This Helmet Will Make F-35 Pilots Missile-Slinging Cyborgs
Much rightful snark and scorn has been thrown at the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, the multi-multi-multi-billion dollar jet meant to be the mainstay of allied air superiority for the next half-century.
After years of delays and more than $60 billion dropped on development, the jet is finally just about ready, and it’s bringing some pretty slick tech along with it—including a brand new helmet that will let the pilot see through the plane, aim missiles with his eyeballs, and keep an eye on key data no matter where he turns his head.
The F-35 Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System, developed by defense contractor Rockwell Collins, takes the head-up display (HUD) usually projected onto on a piece of glass at the front of the cockpit, and puts it on the helmet. That means the pilot’s always got it in his field of vision, and can see useful data like the horizon, airspeed, altitude, and weapons status wherever he’s looking.
More than keeping the pilot’s cranium safe from smacking against the canopy, and mounting stuff like a sun visor and oxygen mask, the Gen III helmet is designed to improve the pilot’s situational awareness. At engagement altitudes of a few thousand feet and speeds of up to Mach 1.6, it’s crucial to know what’s going on ahead of, to the side of, above, and below and the jet.
It’s about more than flight data. Rockwell Collins, which has spent half-a-decade developing the system, linked the helmets with key systems. “The helmet becomes part of the system of the aircraft,” says Phil Jasper, executive vice president of government systems for the company.
Feeds from any of six cameras located outside the jet can be piped into the helmet, for a 360-degree field of view. When the pilot looks down, he doesn’t see his knees—he sees “through” the aircraft, and knows what’s below him. Built-in night-vision lets him see in the dark, without needing to flip down a set of goggles. He can even aim weapons with no more than a glance, thanks to the helmet’s eye tracking capability.
All that is built into a carbon fiber helmet that weighs just about five pounds. It’s customized to each pilot, both to fit around the noggin as well as to ensure that the visuals work properly. The two-day fitting process measures things like the horizontal and vertical alignment of the pupils, eye spacing, and a litany of other variables. The helmets are custom built for each pilot, so if yours at home, you’re stuck on the ground.
“The visual effects and how information is portrayed on the visor has gone through a lot of engineering,” says Jasper. Avoiding motion sickness was key and there’s no “adjustment period” needed when pulling the helmet on. Thanks to the custom fit, pilots just pop on the helmet and see what they need to see. It can even fit over eyeglasses.
Because the F-35 program doesn’t include a two-seater variant for training, pilots are on their own from their first flight. Rockwell Collins has created a second helmet for simulator work, so pilots can learn how to fly the plane during training with the same gear that they’d fly the real plane with.
Though the tech was specifically designed for the F-35, it’s easy to see how this kind of head-up display could help firefighters, construction workers, or any number of industries. Rockwell Collins is examining these other possibilities. “They’re looking at the whole idea of head-worn displays and that type of technology and what other applications it may have,” says Jasper. “Not just military but commercial as well.”
The company wouldn’t put a price on the helmet, but if it can keep a $100 million aircraft and a human pilot safer in the skies, it seems well worth it.