Electronic Weapons: Panel Envy

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August 13, 2016: The U.S. Air Force has been upgrading the avionics in its older fighters (F-16, F-15), often using modified commercial hardware and software. This has led to new flight control and combat systems using much faster and more reliable commercial electronics. These systems are easier to upgrade, which is one reason why they are so popular and found in most commercial aircraft.

One thing that was missing from these upgrades, especially for fighter pilots, was the “glass cockpit” technology found in modern commercial and military aircraft. The most obvious aspect of the glass cockpit is the use of one or two larger flat screen color displays to replace the radar screen and dozens of separate instrument displays. The most recent American fighters, like the F-22 and F-35 (and the European Typhoon) have glass cockpits and the other fighter pilots want them as well. In the meantime pilots have to make do with more effective “smart helmets” (data displayed on the helmet visor). As useful as the smart helmets are they don’t replace the flat screen displays of the glass cockpit because these are often touch sensitive and thus able to replace lots of switches and dials.

That said, the smart helmets have been anticipated for long time, much longer than the glass cockpit. Work on smart helmets actually began in the 1950s but the first practical visor displays appeared in the 1970s and soon evolved into the equivalent of a see-through computer monitor or HUD (Head Up Display) on the helmet visor. The most recent versions enable the pilot to can turn his head towards a target, get an enemy aircraft into the crosshairs displayed on the visor, and fire a missile that will promptly go after target the pilot was looking at. There is an additional advantage in letting the pilot look around more often without having to look down at cockpit displays, or straight ahead at a more traditional HUD mounted in front of the pilot just inside the canopy. The helmet mounted HUD gave an experienced pilot an extra edge in finding enemy aircraft or targets, and maneuvering to get into a better position for attacks. These pilot helmets were also useful for air-to-ground attacks, which the latest VR versions like BrightNite are also designed to do.

All this evolved from early efforts to create a HUD that projected data on a small transparent screen in front of the pilot. These first appeared in the late 1950s and were common in jet fighters by the late 1960s. The first helmet mounted displays appeared in South Africa in the 1970s. In the 1980s Israeli companies took the lead in developing this technology, and made many technical breakthroughs that led to DASH (Display and Sight Helmet) system in the 1980s. Elbit teamed up with American firms to develop and market JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems), which is largely an improved DASH system and entered service in 2002. Since then the technology has been developed rapidly to produce a combined VR and HUD.

The glass cockpit was an outgrowth of the explosive growth of the personal computer (and portable consumer electronics) markets since the 1970s. Once that led to reliable flat screen and touch technology pilots knew what was possible and what they needed. Commercial users tend to get this stuff first and the military has learned to follow as soon as their budget and Pentagon politics allows.

 


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