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A little innovation can go a long way towards helping U.S. military forces successfully facilitate their missions. Even an apparatus no bigger than a breadbox recently solved a challenge involving two radios and the need to make their transport lighter.
The U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, required a solution that would allow its forces to mount AN/PRC 117G and Rover 6 radios to a vehicle, yet still conform to strict size and weight limitations. Both radios performed key functions, yet both were not always needed on each mission.
"Instead of designing two separate radio mounts, our engineers created a universal two-radio mount design that swivels to expose two separate mounting brackets," said James Shannon, the project's lead for the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC.
The center's Command, Power and Integration, or CP&I, Directorate led the effort for CERDEC and leveraged its Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or C4ISR Prototype Integration Facility, or PIF, to complete the requirements.
To meet airlift weight restrictions for multiple types of aircraft, the C4ISR integration design had to adhere to a strict 150-pound weight limit. Space restrictions throughout the platform meant that the radio mounts had to be in close proximity of each other.
PIF engineers drew upon their extensive experience designing radio mounts to determine that it would be impossible to design two mounts that would meet these requirements along with their auxiliary components. By eliminating one entire mount and a set of power cables, the design reduced the vehicle's weight by approximately 25 pounds.
"That doesn't sound like much weight, but the reduction means the aircraft can fly farther and the vehicle can carry more ammunition, fuel, food and water, which are critical provisions for any mission," Shannon said.
Another benefit to the swivel mount is its ease of use. The design ensured that each mounting bracket with their separate power interface blocks conformed to fit each radio's size and shape.
"We designed the mount so that with a simple turn, the user can mount the desired radio in five to 10 seconds, with no tools required," said Dan Smith, CERDEC engineer.
The entire design, fabrication, and integration for the radio mount took place in the PIF, which provides full-service engineering support for shelter, vehicle, aircraft, watercraft and Soldier prototype C4ISR systems. Government organizations can collaborate with PIF engineers by using an iterative development process to refine technologies prior to establishing set requirements.
"Product manager or science and technology organizations can use the PIF's soup to nuts engineering services to help prove out a product's manufacturability," said Christopher Manning, division chief of CERDEC's CP&I Prototyping, Integration and Testing Directorate. "We provide a tech data package that our customers can turn over to an Army depot such as Tobyhanna for full-rate production, or they can release the package to industry under the competitive bidding process."
Engineers began designing the radio mount by using a 3-D computer-aided design, or CAD, program. The design was then entered into the computer-aided manufacturing machining software program, which simulates an entire design build, identifies process errors and provides specific instructions to the Computer Numerical Control, or CNC, machine for the actual product build.
Many CAD designs initially "become real" as plastic iterations produced from the PIF's 3-D printer, but the engineers' previous experience creating radio mount interfaces allowed them to skip this step to begin the actual product build. The CNC machine produces parts that are accurate to within 1/1000th of an inch, then converts a heavy aluminum block into a two-pound radio mount in less than two hours.
Customer-specific designs, such as the radio mount, are often applicable to other customers' needs, especially those looking to reduce size, weight and power on their platforms. With some minor tweaks, the universal radio mount could work in multiple platforms, Shannon said.
"Our customers approach us with challenges such as these where they are not entirely sure how to close the gap between a concept and a solution," Manning said. "By keeping an open mind and through outside-the-box thinking, our engineers have the latitude to excel through innovation."