also called 3D printing). Together, these would result in components that were lighter yet more power-dense and able to function at the desired higher temperatures.