The United States Army Aviation and Missile Command is collaborating with a team from Wichita State University to implement digital twin technology for the upkeep and maintenance of its Black Hawk helicopter fleet. The partnership, which also includes the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), will consist of producing a virtual model of the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter using 3D scanning technologies.
In the scanning process, the military helicopter will be completely disassembled, part by part, so that each component can be captured and stored as a digital twin. Having a virtual database of these parts will make it easier to source replacement parts for the aging fleet, using on-demand processes like additive manufacturing, for instance.
“This opens a new door to aviation maintenance and sustainment,” commented AMCOM Commander Maj. Gen. Todd Royar. “We welcome a new partnership with Wichita State University, while fortifying our existing relationships across the Army aviation enterprise.”
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk was first used by the U.S. Army in 1979, and was followed by other Black Hawk models, the Lima and Mike. The Lima has been out of production for 15 years now, and many of its parts date back to about 40 years. As one can imagine, finding spare or replacement parts for the out-of-production aircraft can present certain challenges. The U.S. Army hopes that digital twin technology can streamline the production of replacement parts so that the helicopter workhorses can remain in service.
“The intent of the UH-60L program is to demonstrate the application of this technology in fleet sustainment operations to increase threat timelines and operational readiness, reduce the cost of documentation, and increase sustainment affordability,” said John Tomblin, senior vice-president for Industry and Defense Programs and NIAR executive director. “The program will also allow the Army to maintain, and in some cases, increase, the size of the current functioning fleet.”
Wichita State University was a strategic partner in this effort because of its extensive digital twin experience. The school has conducted teardown investigations for the Department of Defense (DOD) and has undertaken a number of digital twin programs with partners in the commercial sector. Since 2018, it has also been working with the DOD on digital twin projects, including for the Air Force’s B-1 bomber.
The collaboration also includes participation from the helicopter’s original manufacturer Sikorsky, the Office of Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office and several Army organizations, including AMCOM, Army Futures Command and Program Executive Office-Aviation.
“It takes this team of teams’ approach that will benefit not just the military but also academia and industry,” Royar said. “As we embark on this effort, I recognize the hard work being done between and across organizations, and I’m excited about the great opportunities it means for all interested parties and, ultimately, for aviation readiness.”