Collins Aerospace is developing a next-generation vehicle management computer (VMC) that will provide 20 times the processing power of its existing flight control computers (FCC), enabling fly-by-wire and autonomous flight capabilities.
Unveiled during last summer’s Farnborough Airshow, the VMC is expected to reach the market by 2022 with a launch customer announcement anticipated this year.
The VMC will feature triple multi-core processors, high-speed communications, and an open architecture that will provide redundancy and allow for a number of new capabilities. It will build on technologies of Collins Aerospace’s existing flight control computers (FCC) that are in service on helicopters such as Sikorsky’s S-92 and Black Hawk, incorporating a similar “design thought” approach and failure modes, said Darryl Woods, general manager of Airframe & Engine Systems for Collins Aerospace. “We are leveraging the same…redundancy and safety requirements.”
While thousands of the existing FCCs are in service, Woods noted that in the last several years “we realized that with all the new technology out there and the demand for autonomy, our current flight control computers were becoming a little bit outdated.”
The first application is targeting flight controls, including the ability to facilitate fly-by-wire in new and existing platforms. But, he added, “The capacity of this new computer is going to be so much greater that we strongly believe that we will have much more opportunity than just flight controls. We’re really excited about it.”
Along with long-range potential for autonomy, he pointed to the ability to consolidate processing handled by numerous boxes in an aircraft into the single VMC and the ability to handle high-data software demands, such as that necessary for cybersecurity protections.
The VMC will be offered for forward-fit and retrofit applications, as well as for rotorcraft, fixed-wing aircraft, and unmanned systems. Collins Aerospace has already begun working with existing customers, seeing considerable potential for the retrofit option because of the capabilities the VMC will provide to those platforms. The key will be matching the capacity to the needs and not providing too much output, he said. For aircraft such as the S-92, the ability to transition to fly by wire would open up new operating environments for the helicopter, Woods said. “That’s a big plus.”
The other key is operators with old units may start running into obsolescence issues. Some electronics manufacturers are shutting down certain lines, he said. “The retrofit option will eliminate the obsolescence issues that we're seeing,” Woods said.
Collins Aerospace is in the design phase of the VMC right now, working on the incorporation of three separate processing cards that will make up the core. The company is working through the technical issues and validating issues with prospective users but believes the company will be ready to announce the initial customer this year.
“We are starting to get a lot of interest in areas that we didn't expect,” he said, not only for the flight control capabilities, but “as a high-powered aircraft computer that takes signals from various sensors on the aircraft, manipulates the data, and sends the data to either people on the ground or internal to the aircraft.”