Battle Lab, home to the Sixth-Generation Air Combat System

18 August 2021

Inaugurated in Turin in 2008, the Leonardo Battle Lab (official name Product Capability and Concept Laboratory, or PC2Lab) supports the design and development of new military aircraft, or of new configurations for existing aircraft, within the context of a ’System of Systems’. This fundamental approach, starting at the concept stage, requires sophisticated algorithmic experiments in operating scenarios, simulated in detail down to their most complex and variable aspects.

From this point of view, the Leonardo Battle Lab is a special simulation environment, very different to the more common simulators of tactical scenarios. The simulations conducted in Turin are not used for training purposes or to assess planned mission profiles; they are to verify an aircraft’s characteristics and validate compliance with its current and potential future role, and operational scenarios for which it has been designed or purchased. As a company, whenever we design a completely new aircraft, or its avionics, sensors or communication systems, our engineers are effectively creating something that does not yet exist, based exclusively on operational requirements and a set of guidelines. This is a huge challenge.

The Battle Lab’s large database can simulate scenarios in any part of the globe, with the relevant weather conditions and a faithful reproduction of electronic air, naval, land and war systems, inclusive of all their characteristics.

Once the tactical scenario has been created, the aircraft to be tested is introduced, “reproduced” faithfully with all its sensors and on-board systems to verify its compliance within a certain set of requirements.

The entire process is dynamic, especially when testing new aircraft. Indeed, varying the parameters on the possible and foreseeable characteristics of the aircraft makes it possible to carry out numerous, very different simulation exercises. The detailed scenarios generated are a source of a large amount of data and the results are analysed by Leonardo's engineers and technicians. Their assessments will then lay the foundations for calibrating the aircraft’s requirements in terms of speed, load capacity, sensor classes and markings, and consequently for studying any changes to be made to the aircraft’s configuration during the concept phase.

This preliminary system design and experimentation phase that takes place at the PC2Lab, with the involvement of engineers, designers and those in charge of setting requirements, but not yet with the involvement of pilots.

Since 2020, Turin’s Battle Lab has been undergoing a period of renewal, aimed at supporting the Aircraft Division in the definition of new operational concepts for a 6th-generation future air combat system. At the heart of the system lies the collaboration between the manned mothership fighter, the core platform (or leader) and the unmanned “follower” aircraft, also known as an adjunct, which operate according to the concept of Manned/Unmanned Teaming. The PC2Lab is therefore being enriched with new technologies, especially in the field of virtual (see-through, immersive) reality and artificial intelligence, so as to simulate a completely new and unprecedented approach in the history of aeronautics.

First established as a multimedia room exclusively performing simulations controlled by engineers – carried out using different computational methods (N-Run, Monte Carlo method, etc.) and at different speeds – the Battle Lab has subsequently opened up to integration with other simulators, to allow the direct involvement of pilots. This permits the latter to validate the new concepts first hand, in the most realistic way possible, well before the demonstrator or prototype flying stage. A completely different approach to the traditional one, this makes it possible to accelerate the process and reduce the risks inherent in developing an extremely complex programme such as the 6th-generation future air combat system, using Model Based System Engineering (MBSE).

This complexity can now be “governed” with the Battle Lab checking whether pilots can manage the workload derived from the simultaneous management of the manned fighter and the various adjuncts – involving vast amounts of connected data and information – without being overloaded. With the pilot deciding how many and what actions can be performed autonomously, the simulation will support the definition of the level of autonomy of the adjuncts versus the activities that remain under human control.

Defining these parameters in a timely manner is crucial as they directly affect the core platform / leader's human/machine interface. Important details are at play, such as the best positioning of the controls, preferences regarding the buttons on the control sticks and throttles, the possible configurations of the helmet-visors, the trade-off between virtual reality with holographic instrumentation and touch screens, and the choice of the most relevant information to show the pilot at each stage of the mission.