Australian-designed Non-Intrusive Flight Test Instrumentation (NIFTI) system recently took out the prestigious National Defence Innovation Award at the 2019 Avalon Airshow and Expo.
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Designed to be a game-changer in the flight testing of aircraft and their equipment, NIFTI uses self-adhesive, self-powered sensors that can be applied quickly to any part of an airframe. These communicate wirelessly to a battery-powered Data Acquisition Gateway mounted elsewhere in the aircraft.
The test pilot or a flight test engineer aboard the aircraft can monitor the flight and completion of specific test points in real time using an iPad Mini. The Data Acquisition Gateway is modular and can be mounted inside a dummy AIM-120 AMRAAM or Hellfire missiles, or wherever space permits.
Warren Canning, executive chairman of NIFTI’s designer, Melbourne-based start-up Defence Innovations, said, "Our collaboration with the RAAF and DST Group has led to the development of an innovative product that we believe has worldwide potential. We’re delighted that potential has been recognised in this way."
Traditional flight testing often requires an aircraft to be removed from squadron or airline service and then fitted with internal flight test sensors connected to a data acquisition and power system by a heavy and complex wiring loom. Modifying the aircraft, testing it and calibrating the sensors can take weeks or months, with a similar time required to de-modify the aircraft afterwards.
Alternatively, air forces and manufacturers maintain test aircraft fitted permanently with flight test instrumentation and wiring, meaning they are not available for military or revenue-earning service.
The RAAF’s need for a system such as NIFTI was identified by the Air Warfare Centre and DST Group, and Defence Innovations subsequently developed the system. The RAAF is the launch customer for NIFTI and recently test-flew it on an F/A-18 Hornet.
The aircraft was fitted with NIFTI sensors and Data Acquisition Gateway in just four hours; it then completed two successful supersonic test flights. The NIFTI equipment was removed within 45 minutes to allow the aircraft to return to squadron service, undamaged and unmarked, and fly a normal training mission that same day.
"NIFTI was developed to reduce the cost and time required to prepare an aircraft for a flight test campaign. This is a real problem for both manufacturers and operators of military and civil aircraft, as well as for the schools that train our future test pilots and flight test engineers," Canning added.
The potential uses of NIFTI include flight testing of aircraft, helicopters and drones, along with manned and unmanned boats, submersibles and vehicles, ranging from main battle tanks to racing cars, he adds. NIFTI includes a variety of sensor types along with connectors where a test sensor such a strain gauge has already been installed.
The NIFTI sensors can store up to four hours of test data for later download if security considerations demand it, or if the test aircraft can’t accommodate the Data Acquisition Gateway.