The Lane Cove West Business Park on Sydney's north shore is a sleepy little place, but inside one of its buildings, behind these doors, something very high-tech is being created. Rockwell Collins Australia, a subsidiary of its American parent, is hard at work building an integral part of the world-class sensor suite that goes into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The part in question is the Distributed Aperture System, an electro-optical lens-and-sensor array in a set of six that are arranged around the body of the F-35 and tied into both the flight control systems and the pilot's ridiculously advanced helmet. The DAS is, in essence, an incredibly high-tech camera, but the arrangement of six on a JSF airframe gives the pilot a 360-degree, 3D, true-to-life live feed of the terrain and flight space around them. It also tracks and catalogues nearby planes, incoming objects and potential threats.
This is what the DAS does:
A little smaller than a soft drink can, the Distributed Aperture System requires incredibly precise optics and both optical and infrared sensors and therefore minutely accurate manufacturing by a highly trained team. The facility to build the DAS had to be custom built at Rockwell's Australian offices, with air-leveled tables in a class 10,000 clean room and a final testing system that is the only one of its type in Australia. Rockwell wouldn't share any info on the individual price of a DAS with us, but you can bet they don't come cheap.
Intricately tied into the DAS and every other system is a F-35 pilot's helmet:
The helmet includes projectors that show a heads-up display on the pilot's visor, and when switching to DAS mode the pilot can look around and through the jet's airframe, literally moving their head to see through the fuselage and underneath the wings. Since the F-35B has the capability for vertical landing, a system like Distributed Aperture is of huge advantage to a pilot's situational awareness.
Here's the clean room where the DAS is built, hidden away in Rockwell Collins' facility and locked behind several sturdy doors:
The Aussie lab is the sister of an identical one in the United States, and has been tasked with building 40 per cent of the total number of DASes required. With 180 JSFs being rolled off the production line per year during full-scale manufacturing, Rockwell's contract to produce at least 6 DAS units for each — not counting replacements and spares — means the Australian operation will be producing 432 of the 1080 total. At the moment, only two staff work full-time in the clean room, but Rockwell wants to increase that to eight once a team with the right level of qualifications has been assembled.
Australia has orders in place for at least 72 of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft based at RAAF Bases Williamtown and Tindal, with provision for up to 100 in total including a third squadron at Amberley. (During the building's opening ceremony, an Air Force spokesperson casually mentioned that "we'd like a few more", too.)
The F-35's DAS is just one of several aerospace and defence projects that Rockwell Collins Australia has under way. But when the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter finally makes its way to the RAAF's operational fleet, chances are it'll have one piece stamped Made In Australia on it. [Rockwell Collins]