F-35-Style Sensors on Helos? It Could Happen

We all know about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s wild infrared sensor technology, called the Distributed Aperture System, that will (someday) allow pilots to see in a complete bubble for miles around their airplane. If, and when, the system comes online, it will allow F-35 jocks to literally look through the floor of their aircraft by viewing images collected by tiny infrared and electro-optical sensors mounted all over the plane on their helmet visors.

These sensors are so powerful that DAS-maker Northrop Grumman claims a test plane flying over Maryland and Virginia have accidentally tracked rocket launches in Florida with the system. If it sounds too good to be true, it is for now. Engineers are having trouble broadcasting high-quality images from the DAS onto the F-35 helmet’s curved visor. In fact, Lockheed just issued a contract for a backup helmet that won’t receive DAS info, for now anyway.

Still, this technology will likely be fielded eventually and it may appear in more than just JSF cockpits. Boeing’s Bill Sunick, director of V-22 business development, explained that we could see DAS-style sensors on future helicopters.

“I can see a migration eventually happening because that’s a good thing,” said Sunick during an interview at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference here in Washington last week. “You don’t have your FLIR [sensor] ball out in the nose and you’re combining sensors because they use the same sensors for IR [and electro-optical images]. So, you’re constantly looking for ways to reduce weight and create synergies — distributed apertures are a good thing and with the 360 degree, above and below. So, you can get rid of the FLIR, you can get rid of all the separate missile sensors and have [all of that sensor info] stiched together and now you can do some innovative things like have crew awareness” where all members of an aircrew can be looking for threats all around the aircraft.

DAS integration isn’t the only example of how innovations in fighter tech can trickle into helo designs, as Mark Ballew, Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook business development director explained.

“We want to be a capabilities type of organization, so within the mobility division we have C-17, tankers, Chinook and V-22 and the strike division has Apache, F/A-18 and F-15 and that’s to take advantage of synergies between what we’re doing for the Air Force of Navy programs that could benefit the Chinook and Army,” said Ballew after I asked if conformal fuel tank technology that Boeing is using on its F-15SE Silent Eagle program could find its way into future helicopter designs as a way of saving drag while increasing range.

This comes as Boeing is looking at various ways to improve the performance of the venerable CH-47 as it serves in the coming decades through design tweaks to the aircraft.

“We’re looking at what can we do to increase the lift and reduce the weight” of the Chinook, said Ballew. “Overall, what can we do to the drive-train, what can we do for weight reduction, is there a way of increasing the amount of fuel with increasing the drag signature of the aircraft? Are there new materials or components we can use to reduce weight? With the mission equipment, is there a way to get equal or greater functionality out of some of the mission equipment in smaller boxes as technology advances.”

As we’ve written before, the U.S. military helicopter industry is in need of some serious advances — the V-22 Osprey is the only brand new design to have entered service in decades. With the military looking to field a new class of chopper in the 2020s, you can bet that companies will start looking into integrating advanced tech — already developed for fighters — onto those designs.

  • mhmm…

    Well lets get it to work first lol

    • Buzz

      NO! Lets field it and then fix it to maybe work like we do for every other system!

  • blight_

    It’s possible the avionics works in the testbed, but isn’t quite working out when miniaturized.

    • jumper

      The testbed is using production hardware, at least as far as the sensors are concerned. The technology for the imagers themselves is quite mature. From what I’ve heard it’s a software issue when trying to project the corrected image onto the visor. That’s just word of mouth though.

      • blight_

        Which suggests that the helmet interface is the bottleneck, and not the hardware and image processing. We’d be stupid to throw out the baby with the bathwater at this point.

  • Garry Owen

    Buck Rogers here we come!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephenrusell Stephen N Russell

    Test them on USCG for Rescue & Army for Combat use alone, awesome, why not & install in F22?? or retrofit to Cold War jets??? IE F14, F15.

  • Kski

    I think using it on choppers would be better. Especially with that Chinnock downing in August. It would allow the pilots and crew to see there blind spots.

  • traindodger

    Huh. Reminds me of the “ADF-01 FALKEN” from Ace Combat. That fictional aircraft lacked a see-through canopy. Instead, it used a bunch of sensors on the exterior of a completely-armored c-0ckpit (LOL, it censored c-0ck). A panoramic view of the outside world was relayed to the pilot through the use of interior displays. Man, wouldn’t want to have an instrument failure while flying something like that, eh?

  • Mark

    Dang. Technology is just getting crazy.

  • blight_

    Maybe the more accurate title should be “comments on general fixed wing trends which may find their way into rotary wing systems”

  • Sanem2

    allowing the pilot to see around him is just a fraction of what this system can do: it can also detect, identify and track friends and foes by itself. the pilot is just there to give overal guidance and push the “fire” button

    the problem they’re having with the pilot interface demonstrates that the pilot is quickly becoming the weak link. even if it does work, the aircraft’s computers will spend most of their time waiting for the pilot to understand what is happening, rather than the other way around

    the F-35 also has state of the art undetectable, unjamable communication links to other aircraft. I’d suggest to put all that technology in a UCAV, and use both long and short range communications to ground bases and manned chase planes (AWACS)

    this would give remote operators time to take the right tactical and strategical decisons. or if they do get into a dogfight, the operators will be able to look around the aircraft as if they where actually in it (although with the sort of acrobatic manouevres a UCAV would be able to do, they’d probably get sick if they did that)

  • Riceball

    I like the idea, reminds of the cockpits seen in some of the Gundam anime series where sit inside a completely enclosed cockpit with a 360 view. I have to wonder though, they’re talking about integrating all sorts of different systems into a single or far fewer units but what happens if it takes a hit, does it mean that instead of losing just one system you now lose a whole host of systems?

  • Lance

    Interesting.

  • William C.

    Consider the avionic suite the Apache came with back in the ’80s, that was very advanced for the time. I believe the pilot could actually have the infrared image from the PNVS shown on his helmet display.

  • roland

    Let’s make sure it works first before advertising.

  • Gallic batrach

    Text excerpt: ” (…) will (someday) allow pilots to see in a complete bubble for miles around their airplane.”

    Kiddos, it’s a summer-weather technology. Meaning: It could have given the F-$$ an edge in World War II.

  • http://www.oudin.org Oudin

    DAS only support system, more important is man behind the gun.