Inside Bell’s Secret XworX

 - April 3, 2012, 12:38 AM

Bell’s XworX has developed into a project-oriented, rapid prototyping shop charged with fashioning targeted solutions to specific aircraft initiatives.

Housed in a hangar at Arlington Airport, Texas, since 2004, XworX initially had the reputation in the industry as being concerned with esoteric and abstract future technologies, sort of a “department of mad scientists.”

The reality is different. XworX is now the focal point for activity supporting innovative but targeted programs, including the unmanned Fire-X, OH-58D upgrade, the 407GX/equipped with the Garmin G1000H glass-panel avionics suite, the 407AH armed helicopter, V-22 tiltrotor upgrades and now Bell’s new 525 super-medium commercial helicopter, just announced at this year’s Heli-Expo.

“Focused execution is what we have been beating as a drum,” says Cathy Ferrie, an aerospace engineering PhD who is chief of advanced sciences and materials for Bell and director of XworX. “We focus on the key item. There is still that mad scientist piece. We still have our mad scientists and there is always that ‘what if,’ but the bulk of [XworX work] is on the heavy, quick fix that makes a difference to our customer and adding that value proposition piece, that business sense, to the engineering. We ask ‘who would pay for this?’ and ‘why would they pay for this?’ That focus has really helped us execute,” she said.

Technology Proving Grounds

XworX spends considerable time evaluating rotor blade, health usage and monitoring, and vibration control technologies, said Ferrie. “There are a bunch of different things in the technology pipeline and here we have the opportunity to prove them out at the right level. We do the risk reduction for the technology and then they implement it on the aircraft. If it is a manufacturing capability, we need to make sure we can build it the same way in production to work out those kinks. But if it is something we can just do quick and dirty to make sure the [test] aircraft can fly, then it doesn’t have to be done the exact way. We make those decisions quickly,” she said.

“Manufacturing, assembly and engineering work together to hash out solutions,” Ferrie said.

One of the big challenges for XworX is combining functional and program management elements, Ferrie said. Her program managers lead the test bed aircraft and oversee schedules, costs and forecasting. The programs are supported by engineers, flight test engineers, assemblers and machinists.

At any given time, approximately 600 people are working on XworX-related projects, says Ferrie. Many of the people in XworX are seconded from other departments from within Bell and come and go depending on the project. Approximately 70 percent are engineers. “It’s a rotational process,” said Ferrie. “We have a small core team that knows how we do things quickly. You can’t keep turning over the core team.” That consists of approximately 24 design and experimental engineers. XworX also recruits directly from outside Bell.

“We bring in people all the time,” she said.

XworX efforts are typically divided equally between aerostructures and computers/electronics. “We try and make sure we have a good blend of focus in each of those areas at any given time,” Ferrie said.

On the shop floor, XworX fabricators and machinists use the same Catia 3-D computer models as XworX engineers, said Greg Ready, manager of experimental manufacturing and operations. Machinists write their own computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining programs. Engineers can also load models directly into the CNC machining centers.

Systems Testing

After aircraft are built up and leave the shop floor part of the hangar, they move down to the flight-test section, where they are instrumented for test and maintained. A crew of experimental mechanics and electricians works from engineering drawings. Test pilots, engineers, the instrumentation team and software writers also work here. Before these aircraft take flight, they are hung from a giant blue gantry for shake tests and calibration. The entire airframe is shake tested before flight test to check aircraft modes and frequencies. Specific strains can be loaded onto the aircraft and they can be shaken in all different directions. The data is sent to a control room for analysis and validation.

Bell uses a variety of aircraft for testing. It has leased back the Marine Corp’s highest-time MV-22 tiltrotor to test planned upgrades. Before that happens, a good portion of the aircraft is being torn down as part of a four-year inspection, but also to analyze it for wear patterns. Other aircraft currently housed in this part of the hangar include a 214ST, 427, 430, 407AH, the AW609 and two search-and-rescue helicopters that are on standby during any flight testing. Bell maintains its own control tower on the field and radar tracks all test flights.

The test aircraft are used to test rotor systems, avionics and electronics. They represent the full size range of Bell’s product line. “All technologies that need certification come through here,” said a Bell spokesman. The flight-test aircraft are mostly “dry” aircraft. Because of the myriad sensors on moving parts, they do not fly in rain or heavy dew until ice and water testing at the end of a program.

During test flights aircraft are monitored from one of three telemetry rooms housed at XworX. Two aircraft antennas mounted onto test aircraft transmit data via an airborne data acquisition system on two different frequencies. The data is converted to a pulse-code modulated (PCM) signal before transmission from the aircraft. Twin aircraft antennas facilitate a good transmit signal regardless of aircraft orientation. Once that data is received on the ground, it enters the computer-aided flight-test analysis system and is converted to an interactive analysis display system that is compatible with the computer systems of Bell’s development partners. All flight-test data since 1988 (62 terabytes of it) is online and can be accessed immediately.

The computerized system reports any safety issues to the flight-test engineer in real time. He then communicates them to the aircraft and the crew takes appropriate action. The system is extremely complex. For example, it analyzes more than 1,000 actual parameters, and 500 more derived ones for the V-22 and 609. The system typically has a range of 60 nm, but the V-22 has been tracked all the way from Arlington to Houston at altitude. Bell has a block of restricted airspace South of Arlington that it uses for most of its test flights.

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C. Farrell's picture

Perhaps the Xworx types could solve the problem of Bell's seeming inability to supply parts to us lowly wrench-benders out in the real world ..... ?

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