National Harbor, MD– The final set of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) speakers Wednesday at the Sea-Air-Space 2022 Conference and Exhibition focused on emerging technologies that began development and advancement outside of the DOD, but have since become areas where collaboration between the Navy and industry have proved mutually beneficial.

NAVAIR hosted a dynamic series of speakers during the week who highlighted the many programs they employ to support its mission: to deliver integrated air warfare capabilities to enable the fleet to compete, deter and win—tonight, tomorrow and in the future.

Credit: U.S. Navy

Jerry Swift, Director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s (NAWCAD) AIRWorks program, gave an overview of NAWCAD and how it advances capability and operational readiness for naval aviation and delved into AIRWorks’ programs which are designed to deliver immediate and emerging warfighter capability needs.

Swift described how the Warfare Centers work together overall then changed focus to how they form an ecosystem for developing a warfighter, technology, or capability from concept to program of record.

“If I’m a program manager with NAVAIR, my main area of responsibility is to make sure the weapon system I am fielding is the most effective that it can be, but I need help in doing so and need to look and see what other capabilities are out there and how they work with other platforms to complete the mission,” Swift said. “At the same time, the program office has to look five to 10 years down the line to look at possible new capabilities. The Warfare Centers do just that in helping bring more capabilities to the platform.”

Swift said NAWCAD seeks out the best candidates in the science and technology areas of industry and brings them in for collaboration through product centers such as AIRWorks, which specializes in aircraft modifications and unmanned systems. AIRWorks helps bridge what Swift called “the Valley of Death” for new technology.

“What we do with AIRWorks is bridge that ‘Valley of Death’ by helping the program office take the promising technology, apply it to their platform, bring that project over the threshold, and help it become embedded as part of the overall program.”

Swift discussed a few examples of recent collaborative successes, including a rapid prototyping experimentation program conducted through AIRWorks: the Blue Water Maritime Logistics Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). Swift said in 2018, a need arose for increased capability to transfer small cargo loads from ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore and vice versa. After a long process of looking at what was available in the industry with existing vertical takeoff and landing UAS systems, the Blue Water UAS was selected and teams began testing it a short time later aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).

“Not only are we doing this in the unmanned air area, we’re also doing this in other critical technology areas,” Swift said. “We are doing a lot of engagement with the industry.”

Capping off the speaker series was a presentation by Theodore Gronda, head of the NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing Team, who explained how additive manufacturing increases readiness, and sustainment of weapon systems and enhances warfighter capabilities.

Additive Manufacturing is the ability to “print” replacement parts using 3D printers. The NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing Team coordinates with stakeholders and integrates teams to develop and print engineering products, as well as contracting and procurement management strategies that support 3D printing, hardware, acquisition and sustainment for equipment and services used to produce approved additive manufactured parts.

Gronda shared a story about a time several years ago when during an altercation in the Middle East, adversaries had buried tanks in holes on a beach, making them difficult to target and hit. An unmanned aerial vehicle was deployed off a ship, flew over the tanks, radioed back coordinates and 16-inch guns from the ship were able to target the hidden tanks and take them out.

While performing this mission, Gronda said the UAV experienced some problems and he realized the issues were caused by faulty manufacturing. In order to fix the problems, he needed replacement parts, but due to his location, there was no way to quickly expedite the parts to the theater of battle.

“By the time the parts got there, the battle was over,” Gronda said. “If I had the ability to print the parts there, I could have done a lot more to help. The ability to print a part where we need it is incredibly important and increases our readiness. Now we don’t need to take an iron mountain of supplies with us when we go into the theater—we can just take the machine with us and print what we need.”

Gronda showed the audience several additive manufacturing examples used to increase readiness, items that could break from regular use and are not sourced as spare parts. By using additive manufacturing, the fleet is able to print plastic replacement parts from software—a technical data package—fed into the additive manufacturing machines anywhere in the world, and in doing so, save vast amounts of money and prevent aircraft from being grounded: by fixing a small part that is broken on one item, the entire unit does not need to be replaced, such as a lever on a pilot’s helmet or a radio frequency knob inside a cockpit.

He said additive manufacturing started out with printing plastic replacement parts, but the NAVAIR Additive Manufacturing Team has since moved on to print metal replacement parts, using much larger printers.

The Sea-Air-Space three-day event concluded Wednesday, Sea-Air-Space, and brought the U.S. defense industry and key military decision-makers together for informative educational sessions, important policy discussions, and a dynamic exhibit hall floor. The event is owned and produced by the Navy League of the United States, and attracts maritime leaders from sea services around the globe.

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