All across the military, there is a rapid push to modernize. From new weapons systems to fast-paced tactical vehicles and even augmented reality goggles, the U.S. Armed Forces are being catapulted headlong into the technologically-advanced battlefield of the 21st century. But for every piece of new technology, there are scores of mission-critical machines that are still largely analog. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the U.S. Army’s fleet of helicopters. 

Helicopters are at the heart of Army operations. From the load-bearing, double-rotored Chinook to the agile attack choppers such as the Cobra, Apache, and Little Bird, rotary-wing aircraft comprise a huge part of our military’s lethality and operational capabilities. But in a world of increasing focus on the virtual, Army helicopters represent an aging aspect of our war-fighting machine. 

Army Helicopters in Vietnam
UH-1D “Huey” Helicopters on a battlefield in Vietnam. (U.S. Army)

There have been huge advancements in rotary-wing technology since the infamous Bell UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey, first flew into combat in the Vietnam war. But while modern helicopters might make the Huey look like a flying tin can, they are still confined by the same basic limitations.

High on the list of limitations is gravity. Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters can’t glide if their engines fail or become disabled. Main engine and tail rotors are still extremely susceptible to enemy fire. Engines, which require clean air intake for proper combustion, can still be choked by dust and sand. And, like all largely analog machines, helicopters require frequent maintenance.

But while Army technicians have yet to overcome the limitations caused by the physical forces of our planet, they are working to revolutionize how choppers are maintained. Earlier this month, JAIC, the DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, announced a new program that enlists the help of AI to streamline helicopter maintenance. 

The program centers around a machine learning tool called the Work Unit Code (WUC) Corrector which is designed to improve the overall quality of H-60 helicopter maintenance records for improved fleet health reporting. The WUC Corrector utilizes natural language processing to read maintenance records filled out by the maintenance teams. It then revises unit codes and maintenance time entries (which are alphanumeric codes associated with specific aircraft component types and resources required to perform a given maintenance task) to streamline on-the-ground maintenance. 

To implement the new software, JAIC worked closely with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the aviation support wing of the U.S. Special Operations Command, also known as the Night Stalkers.

Army Little Bird Helicopters attached to 160th SOAR
U.S. Army Rangers from 75th Ranger Regiment and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) conduct training operations in support of the Army Marketing Research Group’s “Warriors Wanted” campaign at Fort Campbell, KY, on July 19, 2018. (Image Used in the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion Campaign.)

“We leveraged the rapid and agile development processes incorporated directly inside the 160th SOAR to deliver and scale this capability,” said U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Kliethermes, head of the JAIC’s Joint Logistics mission initiative. “Our work with the 160th SOAR is a great example of fielding AI/ML capabilities by integrating the development, testing, and validation of these tools within an active operational environment. This approach is how the JAIC is enabling the warfighter by working directly with them to provide scalable and operationally relevant AI-enabled capabilities.”

While this new AI integration is proving its worth on the reporting and diagnostic side of helicopter maintenance, it is still limited. It cannot, for instance, change the wear and tear that military helicopters face operationally. A big factor in the longevity of helicopter parts is vibration. Vibration, it turns out, is intrinsic to helicopters. The main rotor engines are the origin of the destructive force which rattles its way through the entirety of the aircraft, adding stress to critical parts.

It’s the hope of JAIC that the WUC Corrector will aid in the identification of these worn parts, but elsewhere, military scientists and engineers are working to limit vibration, or negate its effects altogether. 

The U.S. Army’s rotary-wing fleet is old. The Blackhawk was first approved for military service in the 1970s. The Chinook — the Army’s heavy-duty troop and equipment carrier — had its first flight in 1961. Even the MH-6M Little Bird, which is the base model on which all the SOAR attack birds are derived, is four decades old. 

This is not to say that the Army’s air capabilities haven’t been modernized or specialized. Much of the helicopters in service sport newer systems and have better computers, higher fuel capacity (for longer range), and are equipped with state-of-the-art features. But at the end of the day, they are still susceptible to mechanical issues. In the war in Afghanistan alone, the U.S. military has lost 114 rotary-wing aircraft with only 31 attributed to enemy fire. That means that nearly 75 percent of helicopter crashes in Afghanistan were related to weather, accidents, or mechanical failure. The numbers are similar for the war in Iraq: From the start of the invasion to 2009, the military reported losing 129 helicopters, with only one third from hostile enemy fire. 

In November, a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter carrying a multi-national peacekeeping force crashed in Egypt’s Sinai killing seven service members, including five Americans. The cause of the crash is unknown, but the Pentagon has confirmed that it was not the result of an attack. 

The military seems to be aware of the need for better rotary-wing assets. New prototypes and concept aircraft have been rumored for years. Occasionally, a new bird or a widely-updated aircraft will surface. But day to day, the brunt of military operations is borne by technology that is roughly 60 years old. But without readily-available alternatives, all the Army can do is work to better maintain its fleet and keep its fingers crossed that nothing breaks.