The F-35 Lightning II, a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft from Lockheed Martin on track to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet, has some serious tech on board. In addition to stealth capabilities and the world’s most powerful single jet engine, the F-35 strike fighter has an advanced, helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) that replaces the heads-up display (HUD) for the first time in the history of military airplanes. Being produced by Vision Systems International (VSI) and in ongoing development, here’s what we know so far about this extreme piece of tech, and how the technology will give F-35 pilots the edge:
One of the most impressive features of the F-35 helmet-mounted display system is the Infra-Red Distributed Aperture System (DAS) that gives pilots “X-Ray” vision through a bubble-like view around the aircraft. Pilots can literally see through the bottom of the aircraft, and can track nearby targets from any orientation, friend or foe. VSI president Drew Brugal states that the helmet “provides the F-35 aviator unmatched situational awareness presenting symbology and pilot selectable augmented reality in a wide field-of-view”. On a consumer level, Google is also developing their own head-worn augmented reality glasses.
Targeting information from the F-35 helmet is also paired with the seeker-head of missiles, enabling missiles to pursue a target regardless of orientation. So an enemy can be engaged even if behind or to the side. Check out the video below.
At night, the helmet display also shines. VSI is integrating digital night-vision sensors (as opposed to analog, swing-down versions) in both the fixed cockpit camera and the helmet camera, giving extremely sharp images at low light levels. As a stealth fighter, this will offer an additional tactical advantage during night missions.
Unfortunately, the current version of the helmet doesn’t yet meet the strict criteria required in the Joint Strike Fighter program, as the helmet was identified as one of the 13 ‘flaws’ of the F-35s in a review by the U.S. Department of Defense leaked late last year. The review found that display jitter, night vision acuity, and latency made it a risk being used as the primary flight reference. The jitter made “symbology unreadable under those conditions” while the latency was 130 ms for video and 50 ms for symbology, far above the cutoff of 40 / 30 ms, respectively. VSI has since modified the display processor to filter out seat and aircraft vibration frequencies, but latency and the digital night vision acuity are still an issue.
Another, “lower risk” version of the helmet, produced by BAE systems, is also in parallel development, notes ainonline. The hybrid solution combines a clip-on Q-Sight holographic waveguide display, positioned close to the eye to project symbology and mission information. Night vision goggles swing down for low-light operation, while the system uses optical head tracking to correctly position symbology. Great stuff, but hopefully VSI can address the issues in their version; as it looks to be an amazing piece of technology combining cutting edge augmented reality with avionics that would give F-35 pilots the edge in times of need.
When Canada upgrades its fleet to the F-35, it will put the Royal Canadian Air Force on the cutting edge. 65 F-35As are planned for purchase between 2016 and 2018, but delays and rising costs of the JSF program means they could arrive much later than that. There have been times that CF-18s (in service since the early 1980s) lagged behind NATO allies technologically; for example Kosovo in 1998, when some CF-18 systems were rendered obsolete and incompatible: “The airplane we flew then is not the airplane we fly today. It was so much less advanced,” says Lt.-Col. Soroka on flying CF-18s in Kosovo, in the latest edition of Canadian Business. “The first two guys would wake the enemy up and get them shooting. The last two guys would have to go through that to bomb the target. Some guys in the rear would get pretty excited and would wind up flying above other jets while dropping their bombs, or flying through the formation. There were some close calls.” Systems were subsequently upgraded, but with new technology such as the HMDS in a Canadian F-35, compatibility issues like these would be a thing of the past (partner countries include the US, Britain, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Israel and the Netherlands, and recently Japan and Turkey).
For those in the know, what other aspects of the F-35 are you looking forward to the most?