Strap in and Feel (Less) G’s – Why Lighter Pilot Helmets are Better

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In our last article on The Modern Battlespace, we sat down with the team of professionals at Collins-Elbit Vision Systems (CEVS) that is actively working on a new helmet that will revolutionize the way combat pilots experience the airspace around their aircraft. The team includes:

  • John Rogers: a former combat pilot and the associate director of requirements and capabilities for the 6th generation fighter program at Collins Aerospace
  • Russ Smith: a former combat pilot and Associate Director, 6th Gen HMDs at Collins Aerospace
  • Ron Major: Lead program manager at Collins Aerospace
  • Lincoln Burns: Senior mechanical engineer at Collins Aerospace

During our discussion, we explored the ways in which air combat missions have changed, how near-peer adversaries are creating new requirements for aircraft and helmet systems, and how the helmets that combat pilots wear have evolved almost as much as the aircraft that they operate.

“We’re working aggressively to remove approximately one pound of excess weight from the next-generation helmet. That may not sound like a lot, but…it’s a big deal at zero-g.” – Lincoln Burns

Ultimately, the helmets that pilots wear today are more than just protective devices. They feature an array of systems and capabilities designed to make the pilot more effective and to aid in accomplishing the mission. And they’re continuing to evolve to meet the needs of our pilots at a time when the battlefield is changing and our military is faced with a more sophisticated, near-peer adversary.

In the second part of our discussion with the CEVS team, we explored the physical design and engineering changes that they’re implementing in their new Zero-G Helmet Mounted Display System+ (HMDS+) and why a smarter, lighter helmet is essential for modern combat pilots.

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): It’s obvious that the capability and functionality of pilot helmets and helmet-mounted displays are improving with time. But what about the helmet, physically, is changing as it continues to evolve?

Lincoln Burns: A pilot in a combat aircraft should be able to use their helmet-mounted display seamlessly and not even realize it’s there.

For that to be possible, the helmet and helmet-mounted display need to be lightweight. They need to have a wide field of view with no obstructions to the pilot’s vision. They can’t have an impact on their daily operations or constrain their movement in any way. But they also need to give the pilot all the information they need to complete the mission.

TMB: Why is the weight of the helmet so important?

John Rogers: Having been a pilot who wore a helmet with a helmet-mounted display, I can say with certainty that every ounce counts. Every [additional] ounce of weight gets amplified by the g-force – the number of G’s that the pilot is experiencing in flight.

For example, if a pilot weighs 200 lbs. and is in a 9 g turn, their body will feel like it weighs nine times its actual weight. That 200 lb. pilot will feel like they weigh 1800 lbs. In that environment, their head – which might weigh as much as 11 lbs. – will feel like it weighs 99 lbs. The same thing happens to the helmet on the pilot’s head.

“Over time, the new additions to the traditional pilot’s helmet have pushed the center of gravity forward. That caused significant pilot health issues. That’s why, for the next generation of combat aircraft, we needed to create a lightweight helmet that doesn’t strain the neck in zero-g.” – Russ Smith

In those environments, pilots experience discomfort simply by holding their heads, their helmets, and their helmet-mounted displays, upright. These parts of the human physiology are being asked to support more than nine times the weight they were designed for. There is a limit to what the human body can handle.

Because of this, we need to ensure that every ounce in the helmet delivers increased lethality, survivability, and effectiveness. If it doesn’t make the pilot better, we don’t need it.

Russ Smith: Over time, the new additions to the traditional pilot’s helmet have pushed the center of gravity forward. That caused significant pilot health issues. That’s why, for the next generation of combat aircraft, we needed to create a lightweight helmet that doesn’t strain the neck in zero-g.

We have a pilot shortage in the U.S. military. And recruiting and training new pilots is a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process. We need to keep every trained pilot in the force medically able to fly. We can’t have their helmets causing injuries and making pilots medically unable to fly.

TMB: What is being done to reduce the weight of this next-generation helmet? How much weight can be removed?

Lincoln Burns: We’re working aggressively to remove approximately one pound of excess weight from the next-generation helmet. That may not sound like a lot, but – as John explained – it’s a big deal at zero-g.

“There will always be a need for pilots to train in immersive simulators, and there will always be a need for pilots to get actual flight hours in aircraft. However, there are ways that training can be augmented with this technology, and there are some training challenges that the military faces that this technology could help with.” – Russ Smith

To accomplish that, we’re embracing new display system technology. These new digital displays leverage much smaller, lighter technology that borrows heavily from the commercial realm.

Ron Major: We’re also working to make the helmet more modular so that systems and equipment that aren’t needed can be easily removed to reduce the weight of the helmet.

For example, we’re utilizing a removable night vision camera that can quickly and easily be removed from the helmet to further reduce weight for missions during the day.

But making things more modular doesn’t help if the process to repair, maintain, or customize the helmet keeps the pilot out of the fight.

We’re taking logistics into account and working to make the next-generation helmet less complex. We’re also making it easier to change things in the field. This means that pilots are spending less time altering, repairing, and maintaining their gear and are getting back into the fight more quickly.

TMB: With the integrated AR capabilities and the advanced display technology, could the next-generation Zero-G helmet play a role in pilot training?

Russ Smith: There will always be a need for pilots to train in immersive simulators, and there will always be a need for pilots to get actual flight hours in aircraft. However, there are ways that training can be augmented with this technology, and there are some training challenges that the military faces that this technology could help with.

“Having been a pilot who wore a helmet with a helmet-mounted display, I can say with certainty that every ounce counts.” – John Rogers

We know that training is expensive, and using aircraft to train creates a huge bill. Also, the next-generation aircraft that are in development will feature exquisite capabilities that may not be able to be trained in the open air. Hypersonics and long-range effectors are difficult to train on in a small test range. There are also some things that we simply won’t want to train with and test in the open, where adversaries might be watching.

This is why simulation is so important for pilot training. And why immersive simulators will remain an essential part of pilot training well into the future.

However, augmented, extended, and virtual reality training delivered via a helmet-mounted display such as the Zero G HMDS+ could play an important role in training in the future. The technology could be used to augment training and provide more training exercises for pilots. This could be useful for asymmetrical learning and helping new pilots that are falling behind by giving them an opportunity to train more on their own time in their own helmets.

To learn more about the Zero-G HMDS+, click HERE.