April 6, 2010: After more than a year of arm twisting, the U.S. Army has got most electronic suppliers to provide gear that can plug into a common vehicle network, and allows the driver, or anyone else in the vehicle, to share data (via one or more flat screen displays) from many different systems (GPS, Blue Force Tracker, jammer, radio, video feeds and so on). The new electronic backbone is called EKeel (for Electronic Keel), and it takes data from different devices and, like the Internet, produces a common signal that can be used on the EKeel displays and controls. EKeel runs under Linux, but many of its graphics elements would be familiar to anyone using Mac or Windows operating systems. Several major suppliers of electronics systems are already modifying their gear so that it can plug into EKeel (which is itself a very small computer, more like a router than a netbook).
All this began several years ago, when the army realized that its trucks, especially hummers, needed elements of a cockpit design to handle the growing number of gadgets being installed. Sounds strange, but not when you realize what dashboards in many hummers already look like. In addition to the usual vehicle instruments, the dashboard usually has added to it controls and displays for jammers (to defeat IEDs), GPS navigation device (the map display), a Blue Force Tracker display (to show where all nearby vehicles are, via a satellite based system), sniper detectors, bomb disposal robots and whatever else resourceful troops add. These include a rear view cam (rigging a lipstick size cam facing to the rear and putting the image on a display place on the dashboard). Some of the troops are modders (those who modify electronic equipment), and they add a laptop, which can provide other data, or video from a nearby UAV (or a small one, like the Raven, launched by nearby troops.) Sometimes there are also controls for combat robots, used to check out possible roadside bombs, or to stand guard duty.
The problem was that these tricked out dashboards all arranged their extra gadgets differently. The army wants to standardize it, so you know what you are dealing with, and where it is, as soon as you jump into the front seat of some fully loaded vehicle. The army built prototype truck cockpits that combined many different electronic display type devices into fewer displays, and saved a lot of space and weight. Soldiers tested the prototypes, providing feedback to the developers. That led to the development of EKeel.
The new cockpits borrow much from their aircraft counterparts, including helmets with the ability to make a robot, or camera mounted on the top of the vehicle, move in the direction the helmet turns. Head-up displays are already available for some automobiles, and this is another concept the army is looking at. The cockpit, like those in aircraft, is built to accommodate new technologies.
Tanks and other armored vehicles have already had their insides redesigned to seem more like a cockpit. Otherwise, there's no way the crew could handle all the equipment they have around them.