Pilot of the future: U.S. Army gets wearable tech for the battlefield

Soldiers will use Android and Windows systems during missions in a not-so-distant future. The Raytheon Company has developed a wearable device and display to help pilots navigate and see where their foes are even after they leave the cockpit.

Aviation Warrior Raytheon

U.S. Army, welcome to the future.

If you happen to be in Farnborough, London, this week, you'll be able to see a demo of an Army pilot geared in the latest in wearable military technology -- a portable computing device that fits in a pocket and a display panel that can be strapped to a soldier's wrist.

The entire Aviation Warrior (yes, that's what it is called) system -- which includes a helmet equipped with a flip-down viewing monocle and taps into the cockpit's digital display -- may seem like something that belongs in Battlestar Galatica, but it is no prop.

Created by the Raytheon Company, the system provides access to important tools that help Army helicopter pilots maintain "situational awareness," according to the makers.

"He can see where the good guys are and where the bad guys are," Todd Lovell, the chief engineer for Raytheon's technical services branch, put it simply when explaining part of what the technology does.

The company has a contract with the Army to develop technology for the battlefield and is unveiling the wearable tech at the Farnborough International Air Show on Monday. While the tech is applicable to fixed wing aircrafts as well, the army is currently only funding development for helicopters.

Keith Strubhar, director of communications for Raytheon's technical services branch, said situational awareness is what pilots can see, feel and hear while they are in the cockpits. With the military moving toward smaller deployments and non-traditional missions that require pilots to leave their aircrafts, it's become even more important to make sure soldiers have access to information at all times.

"There's no borders anymore when it comes to what we do, it's not like World War II," Strubhar said.

The company has been helping the military upgrade its equipment without exuberant costs, Strubhar said and adapting a portable device is another way of adding technology to older aircrafts.

A screenshot of a Raytheon video featuring the portable computing device. Screenshot by Donna Tam/CNET

The company has already outfitted older planes with a digital center display unit, replacing the analog dials of the past. The helmet -- with its display monocle -- connects into the center display unit, allowing pilots to see all the information provided by the unit without looking down at the display.

The new portable computing device and display give pilots even more flexibility. Lovell describes the device as a quarter-inch thick and about the size of an old-model BlackBerry phone, while the display module features a screen about the size of an Android phone.

Surprisingly, the portable device runs on Window 7, which is rare for military tech. While Windows cannot be used for real time functions like flight instruments or weapons control, it can be used for situational awareness functions like mapping and radio control, Lovell explained.

A screenshot of a Raytheon video featuring the display module of the portable computing device. Screenshot by Donna Tam/CNET

Both the helmet and the portable devices are connected to the information through a wired connection for security purposes, so the devices can't receive data wirelessly, yet. Lovell said the company is working on some low-powered frequency options that they hope the Army will be comfortable using.

"That's where the army is a little slow to adapt," he said.

Ultimately, the military will move forward with the Aviation Warrior concept, Lovell said, and more advanced systems are coming like an Android network for ground soldiers.

Until then, the helmet is still attached to the cockpit and isn't mobile like the device, but Lovell said the company is working on making the helmet mobile as well. When the portable devices leave the cockpit -- it has a quick-release cable for easy separation -- it lets the pilot carry off the mapping and location information, and receive messages and updates via radio.

Limited tech in some ways, but still very cool. Plus, the Aviation Warrior may lend Windows 7 some street cred.

 

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