Air Force begins testing new pod capability
Maj. Olivia Elliott, of the 40th Flight Test Squadron, examines the LITENING II advanced targeting pod mounted on her A-10 Thunderbolt II prior to a test mission Jan. 10 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Her mission was to wrap up flight testing of the new Net-T software upgrade on the pod. The new upgrade allows the pod to provide ground forces beyond-line-of-sight command and control capabilities as long as the aircraft is within range. This is the first-ever test of this new capability. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)
by Samuel King Jr.
Team Eglin Public Affairs
1/18/2013 - EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The Air Force completed testing this month on a flying wireless router to ground troops with almost instantaneous communications. The biggest difference between the router in most homes and the new flying router... the Air Force's version is attached to a 30mm Gatling gun.
The flying router is a new software upgrade called Net-T or network tactical for the LITENING and Sniper advanced targeting pods for all legacy fighters and the B-1. This high priority developmental test began in October by the 40th Flight Test Squadron.
"This is a new capability the Air Force does not currently deploy with and it has not been tested until now," said Capt. Joseph Rojas, of the 40th FLTS and the Net-T Project Test Engineer.
The squadron tested the software's capability to allow groups of ground forces to communicate with each other via Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver-5, a small arm-mounted touchscreen device about the size of an iPad-mini. Until now, The ROVER-5 could only send and receive data from the aircraft.
The Net-T pod capability allows units with ROVER-5s to communicate directly with each other using the aircraft to route those signals. There is only one prerequisite.
"The groups on the ground need 'line of sight' to the aircraft in the air, not each other," said Rojas. "This opens up communication possibilities to support ground operations across all services."
This targeting pod enhancement can provide the commander real-time information videos, images, maps, coordinates or any file type from the forward deployed elements without relying on satellite, radio or other forms of traditional communication.
Advanced targeting pods are already busy pieces of equipment. The new ATP-SE pods provide aircrews detailed target images in television and infrared modes, laser illumination and tracking, automatic target searching and tracking, and automated target reconnaissance. One of the key test points for this effort was to ensure all of those capabilities were not affected in any way by the new Net-T upgrade.
"The pilot still needs to be able to operate the pod effectively, even though ground troops could be sending data to each other using this enhancement," said Maj. Olivia Elliott, the 40th FLTS A-10 flight commander who flew all of the required test missions for the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
According to Elliott, the pilot has minimal interaction with the Net-T portion of the targeting pod. Once the frequencies and data rates are configured, the pilot initiates the transmit-in-Net-T mode and the network is active.
"It's a single button push," said Elliott. "After that the pilot must maintain within the range of the Rover's transmitter and stay within view of the users. There's little to no interference with airborne operations of the targeting pod."
Another test priority was to discover the distance limitations of the flying hub and how far away a Rover could be and still send and receive information.
Test engineers from the 40th FLTS and the 46th Test Squadron's data link flight set up five Rover stations around the Eglin test range and sent files of various types and sizes back and forth via the flying Net-T on a variety of aircraft and pod types to include B-1B aircraft from Dyess AFB, and both F-16 and F-15E aircraft from the 40th FLTS.
The file sizes and types along with data movement rates were also examined to provide an idea of the capacity limitation on the new tactical network.
The 40th FLTS is still compiling their data from the 23 missions, but plans to send the study up to the Precision Attack Systems Program Office at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, by mid-February, according to Rojas.
After that, the software upgrade will return to Eglin to begin the operational testing process with the 53rd Wing. Without major delays or setbacks, the Air Force's 'flying router' could be sending and receiving data in operational aircraft by 2014.
"This new flying hub model may not be employed in the same way we tested, but it is setting the stage to provide beyond line-of-site command and control capability to the warfighters in the air, sea and on the ground," said Rojas.
Efforts initiated by the developmental test community at the 40th FLTS to meet the war fighter's need are part of the job and life of the mission here. The base's variety of units are known as a synergy called "Team Eglin," covering the complete weapon-system life-cycle from concept through development, acquisition, experimental testing, procurement, operational testing and final employment in combat.