US Navy Seahawk Helicopters to 3D Print Parts for New Comms Gear


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As part of a communications upgrade package that will be installed on more than 200 Navy aircraft, a team of structural and avionics engineers has turned to 3D printing technology to design and produce prototypes for two omnidirectional antenna mounts. Using additive instead of more traditional manufacturing methods provided the quickest and most cost-effective path to mass production, allowing the team to meet the tight deadlines delivered by the program office.

Since entering service in February 2002, the more than 200 MH-60S Seahawk Block 3 aircraft served as multi-mission combat support maritime helicopters, used by the U.S. Navy to carry out missions such as combat search and rescue, special warfare support, and airborne defensive electronic countermeasures. Since the fleet’s inventory is slated to receive new Full Motion Video (FMV) systems, which will expand the aircraft’s operational capabilities, the engineers with the H-60 Fleet Support Team (FST) at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)’s In-Service Support Center at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) developed an innovative solution to support and secure the modification of the aircraft.

H-60 FST engineers designed and produced prototypes for two 3D printed omnidirectional antenna mounts for the Navy’s MH-60S Seahawk helicopter upgrade shown here. Image courtesy of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)

As part of the full modification package, the team worked in conjunction with the Additive Manufacturing team at NAVAIR headquarters in Patuxent River, Maryland, to design and produce the prototypes that are currently in the early stages of evaluation. Validation and verification are standard aspects of any modification and must be completed before an airframe change can be released.

“The modification consists of three antennas, an equipment rack, and a series of electronics mounted to the rack. The 3D-printed omnidirectional antenna mounts are getting a lot of attention because it’s a relatively new technology,” said Tommy Stokes, a structures engineer on the H-60 FST. “The relatively lightweight of the antennas being mounted to the 3D printed mounts allowed for that manufacturing process, as the mounts will not experience significant structural loads or stress.”

H-60 FST structures engineer Tommy Stokes, with the 3D printed omnidirectional antenna mount secured to the MH-60S Seahawk helicopter. Image courtesy of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)

While the third antenna mount and equipment rack will be manufactured through more traditional methods, the two remaining antennas provided the development team with an opportunity to think outside the box and explore additive manufacturing (AM) options, reported NAVAIR. Although the engineers explored alternative options, including a traditional composite layup, the lead time and cost to develop a mold and mass-produce the antenna mounts was considered too time-consuming and costly when compared to 3D printing.

As part of the innovative team behind the 3D printed antenna mounts, Chad King, an avionics engineer with the H-60 FST, said they began considering AM as an option after a site visit from the FMV developer, a defense contractor. At the time, the company conducted a survey of a nonoperational MH-60 the team has parked in their facility and provided them with potential locations for the mounts and other components. The results of the survey led the team to seriously consider the use of AM technology.

Structures engineers Stokes and Robert Poe designed the integration plan, creating the drawing, and contracting the manufacturing of the antenna mounts and equipment rack, while avionics engineers Lauren Swan and Chad King worked to maintain the project’s technical directive and installation data packages.

Structures engineers Robert Poe and Tommy Stokes, and avionics engineers Lauren Swan and Chad King stand in front of the grounded MH-60S helicopter. Image courtesy of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)

After developing the basic design for the mounts and completing the modeling and design, the team then passed that information along to the Additive Manufacturing researchers at NAVAIR who developed the technical data package. This package delineates the requirements and direction needed to 3D print the mounts. Stokes said the team is currently conducting a preliminary fit check of all aspects of the FMV modification, structures, and avionics, to ensure proper fit and procedures are in place.

“We’re ensuring everything fits, that cables are the appropriate lengths, and that our process is relatively good in terms of instructions,” revealed Stokes. “We’ll be using FRCE facilities to have those painted and finished. Then they will be returning to Patuxent River, which is where we’ll be doing flight testing for this modification. Once we get to Patuxent River, we’ll be installing all the components on an aircraft for testing.”

H-60 FST engineers designed and produced prototypes for two 3D printed omnidirectional antenna mounts for the Navy’s MH-60S Seahawk helicopter upgrade shown here. Image courtesy of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)

Specifically, NAVAIR explained that the team will complete the fit check and will incorporate any necessary changes into the technical directive, installation data package, and design drawings. The NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing team will then create three more copies of each 3D printed mount, using the technical data provided by the H-60 FST team, and send those parts to FRCE for finishing. Once those steps are complete, the mounts will move into the next phase of testing, which is the validation on a fleet aircraft at the test squadron at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

“As avionics, we’ll be responsible for testing the functionality of the system once it’s been installed on a fleet aircraft. We’ll also be responsible for generating all of the organizational-level maintenance procedures and periodic maintenance requirements for the system,” explained King.

The U.S. military has been using 3D printing manufacturing to enhance a wide range of different applications, from creating components to maintain fleets, to supporting troops in the field. Earlier in 2020, the U.S. Army turned to “digital-twin” technology from Wichita State University to resolve challenges and boost efficiencies for its enduring fleet of Black Hawk helicopters, using 3D printing to reproduce parts that are no longer readily available. The Army also recently published guidance aims for using AM to strike a balance between safety, improvements to readiness, and escalating costs.

Last year, the director of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Philip Perconti said that the Army wants to be at the forefront of this advancement in technology. The expert described AM at a pivotal stage in development, and that the Army is basing strategic investments in agile manufacturing and material processing programs to leverage breakthroughs for rapid prototyping and development. To resolve challenges and boost aging fleets of aircraft, ships, and vehicles, the Army is continually adopting advanced technology, like 3D printing, that can upgrade equipment and reduce purchases of new ones.

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