At the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference this week, DSJ had a chance to demo two of the most sophisticated (and costliest at $400,000 a pop) Helmet-Mounted Displays (HMDs) in the world – BAE Systems’ Striker II and Rockwell Collins and Elbit Vision Systems (RCEVS) joint-venture Gen-III HMDS. They are also two of three likely competitors for helmet contracts for the F-22 fighter, as well as future bombers, trainers, next-generation helicopters, etc.
The technology is remarkable. Essentially, courtesy of a combination of sensors, a pilot wearing one of these helmets can see what is going on at all 360 degrees, including underneath the aircraft with key information laid over their view.
Over the past fifteen years, the joint-venture between Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems, RCEVS, has dominated the market of HMDs in the US. “If you’ve worn a HMD in the last fifteen years, odds are it was made by RCEVS,” said Jeff Hoberg, part of the business development group for Elbit Systems.
The third-generation RCEVS HMD is the helmet used on the F-35, and its proven track record on that marquee program is pointed to by RCEVS. The RCEVS HMDs have been through hundreds of flight hours and they know it works – not flawlessly, but it’s jet-tested.
BAE Systems’ Striker II HMD is also on the Typhoon and Gripen C/D aircraft, two of the most advanced fighter jets in Europe.
In many ways, the two helmets are similar – both moving from analog to digital displays and from magnetic and inertial tracking to include an infrared system.
Both helmets also come in two pieces, an inside shell designed custom for an individual pilot and an outside part with all of the technology. While both companies laser scan for the fit, Joe Ray, Business Manager of Rockwell Collins said that the fitting system for Gen-III HDMS is better.
“The way we fit our pilots with the center of gravity directly over the spine causes less neck strain. That is a strain that pilots have when they pull Gs, and that means when a pilot has neck strain they can’t fly.” Ray said. “No one else has a pilot fitting facility in the world than Rockwell Collins and Elbit Vision Systems does.”
But it’s also really clear where the two systems diverge. BAE Systems’ Striker II has fully-integrated color that allows for colored enemy identification and live video. In the demo, I was shown a view of the New York City skyline and also a more combat-applicable display where, if I focused my view on a certain target, a video feed would pop up showing simulated video of a missile on ground-impact. The experience was reminiscent of an Iron Man suit.
RCEVS, while currently just displays a green hue, is moving in the same direction as tge Striker II, but it’ll largely depend on what the customer wants, Hoberg said. “It could be anywhere from six months to five years, depending on what the Government wants. The opportunity is there, it’s a matter of how much, how many resources do we dedicate to it now.”
Currently the F-22 fighter doesn’t have a helmet and many of the Military Services are working on new programs – future bombers, tankers, next-gen helicopters, etc. – which could be promising business opportunities for BAE, RCEVS, and perhaps Thales in the coming years.
DSJ will continue to monitor.