Electronic Weapons: VR Not For Everyone


October 14, 2016: In 2012 the U.S. Army began looking for the next generation of night-vision equipment for its helicopter pilots. Since 2001 these pilots have been using various versions of the AN/AVS-6 night-vision binoculars. While the first version of the AN/AVS-6 weighs over two kilograms (nearly five pounds) and provided useful images of objects up to a kilometer away using only starlight, this was still too heavy for prolonged wearing and longer range was needed. The current version of these NVGs (night vision goggles) now have a higher level of light intensification and weigh less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). Current AN/AVS-6 systems give pilots a clear view of objects a kilometer or more away.

In 2012 the army wanted the next generation of AN/AVS-6 (Enhanced AN/AVS-6) will be lighter, have longer range, wider field of view, better glare protection, longer battery life, and clip on to most flight helmets. The new model was also to be easier to use off the helmet as binoculars. The most important element of the new model will be less weight. Night flying is tense enough without having to deal with neck pain brought on by having all that extra weight on your flight helmet.

As the old saying goes; life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Often the new tech doesn’t show up looking and performing as you thought it would. What the army aviation commanders are encountering is a new design that replaces the traditional goggles with a display on the inside of the pilots’ visor. This display can use more powerful sensors the aircraft is carrying to not only produce far better range and field of view than goggles but also VR (virtual reality) capabilities. This means being able to look in any direction, even though metal parts of the aircraft (like the cockpit floor) and see what is out there. In addition the pilot can see these images in more realistic light.

By 2015 VR (Virtual Reality) features were available that enabled pilots and armored vehicle crew to look through any part of the aircraft or vehicle to see what is outside. This was first applied to the "look and shoot" helmet displays used by F-35, F-15, F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon and F-18 pilots. F-35s are getting the latest model (the U.S.–Israeli HMDS, Helmet-Mounted Display System) of these smart helmets and that will include the new VR feature. These new helmets can display graphics in real time and the VR feature enables the helmet display to show what is beneath the aircraft (via cameras on the fuselage beneath the cockpit) when the pilot looks down with this VR feature turned on. This can be very useful in combat, ground attack or simply landing. This feature proved particularly effective when operating at night. HMDS is also closely integrated with the very capable F-35 avionics and thus will enable to the F-35 to be the first modern jet without a standard HUD (mounted above the cockpit instruments in front of the pilot). A version of this for helicopters is possible, but a lot more expensive than just an Enhanced AN/AVS-6,

The ground vehicle version takes advantage of the fact that a growing number of vehicles have numerous day/night vision vidcams mounted on the outside. These allow the crew to look at a display and switch between different cameras. That can take time. Even if it’s only a few seconds that can be too long in combat. Thus some or all the people in the vehicle can be equipped with a monocle or goggles that use the VR feature. The monocle is useful if the VR system in the vehicle does not have the data display feature. This is standard in modern pilot helmet visors. This VR capability is believed to be more useful for crews of armored vehicles where there is a lot more going on outside the vehicle that is the case with aircraft.

Other features the armored vehicle monocle or tablet will adapt from pilot helmets is the "look and shoot" helmet displays that include information displayed on the visor and sensors in the helmet. This enables the pilot to look at the target (either another aircraft, or something on the ground) and fire a weapon (missile) that will go after the target being looked at. Recent upgrades allow the pilot to also put "head up display" (HUD) information on the helmet visor visual system. This is a big advantage in air combat, where it's always been a problem having to look down at some display or instrument reading, and take your eyes off the surrounding air space. This makes it safer for pilots (especially when flying on the deck, at high speed) and in combat. Another recent enhancement allows each pilot to customize what information is shown on their helmet visor. A tank or IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) crew could use the same tech, especially for the remotely controlled weapons on the turret or even the main gun of a tank.

Meanwhile ground troops are increasingly using the traditional NVG designs but ones that combine light enhancement (the "star light scope") technology (which is all that pilots require most of the time) with thermal imaging (showing a picture via heat differences). The combo NVGs enable a soldier to spot man sized objects out to about 300 meters. The closer the object is, the more accurately it can be identified. The thermal imager is most useful in places where there is no star (or moon) light to enhance (like inside buildings or caves). The combo NVGs cost about $10,000 each while high end light-enhancement-only models for pilots use cost about half as much.

Basic NVG tech has been around since the 1960s. The first light amplification (takes available light from moon or stars and amplifies it) devices reached the troops in Vietnam and enabled users to see at night. But the early devices were hand held, about the size of a small telescope. Useful, but not decisive. Four decades of further development has produced lighter, more powerful equipment. In addition to the original light amplification systems there are now even more capable thermal imaging devices, which create a picture based on the temperature of everything. These can see through light fog and mist and, more importantly, most camouflage.

Iraq and Afghanistan are the first sustained military operations where the current crop of night vision gear has gotten a major workout. New tactics and uses have been discovered, and older ones amplified. For example, one of the major combat chores is raids. Here, the element of surprise is important. And there is nothing more surprising than a bunch of hummers, with lights out, emerging from the darkness. These vehicles are able to move at high speed, with their lights out, because the driver, and the guy sitting next to him, are wearing night vision goggles. When the raiding party arrives at its destination, the troops rapidly dismount and charge into the building they are to search. In total darkness, the raiding party knocks down doors and subdues any armed or hostile people inside, search, make needed arrests and depart, all in darkness. This has a severe psychological impact on the enemy.

Many gun sights carried by combat troops incorporate night vision technology. The fire control systems of most armored vehicles has night vision, usually thermal imaging. Security cameras, incorporating zoom capability, are also equipped with night vision. These cameras make it nearly impossible for terrorists to get inside American bases.

The enemy are using night vision devices as well, often for ambushes against American convoys moving at night without lights. Night vision devices have been on the market for decades, and they got a lot cheaper after the Cold War ended and Russia dumped large supplies of inexpensive military grade stuff (which the Russian army could not afford to buy anymore) on the market. You can now buy night vision cameras to attach to the front of your car, and a display that sits on your dashboard, allowing anyone to do a little lights-out night driving. But the military grade American stuff is better, and expensive (up to $10,000, or more, for a set of goggles.) The military stuff has longer range, a sharper image, and weighs less. VR will take a while to get compact and light enough for ground troops.




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