When I was growing up, one of the neatest pieces of comic book technology was Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. Not only could the bad guys not detect the aircraft’s approach but Wonder Woman had complete situational awareness. Both airplane and helicopter pilots have long wished for an invisible plane so they could fly with greater safety, particularly near the ground.
What was once in the realm of science fiction has now become fact. U.S. defense companies are on the verge of a revolutionary leap in situational awareness capabilities that will transform both fixed wing and rotary operations. In some ways this revolution could be as dramatic and transformative as was the introduction of stealth technology some thirty years ago. In fact advanced situational awareness capabilities could be a force multiplier for stealthy platforms. It also could virtually eliminate controlled flight into terrain, the single largest cause of helicopter crashes.
This revolution in situational awareness is based on the integration of a number of capabilities. First, there are the external electro-optical cameras that are located to provide 360 degree “see through the aircraft” visibility, just like Wonder Woman had. To these are added infrared and low light sensors that enable observation and detection at night or in obscured environments. Then there are a variety of laser trackers and target designators. The images from all these sensors are fused and sent to both heads up displays on the aircraft’s cockpit and also to a helmet-mounted display. To work in real time this capability also requires enormous computational power and advanced software. With all these technologies in place, pilots will be able to operate their platforms in the most challenging air environments and in the presence of a wide range of potential threats including small arms fire, RPGs and infrared guided missiles.
One of the first platforms to deploy such a multifunctional, integrated capability for situational awareness is the Lockheed Martin-led team’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In addition to the AESA radar, all three variants of the F-35 will have an electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) for long-range detection and precision targeting along with a distributed aperture system (DAS) for viewing thermal images. EOTS incorporates a mid-wave third-generation FLIR, dual mode laser, CCD TV, laser tracker and laser marker. DAS provides navigation, missile warning and infrared search and track (IRST). The DAS information will be fed to a helmet-mounted display that will enable the pilot to employ the equivalent of “X-ray vision,” looking through the aircraft. No other aircraft in the world will have the combination of sensors available on the F-35.
Another player in this area is Raytheon Corporation with its Advanced Distributed Aperture System (ADAS). Intended initially to be deployed on rotary wing platforms, ADAS is a multi-functional, day/night sensing and surveillance system that will provide helicopter pilots with an unprecedented level of situational awareness. ADAS may be the ultimate in integrated situational awareness systems, combining day and zero illumination sensors along with audio detection of hostile fire, missile launch detection, IR search and track and automated cueing of defensive systems. The fusion of thermal and low light sensors both provides zero illumination visibility as well as doing away with the requirement that the pilot wear both a helmet and night vision goggles. The combination of electro-optical, infrared and audio sensing is better even than the technology available to Wonder Woman.
ADAS’s sensor images will be fed to a unique helmet mounted display based on super-fast processing. This is important because the integration of all these functions and the reduced processing times means there will be no latency. As anyone who plays video games knows, latency is the lag that occurs as you scroll across your screen trying to find orcs to kill and the picture slows down as the computer tries to refresh the images. No latency means that the pilot can respond to what the sensors tell him in real time. He can turn his head and instantly receive images from the new direction. Unique software will allow the pilot to deal with the dangers of dark nights, brown out and slow speed flight, thereby reducing significantly reducing the dangers of crashes due to lack of visibility.
The ADAS system provides several other unique features. One of these is 3D audio which allows the helicopter’s crew to know from which direction sounds emanate. It also will be able to use its infrared sensors to detect and localize hostile fire and to distribute that information to onboard defensive systems, other aircraft or even dismounted forces. This would allow the elimination of redundant sensor and warning systems currently aboard many U.S. helicopters. Taken together, these features will improve both helicopter operations and overall aircraft and crew survivability.
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