Home Air C-17 to serve as magnetic navigation research testbed

C-17 to serve as magnetic navigation research testbed

Mag in a box navigation systems C-17
US Air Force scientists, contractors prepare a Mag in a Box for testing on a 445th Airlift Wing C-17 Globemaster III Aug 6, 2021. Photo: US Air Force

A team of US Air Force scientists have settled on the C-17 Globemaster III as the most suitable platform to support research into magnetic-navigation.

The Mag in a Box, a navigation system for global positioning system (GPS) denied environments, was brought on board the C-17 by Evelyn Boettcher, an Air Force Institute of Technology contractor. The device is a stand-alone sensor for quick installation on aircraft for data collection or proof of concept demonstration. Boettcher and the team walked around the inside of the C-17 to determine the best place to put the device that wouldn’t be affected by any interference, such as any steel components of the aircraft.

Dr. Aaron Nielsen, Autonomy and Navigation Technology (ANT) Center staff at AFIT, said they are researching a variety of global positioning system (GPS) alternatives for situations when GPS is not available or unreliable. He said one of those technologies is Magnetic Navigation, which uses the pattern of magnetism that is in the Earth’s crust.

“The magnetic field most people are familiar with is the large core field that compasses use to point north. The Earth’s crust has a distinctive pattern based on the geology of the local rocks which forms a map that we can use to navigate. The crust magnetic field is 100 times smaller than the magnetic field used by a compass, so we need a very sensitive magnetometer.

“The reason we came to the 445th Airlift Wing was to look for potential locations to install these sensors. The C-17 is like a giant magnet and we have software techniques to compensate for aircraft magnetic field, and measure the field from the rocks in the Earth’s crust alone. With this information we can match the measured values to magnetic maps and find the aircraft location,” Nielsen said.

Capt. Kyle McAlpin, AI Research Flight Commander, DAF/MIT Al Accelerator, said the visit was not a flight, but a magnetic survey of the aircraft while it sits stationary on the ground.

“The goal is to identify the best location to put a magnetometer in a pelican case for when we do eventually fly it on a C-17 in the near future. It hasn’t flown on a C-17 before but it has flown on other military assets; the F-16 (in a slightly different form) and at least one Navy airframe,” McAlpin said.

From a 445th perspective, the test was a team effort. Lt. Col. Eric Florschuetz, 445th Operations Support Squadron chief of current operations, walked the group through the aircraft for the test.

“We as a team (maintenance and operations) answered questions about the make-up of the aircraft, mounting solutions for their equipment, and how currently installed navigation equipment on the aircraft works,” said Florschuetz.

The best spot for the Mag in a Box the team found for this visit was the catwalk (the area that overlooks the cargo bay).

“We found the visit to be very useful and informative and the entire team so helpful with everything we needed,” Nielsen said.