Flat-panel technology for tactical and strategic information display

Accurate, reliable, and real-time information display in military environments, especially on today’s digital battlefield, is critical to mission success.

Aug 1st, 2009

By Courtney E. Howard

Accurate, reliable, and real-time information display in military environments, especially on today’s digital battlefield, is critical to mission success. Yet, historically, systems designers and systems integrators have often invested little time and attention in selecting the optimal display; that is, until now. Today’s engineer has a wealth of display options from which to choose, and an exponentially larger list of application and end user requirements to weigh in the selection process.

“The exact order of priorities depends on the specific application,” says retired Navy Capt. Chuck Nash, chief executive officer of Combat Displays Inc. in Bowie, Md. In general, he says, military and aerospace end users must consider a display’s ruggedness, which translates into mean time between failures (MTBF) and mission reliability; size and weight, which are critical especially in form/fit/function replacement; resolution, especially to take advantage of sensors; power consumption and thermal output, as most platform power and thermal budgets are already out of headroom; and brightness/dimness/contrast for daytime readability and night-vision device compatibility.

Aspect ratio is also an important trait in military and aerospace displays. “Most military systems output in a 4:3 or 1:1 (square) aspect ratio,” Nash explains. As a result, commercial off-the-shelf displays, such as LCDs, which increasingly offer only a 16:9 aspect ratio, are a poor fit. “It causes the integrator to either spec a larger size to get the same viewable area as the legacy display (with large black bars down on each side), or to settle for a smaller viewable area than before.” The ability to get the specific size and aspect ratio required for a specific application is a significant advantage of rear-projection displays, he continues.

Color is yet another important display consideration today. “Many of the mission essential applications, like maps and datalink presentations, are becoming more and more color dependent,” Nash explains. “We have only scratched the surface of what color could bring to situational awareness for the warfighter.”

Portable computing is becoming more prevalent, notes Timothy L. Hill, senior product manager at General Dynamics Itronix in Spokane Valley, Wash. “In portable devices, such as notebook and tablet computers, the most important aspect is outdoor viewability, and then battery run time followed by ruggedness.” Most companies simply increase the display brightness to compensate for the effects of direct sunlight, resulting in added power consumption (reduced battery run time) and a washed-out look that makes seeing fine detail difficult, he says. In contrast, General Dynamics Itronix patent-pending DynaVue display technology employs films to reduce the effects of direct sunlight without affecting battery run time.

“The most basic barrier of entry for any of the military mobile programs and applications is almost always MIL-STD-461 and MIL-STD-810G, which address both the environmental ruggedness and the EMI (electromagnetic interference) requirements,” adds Richard Ridley, president and chief executive officer at Digital Systems Engineering Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“The display must also be able at accept and process the various video input signals available from the selected systems,” Ridley continues. “The more flexible the display is in this area, the better. Customers are asking the display to do more than present an image. We are being asked to integrate controls for various sensors and systems through the use of programmable switches and potentiometers. We are being asked to provide application-specific graphic overlays and GUIs (graphical user interfaces), and even some limited use of touch screens.”

“Touch screens will become even more prevalent in all computing devices, as will the desire for multi-touch gesturing,” Hill says. Multi-touch touch screens are beginning to be desired in portable devices; yet, the challenge is enabling them to be used with gloved hands or in the rain.

“Touch screen is making its way into certain applications,” Nash agrees, “but some operators find it difficult to use when the platform is moving erratically. Also, many platforms and weapons system controls are already established with techniques like HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick), track ball, and joystick, which are operator-preferred.”

Two technologies are showing some indications of viability in this area, however: Resistive multi-touch and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) optical touch. “As touch screens become more popular, their surfaces will need to become more resistant to scratches,” Hill explains, adding that it is likely to be accomplished through removable films and harder glass surfaces.

In the future, flat-panel displays will move from a basic terminal to “an intelligent, interactive display system allowing for interaction with and control of several systems, such as DVE (Driver’s Vision Enhancer), FBCB2 (Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below), COMM, targeting, and so on,” Ridley predicts. “Also, next-generation displays will need to be able to enhance images through internal processing and display several images at the same time.”

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