In December of last year, the U.S. Army chose Bell’s tiltrotor aircraft – the V-280 Valor – as the replacement for a portion of the UH-60 Black Hawk fleet. The Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program is an important step in replacing vertical lift aircraft platforms that have been in use across the military for more than forty years and are ready to be retired for newer aircraft capable of meeting modern mission requirements.
However, new challenges are created as a new generation of technologically advanced vertical lift aircraft find their way into service for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
These new aircraft will be capable of much higher speeds than their predecessors. They’ll be outfitted with new imaging and sensor technologies that didn’t exist when previous platforms were developed. And they’ll be facing peer adversaries with more sophisticated capabilities than any threat the U.S. has faced in more than two decades.
These challenges call for innovation in the other mission-critical systems that pilots rely on when operating their aircraft – including the helmets and helmet-mounted displays that provide situational awareness and essential intelligence.
To learn more about the new, unique helmet requirements that are created by the new generation of Future Vertical Lift (FVL) aircraft, we sat down with Michael Ropers, the Associate Director of Helmet Vision Systems, and Justin Wisdom, the Associate Director of Strategic Pursuits and Advanced Technology at Collins Aerospace.
During our discussion, we asked Michael and Justin about the dangers pilots will face when operating newer, faster vertical lift aircraft, the importance of high visual acuity in this new FVL age, and how combining sensor data can provide true situational awareness even in degraded environments.
The Modern Battlespace (TMB): Why is visual acuity important for the pilots of modern aircraft? What challenges do they have when flying, and what dangers do they face that make visual acuity essential?
Michael Ropers: Visual acuity is a metric of how well the imaging system can resolve the world around you. The higher the visual acuity, the more detail you can see.
When we’re talking about military aircraft – especially vertical lift aircraft – we’re talking about operations that often need to be conducted at low altitudes. When you’re flying low, there is an entirely new universe of obstacles that need to be avoided that other aircraft operating at 30,000 feet will never have to worry about.
Having higher visual acuity means that pilots can see things from further away. They can see obstacles – whether they’re part of the terrain or placed there by an adversary – well in advance. And that gives them more time to respond.
TMB: The military is currently looking to upgrade and modernize its vertical lift aircraft platforms, including its FLRAA platform. Do these advanced aircraft create new demands or challenges for the DoD when it comes to visual acuity?
“Many of the military missions that are flown by helicopter pilots are flown in visually degraded environments. By taking sensors that used to be analog and converting them into digital sensors, we’re capable of fusing their data streams together…and [giving] the pilot a clearer, composite image of the world outside of the aircraft.” – Michael Ropers
Michael Ropers: The requirements are still being developed for the aircraft that will eventually be fielded. However, we do know that these aircraft are going to be even faster than the vertical lift aircraft that proceeded them.
While visual acuity has been important to aviators since we first took to the sky, it is even more crucial for modern aviation. The FVL aircraft that the military is looking to develop will move at more than twice the speed of the previous generation of vertical lift aircraft. They’ll be flying at 180 – 300 knots, platform dependent, instead of today’s operational speeds of 90 -120 knots.
If the aircraft is flying twice as fast, we’re effectively cutting the pilot’s reaction time in half. That gives them half the time they had before to respond to and evade obstacles in their path. It gives them half the time they had before to identify a target. If we’re going to be taking away their reaction time, we need to make sure that they can identify things clearly from further away.
Justin Wisdom: This problem is further exacerbated by the amount of information that’s presented to modern pilots. An immense amount of data is being pushed to the helmet-mounted displays that are integrated into modern pilot’s helmets.
When you combine the sheer amount of information the pilot must process, and the speed at which these next-generation aircraft will be moving, it’s easy to see why visual acuity is more essential than ever.
“Thanks to the massive improvements in display technologies, we can now deliver a digital imaging system that generates incredibly accurate, high-definition imaging to the pilot display.” – Michael Ropers
TMB: How can the modern helmets pilots wear help increase visual acuity and improve their awareness of the world around their aircraft?
Michael Ropers: There are a number of ways that we can improve the helmets that pilots wear to make them more effective, and to help them operate their aircraft more safely.
It starts by integrating recent advancements in display technology into the helmet. These next-generation displays can increase the pilot’s visual acuity and field of view (FoV). But we have to do more than simply make the displays better; we have to combat the issue that Justin raised of having too much information – too much data – being pushed to the pilot.
Integrating new artificial intelligence (AI) solutions and increasing the processing capabilities of the helmet can ensure that the information displayed is the right information, at the right time. New technologies – including augmented reality (AR) technologies – can also ensure that the information presented to the pilot is visualized in an intuitive and easy-to-understand format.
Then, there are new advances in night vision technology and other sensors that can further improve the capability of the helmets.
TMB: One of those advancements I’ve heard you discuss previously is digital night vision (DNV). What is DNV, and why is it an important capability for a modern helmet system? What benefits does it deliver?
Michael Ropers: DNV involves taking an analog capability that the fleet has today and moving it into the modern, digital domain. By doing so, we’re enhancing the performance over analog through reduced haloing, improved noise reduction, better dynamic range, a larger non-circular field of view, and improved visual acuity. This improved digital capability then becomes the foundation for a true degraded visual environment (DVE) solution.
Many of the military missions that are flown by helicopter pilots are flown in visually degraded environments. In fact, there are eleven visually degraded environments that have been identified and defined by the U.S. Army.
Nine of these eleven environments are naturally occurring, and two are aircraft-induced. They include brownout, sand, smoke, smog, clouds, fog, rain, snow, whiteout, night, and flat light. These eleven environments are so varied and so different by their nature that no single sensor can solve them all.
By taking sensors that used to be analog and converting them into digital sensors, we’re capable of fusing their data streams together. We’re able to blend the information from disparate sensors, overlay different data from multiple sensors, and give the pilot a clearer, composite image of the world outside of the aircraft.
A former commanding general of the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Command has talked about how we had a tactical advantage because we, “Owned the night.” But our adversaries have caught up. “Owning the environment,” is the next frontier in battlefield overmatch. Digital Night Vision provides a digital foundation for a holistic head-up, eyes-out DVE capability that enables us to, “Own the environment.”
DNV also enables us to offer binocular night vision to the pilot.
“When you combine the sheer amount of information the pilot must process, and the speed at which these next-generation aircraft will be moving, it’s easy to see why visual acuity is more essential than ever.” Justin Wisdom
TMB: What is binocular night vision? Why is that something a pilot would want or need?
Michael Ropers: Today’s DNV solutions utilize a single sensor. The imaging from that sensor is then displayed to both eyes. But that’s not how people see in the real world. It’s not how our vision works.
DNV enables binocular night vision – a system where different sensors deliver information for each eye. Basically, DNV delivers a unique image for each eye.
Having independent, different sensors providing images for the left and right eyes feels more natural for the pilot. It also enables them to see obstacles more clearly and more quickly.
TMB: You mentioned that the data from different sensors can be integrated together. What different sensors – aside from night vision – are available for pilots today?
Michael Ropers: It’s difficult to generalize because the sensor suite in an aircraft varies based on the aircraft and the mission. However, there are a number of different sensors that could provide data that could be leveraged in a degraded environment.
For example, the infrared cameras that perform a threat warning capability could also be leveraged in a situational awareness capability. LiDAR technology and sensors could be repurposed to assist in situational awareness. Millimeter wave radar could be leveraged for situational awareness. The data from any of these sensors could be married together with the data from the DNV to provide a true degraded visual solution.
“When you’re flying low, there is an entirely new universe of obstacles that need to be avoided that other aircraft operating at 30,000 feet will never have to worry about. Having higher visual acuity means that pilots can see things from further away. They can see obstacles…well in advance. And that gives them more time to respond.” – Michael Ropers
TMB: What about the displays? You mentioned there have been advancements in the display technologies. What do those look like, and why are advanced displays important?
Michael Ropers: It’s important to remember that there are a number of different displays in the cockpit that pilots utilize. There are the “heads-down” displays built into the console of the aircraft. Then there are the “heads-up” displays which are the helmet-mounted displays that are attached to the pilot’s helmet.
All of these displays need to be on par with the quality of the sensors, because a digital imaging system is only as good as its weakest link. Much like how a 4K streaming video is wasted on an old CRT television, high-definition images from sensors will be wasted on poor-quality displays – whether they’re “heads-down” or “heads-up” displays.
Thanks to the massive improvements in display technologies, we can now deliver a digital imaging system that generates incredibly accurate, high-definition imaging to the pilot display.
TMB: As the DoD explores helmet options for the FVL aircraft, what should they be looking for?
Michael Ropers: There are tangible, quantifiable attributes that are important to consider. They should be evaluating helmet solutions based on their ability to deliver the best mix of visual acuity, field of view, and latency to maximize pilot reaction times at FVL speeds.
They should be evaluating the helmet’s ability to process and display only meaningful data to the pilot, and display that data in a clear, intuitive, and easy-to-comprehend way. They should also be looking for advanced capabilities like binocular DNV, which opens the path to “owning the environment” via sensor fusion.
Justin Wisdom: But there are other requirements that will be necessary to make the helmet a generational game changer. Like the aircraft itself, the helmet should adhere to modern Modular Open Systems Architecture (MOSA) standards.
Simply put, these standards will allow the DoD to integrate rapidly evolving capabilities into the helmet easily, quickly, and economically regardless of which vendor developed the technology.