Future Vertical Lift Takes Rotorcraft Sustainment to New Heights


As the battlespace evolves, new technology — underlined by decades of experience — has allowed Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin to launch a platform designed for tomorrow’s operational landscape. 


The battlefield is undergoing an evolution. Spurred by emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, nanotechnology and robotics, the warfighter is encountering today a dramatically shifting landscape. In order to maneuver effectively in this new environment, the U.S. Army is turning to a vision of future warfare known as multi-domain operations, MDO, which seeks to meet adversaries across numerous domains in a simultaneous, coordinated action. As the U.S. Army works to realize MDO, the change marks not just a shift in warfare itself, but in the operational landscape of rotorcraft and rotorcraft sustainment. Both the Sikorsky RAIDER X™ for FARA and the Sikorsky/Boeing DEFIANT™ for FLRAA integrate revolutionary advances in sustainment building on two decades of investment in analytics and artificial intelligence by both Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin to develop predictive maintenance algorithms, on board maintenance diagnostics and prognostics that create a paradigm shift for global readiness and will enable Maintenance Free Operating Periods (MFOP),  increasing operational availability.

“The operational requirements for military use of helicopters are changing and sustainment needs to change along with it,” says Tony Guarino, business development lead for Lockheed Martin.

“With the shift to a multi-domain operating environment, we’re going away from the single large brigade sustainment model and now changing that paradigm and distributing platoons across different theaters of action,” says John Steiner, senior program manager at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company

To meet this paradigm shift, Lockheed Martin is ushering in a more predictable and manageable rotorcraft sustainment landscape. Future Vertical Lift (FVL) promises to increase efficiency, reduce life cycle costs and accelerate the development-to-battlefield timeline.

Decreasing Maintenance, Increasing Availability

From infrastructure to analytics, Lockheed Martin’s RAIDER X™ and DEFIANT™ are designed to reduce maintenance and improve operating time on several fronts. First and foremost is the digital thread and 3D virtual environment, allowing maintenance teams to look “inside” aircraft with digital tools and models so that teams can provide maintenance on an as-needed basis instead of an inflexible time-based schedule.

“The enduring fleet has limited Health & Usage Monitoring System, HUMS, and the aircraft are sustained with a transactional model of support,” says Steiner. “FVL aircraft will provide much more actionable maintenance data, providing commanders with information to accurately assess the health state of the weapon systems as well as the ability to self-diagnose maintenance and predict aircraft availability. That increases the operational readiness and availability and reduces life cycle costs associated with that platform.”

This condition-based maintenance approach taps an advanced health usage monitoring system that reduces the Soldier’s burden and enables maintenance teams to more easily understand the exact condition of a helicopter, ultimately providing the information that teams need to service rotorcraft more efficiently. 

The Lockheed Martin approach builds on a foundation of sustainment success in both the military and commercial fleets. Simon Gharibian, director, Global Sustainment Centers of Excellence, Lockheed Martin Rotary and Missions Systems says, “We deployed our first health and usage monitoring system in 2004 on the S-92 helicopter. We’ve been collecting flight data ever since, meaning we have collected nearly two million flight hours. This has provided us with a decade to continuously mature the technology and algorithms while introducing new artificial intelligence techniques and proving their relevance in driving improved operational availability. This process has driven state-of-the-art forecasting analytics, resulting in a near 90% fully mission capable availability rate, technology that we will use in concert with the U.S. Government to make revolutionary changes in FVL sustainment,” says Gharibian. Lockheed Martin has done similar work on predictive maintenance for the F-35 and the FVL team will leverage the approximate 100 platform-agnostic algorithms that have been developed and deployed under that program.

The Sikorsky Customer Care Center

The Sikorsky Customer Care Center, shown here, is designed to improve aircraft availability and customer satisfaction using the latest intelligence and analytics capabilities.

“FVL aircraft will provide much more actionable maintenance data, providing commanders with information to accurately assess the health state of the weapon systems as well as the ability to self-diagnose maintenance and predict aircraft availability.” ~ John Steiner, senior program manager at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company

For FVL, Sikorsky will use these algorithms and the data from the sensors on the aircraft to enhance the digital model created during aircraft design and production to create a digital twin of the aircraft that is continuously updated to reflect the aircraft’s true condition once in use. This means that crews can more accurately track what the rotorcraft actually goes through during its missions — the loads it carries and vibrations it experiences — extending the life of components on the aircraft if they experience less than the “typical” wear and tear. It enables predictive maintenance, allowing maintenance teams to track when a component might be ready for overhaul at a future date, allowing crews to conduct maintenance on their terms and driven by mission requirements.

“We’re taking all of that maintenance history and we’re out building analytics behind it to correlate those events with external factors, like operational conditions, environment, location, number of flight hours, etc. And then you can start to draw corollaries,” explains Gharibian. 

This creates a full maintenance picture, turning unscheduled maintenance into “scheduled events,” according to Gharibian. And it’s working: RAIDER and DEFIANT are currently seeing more than 75% forecasted accuracy, while the S-92 has nearly 90% operational availability.

“This approach to sustainment drives down overall life cycle cost, because you’re maximizing the use of your components for every individual aircraft. Ultimately, you’re reserving parts and maintenance for the aircraft that truly need it,” says Gharibian.

Advanced Sustainment Concepts to Meet Tomorrow’s Mission Needs

This approach positions FVL to not just reduce maintenance, but to meet the Army’s ask for Maintenance-Free Operating Periods in which helicopters could operate without the need for service for an extended period of time — up to three months. Moreover, with Sikorsky’s Fleet Decision Tool, fleet commanders can aggregate data from individual aircraft based on operational requirements, aircraft health assessment and maintenance flow to ensure they’re optimizing readiness and aircraft availability across the entire fleet. 

“A Battalion commander can look at his or her 30 aircraft battalion and instantly understand the health of each one of those aircraft and base the selection of the aircraft for the next mission on that information, prioritizing — or at least maximizing — the use of their fleet,” says Gharibian.

Ultimately, decades of experience from both Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, and a four-decade relationship with the U.S. Army, have allowed sustainment efforts to move into the 21st Century.

“We have 20 years of maturing prognostics and advanced sustainment technology and couple it with 40 years of lessons learned on designing, producing and deploying rugged military hardware,” says Gharibian. “All of those lessons learned are rolled into the fundamental design of the aircraft and then we’re layering on the most advanced health state awareness and prognostics that Lockheed Martin has to offer. That’s our offering for Future Vertical Lift — all our work coming together in one system.”