Designers try to outfit aircraft pilots with artificial eyes

ST. LOUIS — Designers at the Boeing Phantom Works in St. Louis are investigating the use of synthetic- and enhanced-vision technologies to improve situational awareness in the cockpits of military aircraft.

By J.R. Wilson

ST. LOUIS — Designers at the Boeing Phantom Works in St. Louis are investigating the use of synthetic- and enhanced-vision technologies to improve situational awareness in the cockpits of military aircraft.

The joint helmet-mounted cueing system (JHMCS), currently in engineering and manufacturing development, is an effort of Boeing and avionics experts at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to project information onto the pilot`s helmet visor.

Boeing experts also are working on the visually coupled acquisition targeting system (VCATS), which looks at technology to go beyond what the joint helmet is doing now. Currently in demonstration and validation, VCATS is a contracted effort from the Air Force`s Armstrong Laboratory at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, to Boeing. It looks at placing video on the helmet display.

"The original intent and application for the joint helmet is for air-to-air," says Rich Jauer, Phantom Works senior technical project engineer. "VCATS also is now looking at air-to-ground operations and will look at what needs to be done to remove the HUD from the airplane and do everything with the helmet alone. That makes a big difference with regard to the design of the instrument panel and it removes a costly item from the airplane." VCATS is based on internal research money that officials of Boeing and its suppliers have invested over the years, he says.

Boeing experts have been looking into how they could apply these types of helmet displays to weaponry. Yet they also are considering questions such as how to rig the cabling for such a system so it does not interfere with the ejection system or the pilot`s parachute.

"Conceptually, all these are great things, but the practice needs to go through a lot of work," Jauer says. "After we have determined what these systems can do and how they can actually be integrated into real-world applications, then we get into such things as panoramic night vision goggles."

But Boeing engineers are acutely aware that the U.S. Defense Department is short of money, and that they must design systems that will have a commercial as well as military market.

"If we can get the technology to the point where it does not have a major physical impact on the crew, it would be more acceptable in the commercial world," Jauer says. One application, he suggests, might be package delivery services that must "get into airports such as Anchorage regardless of the weather."

Questions that VCATS designers must confront involve how to integrate all the information available on a jet fighter, such as sensor data, flight control, and communications. A VCATS-like system must get this synthesized information to the pilot without overwhelming or confusing him.

Boeing engineers have modified three F-15Cs fighters at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., as part of the VCATS effort. They installed a box called the cockpit control panel, which serves as an interface between the helmet and aircraft, along with some additional wiring.

Those aircraft began flying about two years ago, although one was recently lost in a non-VCATS related midair collision with another F-15. In addition, Air Force experts have modified a fourth F-15C at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where they are also flying the joint helmet. Air Force officials also plan to test the joint helmet on the F-16 and F-22 jet fighters in the future.

The military also still has an interest in a fully window-less cockpit, which would not only assist in the stealthiness of the aircraft, but also would protect the pilot from lasers, a hazard that is expected to increase in the future.

"Also, if you bury the pilot inside the aircraft, you have more freedom in how you shape the aircraft, which then affects stealth as well as drag," Jauer says. "A sensor-based vision system also could be used for an unmanned vehicle, but there you would need a very secure datalink so the enemy could not intercept the signal and see what it is seeing, as well."

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