Logistics: Aircraft That Feel Pain


October 18,2008:  The U.S. Army is expanding its program of installing sensor systems on the components of its helicopters. A new contract provides the Vehicle Health Management Systems (VHMS) for another thousand UH-60A/L helicopters for the five years. This will cost about $300,000 per helicopter, and is expected to pay for itself in a few years.

As weapons become more complex, more work has gone into making them less expensive to maintain. That sounds contradictory, but not when you consider how complex the automobile has become, without a similar increase in maintenance costs. The key is the use of sensors to monitor the many components. Over the last few years, this same technology has been increasingly applied to military equipment. Not just the electronic stuff, but also key structural components on tanks and aircraft. By using sensors on metal components, the army found they could skip a lot of maintenance that required the partial disassembly of helicopters. During the last two years, more sensors were placed on over 500 helicopters and aircraft. The result was, on average, each aircraft required 20 fewer hours of maintenance, and was down about 6 fewer hours because of unanticipated maintenance problems. VHMS is expected to reduce mission aborts by 29 percent and unscheduled maintenance e by 16 percent.

Aircraft components are particularly prone to unexpected failure in wartime. In wartime, aircraft, and armored vehicles, are operated in a much more stressful manner. The normal standards for when to closely check a component, are based on peacetime use, which is a lot more predictable. In peacetime, pilots and tank drivers are discouraged, or even forbidden, from undertaking some common wartime moves. As a result, the new use of component sensors is expected to save lives in wartime, by warning when a component is close to failure, if the aircraft undergoes some violent maneuvers.

The sensors make the weapons more expensive, but their previous use in commercial equipment (including more recently built automobiles), where they ultimately save money by cutting maintenance needs, or warning of possible failure, has convinced the military that giving their weapons this form of self-awareness is actually the less expensive way to go.


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