September 2007

To your engine's health

Air Force proposal for new research resource strengthens science, technology programs 


  • U.S. Air Force data acquisition problems stem from multiple information sources.
  • Forging alliance within science and technology programs eases technology transitions.
  • Partnering arrangement gives engine health management team new research resource, opportunities.
  • Challenges ahead for logistics of data, IT development, capability programs.
By Gary Smith, Cheryl Holtz, Chris Michel, and Barbara Masquelier

NOTE: The problem of multiple computer systems that don't communicate with one another is not confined to the Air Force. Auto-mation industries are facing some of the same issues. "The problem stems from competing suppliers offering different protocols," said industry guru and former Chairman of Action Instruments Jim Pinto. "Each supplier vies to be the standard of choice, which results in multiple standards that are not interoperable." Disparate data sources and data integration are some other challenges industrial system vendors are facing. Just as the Air Force solution included partnering, common issues in industry could pose opportunities to work together and leverage each other's solutions. 

Investigating sensor technologies for fault detection and isolation and for fault treatment for propulsion systems is the goal behind the Air Force Research Laboratory's propulsion science and technology programs. These programs fall under a propulsion directorate's controls and engine health management group, where IT capability development gaps have existed for years. To bridge the gaps, propulsion engineers and logisticians are pursuing a strategic alliance between the two groups and creating a new research environment to help develop engine health management programs of the future.

Data acquisition problems

The current approach for the Air Force Research Laboratory's health management programs is to acquire sample data from the multiple information systems used in supporting maintenance on the chosen legacy system to develop the program's proof-of-concept. The targeted legacy weapon system does not necessarily benefit from this research because the IT systems supporting sustaining operations are many and diverse. So in the early stage of health management research, lab managers must contend with data acquisition as one of the primary issues.

Each support function of a legacy weapon system typically uses multiple Air Force standard and weapon-system stove-pipe or stand-alone IT applications for support equipment. Usually these IT systems only share data if required from stakeholders within the support activity functional domain. For propulsion, those domains include oil analysis, digital diagnostic tool, or on-board operational performance data.

The data acquisition problem is further compounded when a research project calls for data from multiple information sources, which is typically the norm for application concepts that hinge on data integration or data fusion. Also, there are times when multiple research programs require the same data set from one of the available information systems, which under current practices cause duplicate efforts from researchers for acquiring data. 

Under the adaptive control concept, managing the onboard propulsion systems includes receiving data, colleting it, and using it for feedback. The data collected onboard also transfers to an off-board or ground-based health management system, helping further analyze system health. Within the health management research area, the most difficult task to accomplish is transitioning propulsion data integration concepts for ground-based health management capabilities.

Partnering arrangement, new resources

The research engineer will normally spend 80% of the project time acquiring data and the remaining 20% on analysis. This means countless hours coordinating with IT owners, or system users of the data sources, identified to support the specific program initiative.

A partnering arrangement between the engine health management team and the Air Force Knowledge Services system program office would help create a new combined laboratory resource and research environment, which will create systems architecture, data acquisition, and storage process required to support the development of engine health management programs. The new resource should ease the technology transition of health management capabilities to operational logistics information systems.

The engine health management team's goal is to reverse the two percentages, so 80% of time is dedicated to analyzing data and 20% to acquiring data. To overcome the data acquisition obstacle, the health management team is seeking to forge a new paradigm in IT program management through collaboration, beginning with the knowledge services program office.

Health management research obstacles

Researchers require mature systems data to achieve confidence in predictive methodologies and to successfully transition a capability. Yet the primary obstacles to health management research are related to data and technology transition. For data, the issues are accessibility, data management policy, and the current data systems used in capturing data. The issues with data are so significant research managers begin coordinating and planning to meet data needs simultaneously to developing the research program content. The most pressing issue with transitioning advanced health management concepts to information technology programs is the lack of a formal process within the IT systems acquisition community.

Condition-based maintenance

The lab's health management research links to the Air Force transformation flight plan, which addresses development of advanced condition-based-maintenance-plus (CBM+) capabilities. CBM+ is the adopted maintenance management policy that comes from the Department of Defense (DoD) strategic vision titled "Future Logistics Enterprise." The vision documents were paramount in initiating the force transformation the U.S. military services implement today. The vision is comprised of six focus areas, one of which is CBM+.

The CBM+ maintenance management concept is unique to the DoD. It expands on the basic concepts of condition-based maintenance by encompassing other technologies, processes, and procedures that enable improved maintenance and logistics processes. Each military service is in the process of adopting the DoD future logistics guidance on CBM+, making further refinements on the definition. 

Fully implemented, CBM+ will help predict a system's remaining operational life span, support operator decision-making, interface with control systems, aid in guiding maintenance repair actions, and provide feedback to the logistics support and system design communities. All these areas are impacted by the research lab's science and technology (S&T) research in health management. The research lab systems engineering design concept emerging to satisfy CBM+ capability requirements is called Integrated Systems Health Management (ISHM).

ISHM uses engineering, performance, test, inspection, and maintenance data, which is required to extract factors related to the various system and knowledge-based processes called out by CBM+. Engine health management is a sub-component of ISHM that concentrates on the propulsion system. Progression to ISHM under CBM+ will require changing business processes throughout the system's engineering process from the inception to the operation stage.

Under the ISHM umbrella, the lab is seeking enhanced prognostic and diagnostic techniques, advanced algorithms for failure trend analysis, electronic portable or point of maintenance aids, serial item management, automatic identification technology, and data-driven interactive trouble-shooting and maintenance training. The ultimate ISHM vision is to have a fully integrated system operation, providing inputs and outputs for an autonomic system-of-systems, supporting air and ground operations. The intent of ISHM is to increase operational readiness and system performance, ensuring mission effectiveness regardless of the degradation state of the system. Payoffs include reduced life-cycle costs by enabling a more responsive logistics system.

ISHM research requirements

The Air Force is transforming logistics processes to become lighter and leaner, to develop a more responsive planning and execution capability, to achieve an agile, effective sustainment process, and to develop responsive, effective, fully integrated joint operations. Military success in the 21st century will require advanced capabilities, superior speed, power, precision, endurance, and agility.

In addition to linking ISHM program objectives to DoD and Air Force strategic documents, this research could benefit future weapon systems. Programs within the laboratory environment target health management capability gaps that fall under the on-board and/or the off-board system management IT purview.

Data management policy

Air Force data management policy has historically concentrated on the manual processes required to report equipment availability and maintenance activity. Any guidance on the disposition of data collected digitally-via test equipment or from equipment operation-has been left to the managing system/equipment program office or a Major Command to provide. Therefore, the collection of digitally generated data is sporadic and normally not stored or transferred for purposes beyond the test or operation conducted. That is why the engine health management team has initiated discussion among ISHM team members and Air Force policy makers on the need to draft an overarching data management policy that IT systems would support.

The new policy would expand the central collection of system performance data and other data generated from sophisticated electronic test equipment. 

Integrated systems health management

Throughout the Air Force research labs, directorates are creating and managing S&T programs for advanced on-board and ground-based ISHM IT capabilities. These programs focus on developing advanced information fusion and data integration concepts, which use performance data from embedded sensors in combination with test, servicing, and repair data to determine vehicle or system health. Emerging from these concepts is the development of advanced algorithms to satisfy system and IT e-tool capability needs. The resulting prototypes demonstrate innovative capabilities for trending and predictive failure analysis for maintenance servicing and repair recommendations.

The intent is these capabilities could help the maintenance community move forward to a proactive maintenance construct as called out in the new DoD 5000.2. The hope is health management concepts and products resulting from laboratory programs will enable maintainers to quickly assess and determine the best means to prevent or repair weapon system problems. The overarching ISHM ground-based system objective is to deliver capabilities for managers of weapon systems to use data exploitation to ascertain and assess new information about the current condition of the equipment they manage fleet-wide. As health management concepts mature, we expect new software application capabilities for Air Force logistics systems will also emerge.

Transition dilemma

The ultimate objective of the lab's S&T-funded research programs is transitioning capabilities to the war-fighter. Successfully demonstrated laboratory data integration concepts, or data mining and modeling tools, have used sample data sets from fielded systems. Typically, these concept demonstrations worked on a server-based IT environment, where the results of the research may or may not have included a process for maintaining data currency in the application server. Or more simply, the concept was proven but the information technology infrastructure required to support the concept did not exist for transition to occur. Many worthy candidate programs of this nature are shelved, which is a lose/lose situation for AFRL and prospective users.

In order to overcome the obstacles to IT transition, this type of research program should target and be software compatible with an Air Force information system capable of supporting the data acquisition requirements and the process model e-tool capability developed under the research effort. Managing IT system program offices appropriate to transition capabilities are reluctant to get involved in coordinating lab program initiatives during the research effort, and they are less inclined to have insertion points for transition in their systems engineering roadmaps. This reluctance is primarily due to lack of a formal process between Air Force research labs and the IT systems acquisition and sustainment communities for cultivating and maintaining the appropriate relationships required to ensure technology transition.

Compounding the relationship issue is the fact that the IT and S&T communities are not familiar with each others' systems engineering requirement-to-development processes. Consequently, the Air Force IT acquisition community does not realize how they can assist S&T in developing and exploring new technologies that will satisfy their known capability gaps. Further, the IT sustainment community does not realize how they can assist S&T in modernizing or providing enhanced capabilities to fielded systems in meeting short-term transformation goals. In turn, the S&T community does not remain abreast of IT acquisition and sustainment plans for implementing enterprise transformation goals.

New laboratory resource proposal

To help rectify health management IT obstacles, the engine health management team is investigating a new program for ground-based system capability research, which involves using knowledge services as a laboratory resource.

This resource would benefit S&T program research, concept development, capability demonstration, and technology transition. In this light, the engine health management team is currently putting a program development partnering concept together in collaboration with the knowledge services program office and their prime technology vendor to encourage transformational relationships to begin between their organizations, which have previously been unaware of each others' activities.

To date, discussions have centered on a program development strategy for establishing an Air Force research lab environment in the knowledge services data warehouse. These discussions revealed knowledge services is open to collaborative development work with their program. They have begun working with the team in developing a document outline for a combined program management concept for S&T. The resulting document will define the program management and development contractor relationships needed for collaborative work. We hope this document will be a self-service knowledge services capability development model for other Air Force organizations to emulate.

Proposed process structure

Over the life of a project, phase one should consist of concept and methodology development, which should include data acquisition requirements, data relationships, and draft interface specification documentation. During phase two, concept maturation and demonstration, the team would concentrate on data acquisition and the database architecture required for developing the research capability. Finally, phase three, technology transition, would complete maturation of the engine health management decision support concept by broadening the capability to address all pertinent components within the targeted propulsion system.

The theory behind this program progression concept is to develop capabilities in a relevant environment or in an IT environment capable of supporting the concept. For the team, this reality transforms the lose/lose situation to a win/win/win situation for Air Force research labs, knowledge services, and collective users by meeting the program goals of all three. Changes to the lab's engine health program management have already begun using this program development strategy concept. The health management team has begun targeting additional applicable IT acquisition programs open to the concept. The team is currently managing phase two, a reliability centered maintenance scheduling tool, to develop genetic algorithms that will add new capabilities to Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center's Reliability Centered Maintenance IT program. This project is testing the team's new perspective on relationship management and program development.

Transitional challenges

Since much of our health management technologies rely on information technology, it is imperative we work with users on the IT requirements and infrastructure needs required for technology transition. The health management team is working with knowledge services to develop documentation for how this transition concept should work for future engine health IT related efforts. 

The team believes a strategic alliance with knowledge services will ensure the probability of success in developing workable prognostic and diagnostic capabilities. The engine health management team also foresees a need to demonstrate new capability concepts that could be applied to sustainment logistics IT systems. They believe similar arrangements for research lab program development could be implemented to bridge CBM+ capability gaps as legacy IT systems transform.


Cheryl Holtz is a program manager with Universal Technology Corporation based in Dayton, Ohio. Gary Smith is a program manager in the Propulsion Directorate of the Air Force Research Lab, Wright Patterson AFB Ohio and supports the Controls and Engine Health Management Group. Chris Michel is a data warehouse architect for the Air Force Knowledge Services program. Barbara L. Masquelier is a senior plans and programs engineers assigned to Air Force Research Laboratory HQs (AFRL/XPX), Ohio.