The 586th Flight Test Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., a unit of Arnold Engineering Development Complex, is helping forge new flight test opportunities with a test conducted in September.
“They coordinated a never-before-done test using relationships that never existed before — the 49th Wing and AFTC (Air Force Test Center) flying together on a test,” said Tom Hill, technical director for the 586th Flight Test Squadron. “Also, they are paving the way for future 49th Wing experiments by using AFFTRAC (Automated Find, Fix and Track) as an example to showcase how they could do these things for their own purposes.”
AFFTRAC will bring together the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, the Air Force Institute of Technology, the 49th WG, the 586th FLTS and the 54th Fighter Group.
The flight test is an example of DevOps, or development and operations, which helps bridge developmental test and operational test. DevOps can address tensions between “technology push” and “requirements pull.”
“When a technology like AFFTRAC moves from the whiteboard to computer simulations to flight test, it’s very exciting because the concept holds great promise,” said Maj. Mike Byrnes, assistant deputy of operations for Test/Training Range Integration, 54th Operations Support Squadron. “But, because it’s new, nobody on the operations side knows to ask for it.”
Byrnes credited Hill with inspiring the pursuit of DevOps experimentation.
This DevOps experiment will place the AFFTRAC flight test within a simulated air war, creating a material test inside a Tactics, Development and Evaluation event. The aircraft carrying AFFTRAC will represent a future weapon system to the fighter pilots playing the adversary in the exercise. The friendly forces in exercise will attempt to keep the test aircraft from being engaged.
“We were less interested in whether or not the test aircraft, standing in for a future expendable system, survived the simulated air battle and more interested in how many times it was destroyed and how the presence of the new asset changed friendly force and enemy behaviors in battle,” Byrnes said. “We’re linking the ways the technology designers envision their product being used with realistic simulations of what those applications would look like in practice. It gives the developers better feedback on what worked, and what didn’t, when their nascent technologies were put to use. Simultaneously, it lets experienced combatants participate in the development of tomorrow’s capabilities.”
AFFTRAC is an effort to determine the effectiveness of a computer algorithm to enable a camera to find a potential target, fix or determine that it is an actual target, and then track that target. The flight testing is focused on the ability of the algorithm to use aircraft-based-camera imagery and aircraft location to provide directional commands to a human pilot in order to maintain visual contact with a target.
Capt. Aubrey Olson, a remotely piloted aircraft pilot is the lead developer for AFFTRAC. Olson developed the idea and the code for the software. He then pitched it to the Test Pilot School. Olson is a student in the joint AFIT/Test Pilot School program and will earn two master degrees upon completion of the program. He is also the project manager and a Test RPA pilot for AFFTRAC, a Test Management Program (TMP) for Olson and other Test Pilot School students. A TMP is the Test Pilot School equivalent of a thesis for its students.
Olson explained that the defining characteristic of an RPA is that the pilot is physically separated from the aircraft. This control methodology creates an opportunity to graft on additional capability purely through software.
“AFFTRAC is attempting to give an RPA added capability by allowing some level of tactical execution without direct input from the pilot,” Olson said. “This might happen when the aircraft is sent into a signal-contested environment, or the pilot might choose to engage a system like AFFTRAC so that they can focus more on collecting and disseminating information.”
This represents another first accomplished by this test flight – the first operational RPA used in a Test Pilot School TMP.
The 586th FLTS and the 49th WG are both supplying aircraft for the Test Management Project AFFTRAC, C-12J Huron test aircraft and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, respectively.
The 586th FLTS regularly supports TMPs. The 49th WG was approached as a cost-effective alternative to using a dedicated test MQ-9. The wing flies multiple MQ-9 flights daily and was able to build an agreement with the Test Pilot School for the TMP.
As an RPA pilot, Olson developed the AFFTRAC idea to address an RPA problem, but recognized the value for manned aircraft as well. That is where the C-12J and the 586th FLTS became involved.
“I realized during development that it was something you could turn on as a workload-saving device for pretty much any aircraft that has a high-resolution imagery sensor,” Olson said. “The C-12J also offers the benefit of a pilot physically being in the aircraft. This is good for development because we can use things like alternative GPS receivers that are outside the aircraft systems.”
In addition to C-12J aircraft, the 586th FLTS provided logistical support and flying experience to the TMP team.
“The equipment necessary for AFFTRAC alone posed a few challenges,” said 2nd Lt. Andrew Servis, a flight test engineer with the 586th FLTS.
These challenges included a malfunction on a key piece of equipment requiring a three-month repair by the manufacturer, obtaining and installing a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod to allow the C-12J to act as a manned version of a MQ-9, and the C-12J aircraft scheduled to return from the maintenance depot just a week prior to the scheduled test.
“Of course, if getting all the pieces together wasn’t challenging enough, we were executing AFFTRAC while ensuring COVID-19 mitigation,” Servis said.
The 586th FLTS also overcame an airspace logistics challenge with a solution offering a long-term benefit. The AFFTRAC mission called for the use of both White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) and Fort Bliss airspace. The Fort Bliss airspace is an Army training range, and training usage of airspace is routine while testing usage is not. According to 2nd Lt. Chase Bilyou, the 586th FLTS has previously conducted test flights in Fort Bliss airspace, but a formal scheduling process had not been established.
“Working through 586th Flight Test Squadron, Detachment 1 at WSMR, the Range Scheduling Office at WSMR and the Fort Bliss Scheduling Office, we were able to create a procedure that was successful for scheduling AFFTRAC’s airspace as well as potential future testing across the two Army ranges,” Bilyou said.
The AFFTRAC TMP has helped forge connections of units across Holloman AFB to the benefit of the U.S. Air Force and national defense.
“These kinds of partnership provide mutual support between organizations pursuing different pieces of the same overall puzzle in national defense,” Byrnes said. “Both in terms of human capital development and material test, Holloman is deeply engaged in building America’s combat airpower. The more effectively test and training missions can support one another and the more efficiently they can use scarce resources to mutual benefit, the better.”