Program plays vital role in 76th SMXG mission

  • Published
  • By Brian Schroeder
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the third article in a series on the mission of the 76th Software Maintenance Group.

The 76th Software Maintenance Group not only writes code for aircraft to get off the ground. The Operational Flight Program offers many technological advantages that keep the Air Force on the modern edge of computer technology.

A Test Program Set provides program development, industrial automation support and maintenance for a variety of platforms utilized onboard an aircraft and test cell systems. TPS can be compared to diagnostics systems in an automotive garage, whereas the OFP could be compared to software running in that car motoring down the road. TPSs diagnose failures in a line replaceable unit using troubleshooting software. OFP is the software that is able to make course corrections for the airplane, have an awareness of the navigation systems, the mission plan and the mission scenario.

"When you are driving down the road, you are making course corrections all the time, whether you realize it or not," said Alan Beamish, 76th SMXG OFP technical director. "The OFP is making all those course corrections thousands and thousands of times per minute. You can imagine what it takes to do that in a car, but we have to do that in an aircraft."

Mission planning and mission support functions are loaded to each plane prior to each mission. Data preparation allows the aircraft to know the geographical location of the mission, what its targets are and what kind of weapons it is carrying. Most modern airplanes are electronically guided, where the pilot tells the computer what to do and the computer configures the actuation to the flight controls.

"Our engineers are focused on a particular airplane to learn the peculiarities of that weapon system," Mr. Beamish said. "In today's Air Force, data for the aircraft is nearly as important as fuel. Without either one of those, the plane will be hard pressed to accomplish anything."

The software written for the aircraft must navigate and maintain stability while in flight, as well as operate other components, such as radar, electronic warfare, weapon delivery systems, on-board diagnostics, and the crew controls and displays.

"All of those functions require a different set of software running on the airplane," said Dr. Doug Blake, 76th SMXG director. "That's a broad brush of all the functions that go on onboard the aircraft. Every weapon system was built in a different time frame and a certain set of technology and design methodologies were available when they were built, so they are all different, depending on the plane."

A B-2 has approximately 2.5 million lines of code on-board, which does not include approximately 5 million lines of code that support the lab environment, simulations, emulations and test tools. Many times, the engineers will find themselves trying to integrate modern computer systems with 30-year old technologies, said Tom LaBrie, TPS technical director.

"The B-2 was built on 1980s technology," he said. "Newer weapon systems are much more software intensive than the B-2. Some of those are upwards of 5 to 12 million lines of code."

The number of people required to operate a military aircraft has significantly decreased in the last 60 years, dropping from 10 crewmembers to just a handful to operate modern airplanes. Mr. Beamish said that number will continue to drop as software technologies are developed and creating new and improved capabilities for the aircraft.

"Many of the functions that were performed by a human before are now being performed by a computer," he said. "The next generation of plane could be unmanned, so the computers will have to do it all. We are not just fixing bugs, we are adding capabilities to weapon systems by virtue of what we do."

As the weapon systems begin to age and tactics begin to change, the engineers with 76th SMXG must adapt and overcome these obstacles in order to complete the mission. In-depth analysis and continued testing is required to ensure the software and hardware modifications are compatible with new tactics, and the software is mission capable and mission ready.

"It's important that we deliver high quality software to the warfighter," Mr. LaBrie said. "We do intensive testing and verification because we are dealing with mission survivability, safety of flight and other things that enable the warfighter to complete the mission."