A perfect tool
The systems integration test bench – also known as the “Iron Bird” – is a ground-based engineering tool used to incorporate, optimise and validate vital aircraft systems, including electrical and hydraulic generation, and flight controls. It is the physical integration of these systems, with each laid out in relation to the actual configuration of the aircraft, and all components installed at the same place as they would on the real airframe.
It is the perfect tool to confirm the characteristics of all system components, or to discover an incompatibility that may require modifications during early development stages. Additionally, the effects and subsequent treatment of failures introduced in the systems can be studied in full detail and recorded for analysis by using the Iron Bird as a testbed.
Ready for takeoff
Electrical switching with variable interruptions and times are studied to assess their impact on the computers and other components, while extensive testing of the complete system assembly is done to determine the effects of electro-magnetic interference. The Iron Bird provided a level of development maturity for new aircraft such as Airbus’ A350 XWB that otherwise could only be achieved with more costly and less safe methods.
In the final preparatory stages leading up to the prototype aircraft’s first flight, various computer hardware and software are tested and validated on the Iron Bird before they are "loaded" on the aircraft systems. Any changes or fine-tuning during the development phase are first conceived, tested and validated using this valuable tool.
LINKING THE IRON BIRD WITH SIMULATORS
Since all aircraft systems are controlled from the flight deck, the Iron Bird requires a cockpit for its control, provided by three Airbus Fixed Based Simulators (FBS) along with a mobile visual system – which can be connected to either simulator.
From the flight deck, the Iron Bird can be flown like a standard aircraft, with a computer generating the aerodynamic model and such environmental conditions as air density, air temperature, airspeed and Mach number.
The team of engineers and pilots who have worked many years with Airbus’ various Iron Birds have a rich backlog of experience, which is valuable when making testing technologies for the safety, efficiency and comfort of the company’s next jetliner products.
Airbus’ previous Iron Birds – which were utilised beginning with the milestone A300B2/B4 and A310 programmes, and followed by the A319/A320/A321, A330/A340, A380 and A350 XWB – are still operational. When called upon, they are used to replay scenarios with the actual hardware and software, providing insights on the situation or to try new enhancements before they are introduced as a modification on the aircraft type.
One such development is the study of electro-hydraulic actuators (EHAs), which could lead to a more-electric aircraft, and already have been tested both on the Iron Bird and in flight.