Center for Strategic Communication

Raytheon’s vision for the helicopter pilot of the future.  Photo: Raytheon

The Army has found a solution to fixing its aging helicopter fleet. It doesn’t even require upgrading the helicopters very much, or designing new and more modern ones. Indeed, the helicopters will remain largely the same. It’s the pilots who are getting upgraded.

On Monday, Raytheon received a $4.7 million contract from the Army’s wing for Engineering and Manufacturing Development to develop a wearable computer system for helicopter pilots. Called the Air Soldier system, which the Army hopes to field by 2015, it includes smartphone-sized devices attached to pilots’ wrists and is envisioned as a way to share battlefield information between pilots and troops on the ground. Those devices are then linked to a detachable tablet mounted to an aircraft dashboard. Behind it all is a brain called the Soldier Computer Module, which is itself planned to be only a quarter of an inch thick and slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes. This comes the same day the military announced it’s spending $7.3 billion on new Black Hawks, which have served as the workhorses of the U.S. helo force since the 1970s.

In other words: keep the helicopters, but improve the pilots. Instead of ripping out and redesigning consoles for existing aircraft, and going though costly re-certification, you simply redesign the airmen.

Air Soldier is envisioned as a personal communication and information tool. That could mean tracking where friendly troops are operating, or the location of bad guys an attack chopper needs to destroy, or which areas to avoid if a pilot is forced to abandon his or her aircraft.

“If an aircrew goes down – unfortunately we’ve seen a few times here recently — the fact that he’s got all of his data, what he knew about the battlespace with him when he gets on the ground, is a huge advantage,” says Todd Lovell, chief engineer for Raytheon Technical Services Company. “And the pilot had all this information in the cockpit. As soon as he got on the ground, it’s gone. if he had to put the airplane down, or a guy ejecting, he was a fish out of water and had to find his way home back to map, a compass and a simple radio.”

Air Soldier stresses portability — that pilots should be able to take navigation and battlefield information with them when they leave the aircraft. The screens will also display critical (life-dependent) information like oxygen and coolant levels for the Air Soldier’s new cooling suit, being developed separately from Monday’s Raytheon contract. Air Soldier also features a new helmet-mounted display system. That’s for a pilot to see icons (say, a red icon for enemy) appearing in his vision, or a virtual representation of the ground while landing in degraded, soupy, or sandy conditions.

Air Soldier is also the Army’s planned replacement for Air Warrior — the aging mission-display, helmet and cooling suit ensemble currently used by helicopter pilots in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

The problem is that Air Warrior is really heavy, weighing about 100 pounds. The Army wants to cut a quarter of the total weight for Air Soldier. The cooling suit has to be lighter, and the Army wants to cut the number of batteries to one (from Air Warrior’s seven), while also reducing the number of direct connections to the aircraft to three (from Air Warrior’s five), which means fewer cables. Currently, helicopter crew members need to keep their suits’ cooling systems plugged into chopper-mounted power units. The Army wants to eventually eliminate that.

Air Warrior’s tablet — called the Electronic Data Module — is also ten years old and predates the smartphone and smart-tablet revolution in the civilian sector. And the tablet sits on the pilot’s lap, forcing the pilot to look down to see critical navigation information. For Air Soldier’s dashboard-mounted tablet, that information gets shoved back up into the pilots’ face.

The Army also wants to swap out Air Warrior’s search and rescue radio with a smaller, cigarette-pack-sized radio that links together with the wrist-mounted smartphone.

The smartphone, you see, is the interface. The pilot has “got this information that he can pass through his survival radio and back and forth,” says Lovell. “So as he tries to evade or get into a position to be rescued, it’s not just somebody talking and giving him coordinates and then following the coordinates on his GPS. He’s got a visual picture and tools to help him successfully manage that situation.” Something Air Warrior — which the Army spent years developing and is now ready to replace — never had.

It’s also easier to replace than a complete data system. You just plug it in. The helicopters will more or less remain the same.