The engine room in an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer is a complex to behold. There are four gas-turbine engines, not unlike jet aircraft engines converted to seafaring use. They provide the thrust that converts thermal energy into mechanical energy, which moves the power train and the gears of everything that make the 506-foot ships slice through the water at speeds exceeding 30 knots.
But they can still become more efficient. Last month, Lockheed Martin’s Machinery Control Systems (MCS) group was awarded a $15 million contract to update console systems. The upgrade, part of an ongoing $51 million contract, brings a much higher degree of automation to the console operators, and brings together multiple engineering disciplines in the process.
“MCS focuses on electronics systems, but we apply what you call mechatronics to the naval ship segment. We do machinery control systems that blend mechanical and electronic systems in a controlled architecture,” says Dave Shikada, maritime business development manager for Lockheed-Martin.
“The power plant in the destroyers operating right now is remotely controlled by a number of consoles,” says Pat Allen, maritime business development Manager for Lockheed-Martin. “These consoles are dedicated to specific functions: electrical distribution, propulsion, damage control function.”
The current system requires the operators to control the power plant during both normal use and during casualty-control exercises. “It’s a manpower-intensive process that requires a substantial amount of hand-eye information to be done properly,” adds Shikada. “Under the new effort, we are attempting to reduce that workload through automation.”
The systems are old enough, Allen notes, that they use push buttons for individual functions. If one of the consoles broke down, the functionality was lost. “For the new system, we will combine those consoles into a universal control console using digital screen displays.”
While there is currently one operator at each console, the new system requires fewer men to operate it, a key goal for the Navy going forward.
“These multi-modal workstations allow the operator to pull up the information from any location,” says Stephen Osterhout, maritime program manager for MCS. “That helps us reduce the number from five dedicated consoles in different places to four consoles that can bring up any information.”
The project has brought multiple engineering challenges, adds Osterhout, beyond taking commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment and ruggedizing it. “MCS has been working on opening and closing valves and breakers for a long time. But for this project, we had to take away the push buttons and replace them with intelligence that allowed the system to be controlled from any location, as long as the operator is authorized to do so. We also had to add automatic failover to another console with no loss of continuity or control.”
As always, a system that is complex underneath must have a simple interface, especially when the operators — in this case, sailors — may only have been in high school the previous year. As Osterhout notes, “We’re trying to do very complex things in a non-complex manner.”
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