Users demand rugged displays with increasing functionality

A majority of aerospace and defense applications call for displays that are rugged, but the list of requirements certainly does not end there. Current mil-aero missions, projects, and environments are driving the demand for myriad display capabilities and characteristics, including touch screens, security, and on-board processing.

Ruggedness

"The key thing to remember is that, if anything, the screens on a vehicle need to be even more rugged than many of the other components, because while most of the vehicle's systems are protected in racks, displays are almost always 'front and center,'" says Simon Collins, product manager at GE Intelligent Platforms, headquartered in Huntsville, Ala.

"Not all screens are created equal, and that's just as true for screens that will be installed in harsh military environments subject to extremes of heat and vibration, shock, moisture, contaminant ingress, and so on," Collins continues. "Ruggedness in the screen is obviously a prerequisite; the screen should feature toughened glass to enable it to withstand accidental abuse.

"Glass needs to be chosen that is a suitable thickness, and then chemically treated to ensure that it is robust against the worst of the physical abuses it will encounter in its in-service life," Collins says. "The glass should also be treated to minimize reflections and to provide electromagnetic interference (EMI) integrity. All these processes need to be of the highest standard to ensure that the LCD image is not degraded as it passes through the glass; even the slightest hesitation in interpreting the on-screen image is intolerable."

General Dynamics Canada provides the above Smart Display for mil-aero applications.

Readability

A display for aerospace and defense applications should be bright enough to be clearly legible in direct, bright sunlight-likely requiring LED backlighting, Collins admits, while posing a relevant question. "Is the optical stack used to create the screen of high enough quality that images are perfectly reproduced at all angles and under all use cases?"

LED component performance continues to increase. Efficiency improvements abound in light emission, color, size, power, reliability, and other qualities, says Steve Motter, vice president of business development at IEE Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif. Driving improvement is the high volumes of tablets, laptops, and flat-screen TVs.

SWaP

A "drive to reclaim size, weight, and power (SWaP) in vehicles and other space-constrained platforms" is evident, explains Andrew Shepherd, product manager at General Dynamics Canada in Ottawa. Aerospace and defense customers are increasingly seeking rugged smart displays that "integrate more capability into a smaller package and replace the need for separate computer modules, video distribution boxes, and video display screens while significantly reducing the cabling necessary to integrate the disparate components."

"The display can make a significant contribution to reducing SWaP by integrating more functionality into it," says GE's Collins. "That same integration can also save cost." To those ends, in fact, GE launched Intelligent Vehicle Display models IVD2010 and IVD2015 that provide additional functionality via an Intel processor and an NVIDIA graphics processing unit (GPU), "creating a complete, powerful computing solution within the display casing."

"For handling demanding, complex display applications such as picture-in-picture, symbology overlay, video stitching, and so on, the display no longer needs to rely on an outboard computer," Collins explains. "The IVD2010 and IVD2015 can also be optionally equipped with Ethernet capability, allowing them to be integrated within a vehicle's on-board backbone network-which means that it can also represent another usable processing node, beyond its graphics capability."

Shepherd notes growing "recognition of the need for operational redundancy" within the aerospace and defense community. "Combat vehicles with a central computer hosting various vehicle information and C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] systems while driving a number of displays have a single point of failure. If the single central computer fails, the operational effectiveness of the platform is severely compromised.

"Networked smart displays enable any application to be run from any position and allow crews to share 360-degree situational awareness," Shepherd adds. "Imagine the driver being able to see what the gunner sees through his sights or all crew members being able to see a live unmanned aerial vehicle video feed."

Commonality goes hand-in-hand with the trend toward multifunctional and multi-mission electronic systems. Shepherd says he is witnessing a "drive for commonality across platforms. Commonality reduces the training burden and greatly increases operational flexibility. It mitigates obsolescence risks and ultimately reduces through-life costs. Just imagine a crew being able to move from one platform to another, interfacing to the vehicle systems information and C4ISR applications through a common display."

A soldier at work uses a rugged Smart Display from General Dynamics Canada inside a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

Commercial influence

"Screen resolution requirements continue to increase to full high definition (HD) and beyond," says IEE's Motter. "Driven by the extremely high resolutions found in the latest tablets, customers are becoming familiar with, and are coming to expect, similar performance as these tablet devices, which perform great in an indoor home or office environment; yet mil-aero customers generally need to operate displays in much more severe environments."

Aerospace and defense clients also seek displays with wide aspect ratios (16:9 or 16:10) and lower power consumption, which is especially important in portable battery-operated applications.

At the same time, commercial digital video formats are driving commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) integrated circuits and boards. "DVI, HDMI, and now embedded Display Port are becoming more common as they are incorporated into higher-functionality integrated circuits [ICs]," Motter adds. Applications also call for tiling and windowing of a multiple video sources, from legacy sensors to modern high-definition cameras. "It is not uncommon to have display application requirements with composite (RS-170, RS-343), analog VGA (RGBHV), and digital DVI/HDMI video sources simultaneously available and required to be displayed.

"Depending on latency, data rates, and codec requirements (either lossy or lossless), Ethernet interfaces (10/100 or Gig-E) are being used to transmit information to displays," Motter notes. "This has some definite advantages for system architects and integrators."

A majority of industry experts advise against using commercial displays in aerospace and defense environments, however. "Commercial displays, or more precisely ruggedized industrial displays, have their place in some of the less harsh operational environments, such as static command posts," Shepherd says. "These displays are not suited for combat vehicles because they do not stand up to the military standards for shock, vibration, and operational temperatures, to name a few. Even commercial components like graphic and computer processors used in military displays and computers aren't designed to operate at extreme temperatures, which could be anywhere from -46 degrees C to +71 degrees C. For the most part, commercial components require significant systems integration effort to operate in the warfighter's environment.

"As for commercial touch screens, imagine a soldier putting his foot on a display for egress of the platform or unintentionally hitting it with his rifle or pistol butt while moving around in the vehicle. It happens all too frequently," Shepherd admits. "A standard commercial touch screen would not stand up to that level of unintended abuse, nor should we expect it to."

An enhanced color TEDAC Display Unit from L-3 Display Systems is installed in U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters.

Challenges

Industry leaders are hard at work advancing display technology to meet the growing list of requested and required display traits; yet, they face several challenges in the process.

"LCDs are still based on a liquid with material properties affected by temperature; extreme cold tempera- tures still require a heater/warm-up time; and extreme high temperatures require special liquid formulations and installation-based thermal management," Motter describes.

"Achieving an acceptable (up to exceptional) contrast ratio display for the operator, across an extreme- ly wide set of lighting conditions-from direct sunlight to high ambient (outdoor) as well as low light and night-vision goggle compatibility-is challenging," Motter continues. "Finding the right configuration that maximizes all these is a challenge, especially in a mil-aero fielded application that requires physical protection of the display face (boot-kick glass), EMI filtering, and the addition of a touch screen."

Durability of the touch screen is a design challenge, Shepherd says. "General Dynamics Canada developed the original boot-kick test which is still used by the U.S. Army today. The advent of touch-screen technology demanded a more robust standard; we set the standard and developed a sharp impact and scratch/mar test which raises the bar for testing durability of touch-screen displays in combat and tactical wheeled vehicles."

Dissipating the heat is a real challenge, especially as computing power increases, Shepherd says. More specifically, the heat has to be dissipated from an enclosure that remains a constant size and sealed, he says. "General Dynamics Canada developed a unique method for getting the heat out of a fully sealed unit while using the latest and most powerful Intel chips. This allows us to package COTS technology to operate efficiently in the -46 degrees C to +71 degrees C environment that customers demand."

Aerospace and defense customers increasingly are challenging technology firms to come up with secure solutions. "Combat and tactical vehicles frequently have both classified and unclassified C4ISR systems onboard; this requires two different sets of hardware reducing operational flexibility and efficiency," Shepherd recognizes. "Warfighters are looking for solutions to automate the transfer of information between different security levels and consolidate multiple levels of security onto a single display." General Dynamics Canada's smart displays are designed to host Multiple Independent Levels of Security (MILS), increasing the operation flexibility and effectiveness of the warfighter while eliminating line replaceable units (LRUs) and saving size, weight, and power, he adds.

Future

Despite these design challenges, industry vendors continue to deliver advanced display technologies and capabilities for aerospace and defense applications. "In terms of ruggedness and operability in the military vehicle environment, the challenges and solutions are already pretty well understood and in place," Collins acknowledges. Where the developments are likely to come is in increasing the processing power behind the screen-enabling the screen not only to display more data of higher complexity more quickly and more clearly, but also to act as a powerful compute node on the vehicle's network backbone, he explains.

The interest among prime contractors and integrators in general-purpose computing on a graphics processing unit-GPGPU technology-is enormous, Collins admits. Virtually every major military prime contractor, subcontractor, and integrator was present at NVIDIA's recent GPU Technology Conference (GTC) to "find out about the latest developments in GPU technology and how companies like GE are developing solutions that leverage the huge parallelism it offers to enable significant steps forward in a range of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic warfare (EW) applications."

Shepherd is seeing increased capabilities in such areas as enhanced situational awareness, enhanced lethality, embedded training and mission rehearsals, and support to enhance mobility. "All these continue to put demand on the vetronics infrastructure from size, weight, power, computing, and operator interface perspectives," he explains. "As we move forward, customers are looking to embed even more C4ISR capability onto their platforms which results in an increased demand for highly integrated solutions that can address multiple requirements." On the Stryker armored fighting vehicle, for example, General Dynamics Canada provides the Video Display Electronics Terminal (VDET), a smart display that replaced 3 LRUs-reducing SWaP while saving money.


COMPANY INFO

3M Touch Systems

www.3m.com
AAEON Electronics
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CRI Rugged
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Crystal Group
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Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions
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Cyberchron Rugged Systems
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