The future of Army aviation research

Dr. Bill Lewis is the director of the Aviation Development Directorate for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research and Development Center at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (U.S. Army photo by Russ Wetzel)

“As we progress to a more expeditionary force, an essential component will be more capable air assets. I can’t envision an expeditionary force that doesn’t include aircraft capable of self deployment and extended range operations,” — Dr. Bill Lewis

Army Technology Magazine interviewed one of the U.S. Army’s leading aviation researchers, Dr. Bill Lewis, asking about the future of Army Aviation.

Q&A with a leading Army aviation engineer

Dr. Bill Lewis is the director of the Aviation Development Directorate for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research and Development Center at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

He manages and directs the execution of the Army Aviation Science and Technology portfolio, including basic and applied research, and advanced technology development. A career Army aviator and experimental test pilot, his duties also include serving as the Office of the Secretary of Defense lead for rotorcraft technology, and as director of the National Rotorcraft Technology Center.

Army Technology: What is the focus of Aviation science and technology research?

Lewis: The primary mission of the aviation development group is to formulate the technology advances that we’re going to implement in the future, both for current fleet and future fleet. This includes upgrades of our current fleet, development of new air vehicles, both manned and unmanned, as we progress toward the future of vertical lift.

Army Technology: What are some significant programs in AMRDEC’s current portfolio?

Lewis: Our two most visible programs are the Joint Multi-role and Degraded Visual Environment Mitigation. JMR is the S&T precursor to the Future Vertical Lift program; a family of rotorcraft vehicles.

In the DVE-M program we are developing a new warfighting capability by exploiting adverse environments. Remember, however, that 50 percent of our portfolio supports the current fleet.

Artist’s conception of Army Future Vertical Lift. (U.S. Army illustration)

Management of the portfolio is through focus areas including basic research, aircraft design, platforms, propulsion/drives, mission systems and sustainability. We must maintain the technical advantage for today’s fight while the future fleet is being developed.

Flying in Degraded Visual Environments, or DVE, presents unique challenges to U.S. Army pilots. Researchers continue to work on solutions.

Army Technology: How significant will aviation assets be on the future battlefield?

Lewis: Since the advent of air mobility concepts of the early 1960s, aviation has been increasingly important to land warfare. In our recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, aviation assets were huge enablers on the battlefield.

As we progress to a more expeditionary force, an essential component will be more capable air assets. I can’t envision an expeditionary force that doesn’t include aircraft capable of self deployment and extended range operations.

Army Technology: What makes this mission difficult?

Lewis: Several things. Obviously the technical advancements in the aerospace community are a constant challenge. This is compounded by the niche sector in rotorcraft being broadly underfunded. We have the right workforce to lead the sector into the future for the aerospace components. However, aviation is not all about aerospace. As we become more dependent on digital capabilities in our aircraft, the complexity of the integrated product increases from a development and qualification perspective. We rely on significant collaboration from other elements of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command to support these collective tasks.

Finally, S&T is a futures game. It is difficult to find resident aviation futurists. Many are encumbered by their present equipment and operational concepts.

It is difficult to divorce yourself from the present and consider new ways of conducting the future battle.

Army Technology: You mentioned collaboration. Could you expand on those efforts?

Lewis: The rotorcraft community is highly collaborative. It includes DOD, NASA, DARPA, academia and industry. We have a significant international involvement including NATO, The Technical Cooperative Program and country specific program agreements. We have three centers of excellence, including Georgia Tech, University of Maryland and Penn State.

Our industry partners actively exchange information and teaming through the NRTC and the Vertical Lift Consortium.

We develop a consolidated Strategic S&T Plan that is integrated with the acquisition Long-Range Investments Requirements Analysis. Detailed collaborative efforts occur within our technical solution space. Many of these are within RDECOM. Cooperative efforts with other service research labs, NASA and DARPA are plentiful.

Industry partners, like Bell Helicopter, have developed Future Vertical Lift designs like the Bell V280. (Courtesy illustration by Bell Helicopter)

Army Technology: Can you provide a little information about your unique organization?

Lewis: The Aviation Development Directorate is a geographically dispersed, virtual organization. It is headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama with a handful of people. The major components are located at Joint Base Langley-Eustis (Aviation Applied Technology Directorate) and Moffett Field, California (Aero Flight Dynamics Directorate). AFDD is co-located with major NASA aerodynamic infrastructure, and wind tunnels. When someone asked the question, “Can we bolt an M-1 rifle onto a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog?” back in 1948, AATD was born at the Transportation Center to solve that problem.

Since that time we have been conducting aviation Prototype Integration Facility work to solve applied engineering problems. I do not see the geographical issue changing due to the above rationale.

That means we need to close the virtual gap by emphasizing reductions in operational and affinity distance. This is accomplished largely by optimizing communications, standardizing procedures and building trust.

This really gets back to the workforce and we have a great team. Our education ranges from PhD to GED; our specialties from scientific engineering to tradesman, from experimental test pilot to maintenance technician. We are able to discover a technology or application, develop a product to test, demonstrate the application and deliver the invention to the Soldier; all within this one organization.

We could not accomplish this feat or operate as a virtual organization without the right mix of specialties and personalities within ADD. Our workforce continues to successfully accomplish this complex mission due to their broad capabilities and outstanding motivation to support Soldiers.

Army Technology: Where do you see the aviation fleet in the year 2050?

Lewis: Before we begin that discussion, I want to emphasize the priority of our efforts are to the Soldiers in the fight tonight.

We must keep our current fleet relevant and capable for the foreseeable future.

When we field our first combat aviation brigade equipped with future platforms, there will still be 3,000 Apaches and Black Hawks in the fleet. The technology of the future will support our Soldiers across a wide range of missions with increased capabilities. The aircrew of the future will rely upon extensive automation and have access to improved situational awareness, allowing them to respond to an evolving and complex battlefield. Future vertical lift aircraft will fly further, faster and perform in a wider range of environmental conditions while carrying heavier payloads. Aircraft may be manned or unmanned, flight operations will be automated, and the pilot will assume more of a “mission commander” role. The aircraft will require far less maintenance and sustainment; near zero effort. Autonomous vehicles will perform various mission tasks and provide the commander greater flexibility for mission accomplishment.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Aviation issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on aviation research. The magazine is available as anelectronic download. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360–1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public. The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.

Originally published at on March 16, 2015.