Researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute are working with aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft to demonstrate Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force requirements on the AT-6, a light attack version of the T-6 trainer.
Researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are helping
convert an aircraft used to train pilots into one with intelligence,
surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and light attack capabilities. The new
aircraft would provide a less expensive alternative to legacy warbirds like the
A-10 and F-16 and could be used by foreign military allies as well as U.S. homeland
In recent years, changes in warfare have caused countries to rethink their
mix of aircraft. Instead of an emphasis on jet-powered fighters, governments
are turning to smaller turboprop planes to perform aerial reconnaissance and
counterinsurgency missions—airborne snipers of sorts that can target specific
enemy threats with little collateral damage.
Smaller, slower moving, more agile aircraft can provide greater situational
awareness over an extended period of time. And they offer significant cost
savings by being more fuel efficient and easier to maintain, explained Byron
Coker, a GTRI principal researcher who is leading a demonstration program for
the U.S. Air National Guard (ANG).
The program, which began in late 2009, is focused on developing an ISR and
light attack platform tailored for ANG needs, executing a demonstration of this
platform to include airframe and integrated system capabilities. The contract
was awarded to GTRI through SENSIAC, the information analysis center at Georgia
Tech that specializes in sensing technologies related to defense activities.
GTRI has subcontracted with Hawker Beechcraft to demonstrate ANG and Air Force
requirements on its AT-6C, a light attack version of the T-6 turboprop plane
used by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy to train pilots.
Taking an existing aircraft and adapting it for a completely different role
demanded considerable systems-engineering muscle. Unlike the turboprops used
for close air support and counterinsurgency missions during the Vietnam era,
today’s light attack planes must be net-centric. GTRI’s first task was to create
an ISR platform, which included:
- Radios that enable
communication with other military aircraft.
- A satellite radio so the
plane can connect with networks while airborne.
- An electro-optical/infrared
(EO/IR) sensor that allows the aircraft to track individuals and items on
- A downlink that allows
imaging from the EO/IR sensor to be relayed to ground operations, mission
control and other aircraft.
Installing this advanced communications equipment required a great deal of
antenna modeling and analysis. “We had to make sure new systems being added
wouldn’t electromagnetically interfere with existing equipment,” said Coker,
explaining that more RF equipment potentially increases the likelihood of
interference. “Because the plane is smaller and more compact—about half the
size of an F-16—the equipment is installed closer together.”
An integral piece of the project was to develop an aircraft self-protection
system that enables the plane to survive in operational theatre. In the ANG’s
assessment, the primary threat comes from manpads—shoulder-launched missiles
fired from the ground.
In response to this threat, GTRI engineers integrated a warning system that
detects manpads, along with a dispenser system that fires flares to decoy the
missiles. An electronic warfare management system ties the warning and
dispenser systems together—and provides the pilot with easy control and
“The flares are dispensed automatically by the integrated system, which is
critical because everything happens so fast,” Coker explained. “If the pilot
sees missiles coming toward him, it’s too late. There’s no way he could respond
Extensive modeling and analysis was important to designing the
“Self-protection equipment has to be tailored for every aircraft,” explained
Dale Alter, program manager at Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft. “You can take
the same boxes and sensors from plane to plane, but where you put sensors on
the plane and what they see determines how well the aircraft is protected.”
Using GTRI-developed software tools, researchers determined the best spatial
placement and orientation for the sensors, and then validated the results
In October 2010, the researchers held a field test at the Barry M. Goldwater Range,
the government’s 1.9 million-acre training and development complex in southwest
feedback was excellent,” said Alter. “In fact, the ANG reps said we did
something that had never happened as far as they could recall: Everything
worked perfectly the first time.”
That meant the tweaking and re-testing that is common in most operational
assessments wasn’t necessary. Alter attributes this home run to GTRI’s rigorous
modeling, analysis, and bench testing prior to the operational assessment.
GTRI is now tackling the second phase of the AT-6 project, which will
investigate the armament of the aircraft according to ANG specifications. The
wish list of weapons includes gravity and laser-guided bombs, Hellfire
missiles, laser-guided rockets, small-diameter bombs and 50-caliber machine gun
The weapons integrations work is challenging from several perspectives,
observed Courtland Bivens, a principal research engineer in GTRI who has worked
extensively on the project, including initial risk-management and systems
safety analysis. “A light turboprop plane can’t carry all of these weapons at
once,” he pointed out. “So we have to determine the optimal mix of weapons,
their effectiveness—and then test the various combinations.”
That’s challenging as some of the weapons, such as Hellfire missiles, are
primarily used on helicopters. “Just because they work on a helicopter doesn’t
mean they’ll work on a fixed-wing aircraft,” Bivens said. In addition,
laser-guided rockets are a new weapon system that hasn’t been integrated on any
fixed-wing aircraft yet, he pointed out.
GTRI engineers are also investigating human systems integration to ensure
that the workload and division of labor on the new aircraft is reasonable.
A traditional ISR aircraft has a four-person team: two pilots in front and
two operators in the back, Bivens explained: “Here, you’re trying to do the
same mission with two crew members. It’s important to work through integration
issues of the various systems and make sure the pilot still has situational
awareness to accomplish the mission.”
Work on the second phase of the project led up to an operational assessment
to test weapons capabilities. That milestone was met as scheduled in early
The AT-6 project is significant because it gives GTRI an opportunity to work
on a new aircraft platform. The institute has done many projects with legacy
warbirds such as the F-16 and A-10. For example, after the first Desert Storm,
ANG selected GTRI to integrate missile-warning, self-protection equipment on
its A-10—and the success of that project was one of the reasons GTRI was
selected to manage the AT-6 program.
“The project is really a great example of GTRI’s multidisciplinary
abilities,” Coker said. “Because GTRI has so many different areas of expertise
to pull from, we can offer capabilities that other institutions can’t and not
only provide customers with great solutions but also the ease of one-stop
Source: Georgia Institute of Technology