BY Courtney E. Howard
Aerospace and defense information and communications are increasingly digital, and critical to mission success and individual safety. The need for robust, yet compact computing devices permeates military and aerospace environments—on land, at sea, and in air and space. Commanders and soldiers on the ground, flight-line and field maintenance engineers, trainees, medics in the field, and pilots and unmanned vehicle operators all desire wearable computers to aid in, speed, and improve their work.
“Wearable computers are gaining significant user acceptance and practical application in aerospace and defense applications,” says Norman Lange, director of product development for Black Diamond Advanced Technology (BDATech) in Tempe, Ariz. “The trend to provide instant, concise, relevant information to users in the rugged environments faced in the defense and aerospace industry is being widely driven by both the commercial technology capabilities that are in common use (e.g., smartphones) and the economic pressure within these industries to accomplish more with less.”
Commanders are coordinating efforts of increasingly diverse units, including coalition forces, and must fuse data from several sources into a cohesive view of the battlefield to increase situational awareness and to make informed decisions fast, Lange adds. Helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft pilots are evaluating wearable products to increase general situational awareness and provide light-security for nighttime operations.
Engineers at aerospace and defense technology firms are going to great lengths to understand the wearable computing needs of aerospace and defense personnel. A team of BDATech engineers spent a week embedded with a special operations unit to gain first-hand knowledge about the equipment they carry—including what works and what is left behind due to usability and reliability shortfalls.
“End users are looking for equipment that is truly operable while being worn and helps them complete their missions, without hindering mobility or safety,” Lange says. The wearable system must be easy to use, intuitive, and unobtrusive to the other equipment and gear the user has to carry. Those characteristics seem obvious, he admits, “until you start drilling down to basic demands like not blocking access to weapons and ammo, the ability to operate the system while wearing gloves, not consuming valuable space required for hydration and other mission-critical gear, and the ability to manage cables so they aren’t getting snagged or bent so often they fail, rendering the system useless.
“Reliability is a big deal in the mil-aero industry,” Lange continues. “Customers refuse to accept products that are not extremely rugged with proven reliability—and they should, because lives are at stake.”
A system that supports several operating systems, flexible I/O (input/output), and customer-defined security and management functions greatly increases the value of that system across several customers, Lange admits. Another key customer demand includes modular/scalable platforms that enable plug-and-play interoperability with legacy and future peripheral systems. “It has to work with currently fielded equipment and have the capacity to adapt for future equipment,” he insists.
Display systems must be sunlight-viewable and compatible with night-vision imaging system (NVIS) equipment. “Wearable systems must offer redundant user input controls that allow a user to continue operating the system, even when one input method fails or is impractical due to the environment or use conditions,” Lange notes. Customers also demand wearable systems to be lightweight and have long battery life (e.g., more than 8 hours of operation on one hot-swappable battery), without sacrificing processing and I/O performance.
“Wearable computers are actively being used by select U.S. and coalition forces as part of soldier modernization programs,” Lange explains. In fact, BDATech won a contract to produce a ruggedized, wearable tactical computer and navigation system for the Israeli Defense Forces. The wearable computer, designed to be worn primarily by the dismounted warfighter, integrates communications, networking, global positioning, and data acquisition to provide real-time situational awareness and communications to fighting forces. Company engineers also completed a wearable computer system for the U.S. Army Nett Warrior program.
“These programs provide integrated solutions to the warfighter where mission-critical communication and navigation equipment are utilized to present enhanced situational awareness to the warfighter with a specific human-machine interface,” Lange says.
Wearable computers are being employed in aerospace and training applications, as evidenced by use of the ExpeditionDI combat simulator training platform from Quantum3D Inc. in San Jose, Calif. ExpeditionDI is integrated into the U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training & Instrumentation (PEO STRI) Close Combat Tactical Trainer–Dismounted Soldier Training System (CCTT-DSTS) for soldier training.
Quantum3D’s self-contained, wearable, close-combat infantry simulator training platform includes a head-mounted display (HMD) and wearable computing pack with an Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia GPU. The wearable computer pack features a built-in thermal shield and alarm, a quick-release latch for safety, and wireless technology.
“There is a great deal of industry investment occurring to make wearable [computer] capabilities applicable and affordable for even more military users,” Lange says. Doubtless, aerospace and defense innovators, including those listed on these pages, will continue to deliver technology in answer to the growing needs of the mil-aero community.
Black Diamond Advanced Technology
DRS Tactical Systems
ITT Electronic Systems
Secure Communication Systems