If you can, for a second, imagine flying an £87 million fighter jet at over 1,000 miles per hour. Now envisage doing it at night, in heavy rain, deep in enemy territory, while closing in on a target and avoiding becoming one yourself.
It’s conceivable you wouldn’t have much time to look down at the cockpit to check the speedometer, right?
So, it’s no surprise that heads-up and head-mounted displays, delivering mission-critical information to their natural field of view, have become indispensable for pilots undertaking the most perilous tasks.
BAE has been producing these Heads-Up Display (HUD) and Head-Mounted Display (HMD) systems since the late 50s, but the brand-new Striker II helmet, promises to be a giant leap forward when it comes into service at the end of the decade.
Striker II HMD: Tracking information and seeing at night
Just like the current Striker helmet used by Eurofighter Typhoon pilots, the sequel Striker will enable pilots to fly “heads up and eyes out” by projecting information directly on to the visor.
“The pilot can look through, not at, the display, so he sees the information at the same focal depth as the outside world.” said Chris Colston, BAE’s Business Development Director for Advanced Displays.
However, the Striker II offers some game-changing advantages over its predecessor as it makes the switch from analogue to a full digital system. This gives air forces deploying the technology far more flexibility.
For pilots, that difference is literally night and day.
Striker II will feature an integrated night-vision camera situated in the ‘Cyclops’ position, negating the current need for the pilot to wear heavy night-vision goggles underneath the visor. It also increases comfort for pilots when making G-level manoeuvres.
The night view “is captured by the camera, processed within the helmet and projected on to the visor,” Colston says.
“Wherever the pilot looks he sees that digital image on the visor, in real time.”
That digital image also promises a feature we’re used to seeing on our living room TVs, but is brand new in head-mounted displays: picture-in-picture. Picture-in-picture is when one image plays on a screen with another image inset in a small window.
Colston explains this is of huge advantage to pilots closing in on a specific target.
He says: “With this system, video from a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) performing a surveillance task can be fed by data links to the aircraft and displayed on the pilot’s visor.
“That visor already shows a symbol representing the target on the ground. When the pilot looks at the target it’ll bring up the picture-in-picture feed in a portion of his field of view.”
Colston says it’s all about “situational awareness”.
“This enables the pilot to decide whether to engage the target,” he adds.
“The pilot can perform a very complex mission while reducing the number of processes and reducing the time he’s spending looking inside the cockpit.”
Mentally and physically, Colston says, this is crucial for pilots.
“You can’t underestimate how difficult it is. When you’re looking out of the cockpit and your eyes are focused on the distance. When you’re looking in you have to quickly focus on the dials and displays, so your eyes work very hard each time you adjust your focal length. Today it is much less fatiguing, much less stressful and ensures a reduced workload.
“We’re helping the pilot make time-critical decisions under pressure by displaying the right information at the right time in a way that’s very intuitive.”
Striker II also deploys spatial audio technology - similar to what we’re seeing in VR headsets like the Oculus Rift – to further aid the pilot’s situational awareness.
This means, if a threat appears over his left shoulder, the pilot will hear a warning delivered precisely to that portion of the earpiece. The helmet also offers active noise reduction to silence the ambient din.
Striker II HMD: From green to colour imagery
Striker II, which will be a plug and play solution for aircraft using its predecessor, also introduces full colour HD symbology, as opposed to the monochrome green traditionally used in heads-up and head-mounted displays. How widely those capabilities are used by air forces adopting the Striker II remains to be seen.
“Going forward I think colour will become more common, but work needs to be done,” Colston says.
“Monochrome green is a very bright colour, which can be seen in any background conditions, whether you’re flying into a sunset or a storm. Other colours would have to be used very judiciously, maybe with red symbology for enemies and blue for friendlies?”
Striker II HMD: Future-proofing
While Striker II can deliver all of the mission-critical information available through current aircraft technology, it is also future-proofed for tomorrow’s advancements, no matter how smart they are.
The very nature of the digital system means any new aircraft sensors or software-based improvements can be seamlessly integrated.
“Aircraft sensors are going to become multi-perspective and able to penetrate degraded visual environments. The helmet is ready to display that,” Colston says.
Just like in the consumer world, augmented reality, where synthetic objects are overlaid on the real world, is shaping up to be a huge advance in head-mounted displays.
“Even if the pilot can’t see the outside world, the systems on the aircraft are smart enough to know what’s there and give him a synthetic visualisation.”
While the Striker II is by far the most advanced helmet to contain a head-mounted display, it could also be the last. Head-worn displays are shrinking to the point they could eventually sit inside a pair of sunglasses with the helmet is worn on top.
“There are lots of developments to come and they’re moving at quite a pace,” Colston added.
Photo credit: BAE Systems