Browse by year:
March - 2003 - issue > Technology
Arming The Dangerous
Rahul Chandran
Thursday, February 27, 2003
EIGHT YEARS OF R&D IN AIRCRAFT technologies finally paid off when a slim, fighter jet took to the skies. But even better, spin-off technologies from the development of the world's lightest combat aircraft are poised to fund further research in defense.

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), India's first fully indigenous and the world's smallest combat aircraft. The machine graduated from a mere concept to a flying machine on January 4, 2002. When Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal, a test pilot of the Indian Air Force taxied and took off, pundits lauded the flight as “sheer poetry in motion.”

But, overshadowed by the euphoria over the first flight of the LCA, a revolution is quietly brewing. Some time in 2000, the Defense Research Development Organization, an umbrella organization that consists of 51 laboratories, decided to license spin off technologies—corollaries to the actual task of building the world's smallest combat aircraft. As a first step, the CAD software—Autolay—developed by scientists at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the nodal agency for the LCA, was earmarked for licensing.

ADA announced that its flagship software product, Autolay, would be licensed to commercial aircraft maker Airbus Industrie for $3.2 million for use in its new commercial super jumbo project: A 380.

The contract was the culmination of a long-drawn and extensive benchmarking by Airbus Industrie to select composites software for the A380 project. The contract marked a first of sorts. At a time when governments around the world were being forced to cut down on defense expenditure, India was having its own defense R&D expenditure being subsidized by the sale of spin-off technologies.

The Airbus contract was sourced through the marketing expertise of U.S.-based CAD/CAM major Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC). Says Air Marshall (retd.) Philip Rajkumar (PVSM), director of the ADA, “While our R&D expertise is second to none, we had no marketing muscle. It made sense to approach a company with proven competencies in this field.”

Interestingly, ADA subsequently handed over Autolay along with the associated Intellectual Property rights to Infosys Technologies for an unspecified royalty. Infosys is mandated with further developing the software, enhancing its features to interface with other related tools and programs, and increasing applicability in related areas.

Autolay was no flash in the pan either. After the success with Autolay, ADA now plans to put another software tool christened “Prana” on the block. ADA hopes proceeds from Prana will drive another wave of development, thus ensuring the sustainability of a huge enterprise.

The Product That Started It All
Autolay is an integrated automated software system for the design and development of 3-D laminated composite components. To make the aircraft lighter, LCA uses (as high as 45 percent) composite materials extensively in its airframe. In addition to their light weight, composite materials are also amenable to tailoring their mechanical properties, thereby providing better performance capabilities. However, the processes of the design and development of laminated composite components is radically different from those used in conventional metal structures. It required a new range of multidisciplinary knowledge and computational techniques.

Autolay was designed to address these composite design and development requirements. The software automates the creation of engineering data required to drive the end-to-end design and manufacturing simulation of laminated composite components. Depending on component design complexity and the extent of automation in the fabrication process, reduction of cycle times of up to 70% can be realized routinely by the use of this software. In realistic terms, this would result in a reduction of a minimum of 6 to 8 months in the design and development cycle time of typical aircraft projects. Apart from aerospace, the software can also be effectively used in the shipbuilding, automotive, recreational, and sports goods industries.

Patchwork Artists
The Government of India is not exactly famous for its proactive policies. With a reputation for killing good ideas with sheer bureaucratic red tape and a penchant for paperwork, nobody believed that the LCA spin-off effort would amount to anything.

When the induction of the LCA was put off for the umpteenth time, critics were saying that the LCA was just another grandiose pipe dream. According to Air Marshal Rajkumar, “Nobody knows of the half-a-million lines of code that our software engineers had to write or the 16 onboard computers that the aircraft boasts of. In short, nobody knows of the complexities of making the aircraft. The delay reinforced the belief in some that India could never make something new, that we were forever destined to be patchwork artists.”

The LCA is a fly-by-wire system replete with redundancies. “Apart from the onboard computers, there are as many standby systems.” To achieve this level of precision and backup requires time, as Rajkumar demonstrates.

Critics called the eight years it took to fruition an incredibly long molting period. But Rajkumar counters, “Over the years, we have developed software and systems that are unrivaled. While other countries used software and systems that were outdated, we had the luxury of picking the best available technologies.” This advantage, Rajkumar claims, makes the LCA better than any other aircraft in its class, like the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Swedish Grippen, and potentially the world's only third generation combat aircraft.

An account of the avionics systems in the aircraft is interesting. Around the year 1992, the LCA core team had a series of discussions with the countries’ foremost test pilots, to evaluate the systems they were incorporating into the aircraft.

This resulted in some interesting changes, especially in pilot-vehicle interfaces such as heads up display. The final version was a masterpiece of common sense, mixed with practical electronics. The pilots told the design team that the pilot-vehicle interface would sometimes overwhelm pilots with information, and that could make a fatal difference during actual combat. So the design team fashioned a display that worked in much the same way as an ordinary color television with a number of channels. The information could then be called up by the pilot as and when he required it.

The software written for the LCA—ADA—is an old software but it is much respected by the technology community. For real time applications, there are few that could compete with it.

One question that scientists at the ADA kept coming against was, what pressures could the software withstand? According to Rajkumar, “The software can withstand pressures up to 12Gs, which is what an aircraft will have to encounter when it enters into actual combat operations. In layman’s terms, it meant a system with the kind of shock resistance programmed into it that would allow it to be dropped and kicked around at will. Most people do not understand the role of the simple 32-bit microprocessor in making an aircraft into a great fighting machine.”

The avionics is configured around an Open System Mission Computer (OSMC). The mission computer runs on a quadruplex digital fly-by-wire system whereby, if one system fails, information can be routed through another. The avionics system is similar to the human nervous system, in that it is the link between the pilot and the mechanical, propulsion, flight control, and weapons systems.

The software was extensively checked for flight clearance in the hardware in the loop simulator called Iron Bird.

Despite the successful first flight, it may be more than a decade before the LCA is inducted into the Indian Air Force to replace the aging fleet of MiGs. But when it is inducted, scientists claim it will be among the foremost fighter aircraft of its time.

Meanwhile, just to allow for future technology incorporation, the Government of India has already drawn up plans for a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) to beef up the country's defenses—and in the process make a few bucks selling spin offs.

Share on LinkedIn