New "Digital Eye Piece" Will Allow U.S. Fighter Pilots To Own The Night Like Never Before

It's a novel and cost-effective way for pilots flying at night to get the same capabilities their helmet mounted displays give them during day.

Elbit

Donning a helmet mounted display (HMD) or night vision goggles (NVGs) has been a far from seamless issue for American fighter pilots since the widespread introduction of the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) well over a decade ago. Now that is changing via a fairly novel piece of technology that leverages existing cockpit HMD infrastructure and NVGs called the "Digital Eye Piece." 

The USAF's late adoption of helmet mounted display and sighting system technology is an interesting story in itself, one you can read about in this past feature of mine. Spurred by the introduction of the AIM-9X Sidewinder, which can engage targets far off the aircraft's centerline axis, the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps has widely adopted JHMCS as their HMD solution. 

Every HMD has its positives and negatives, and JHMCS certainly has its drawbacks, but it has proven to be a highly successful and largely positively viewed enabling piece of fighter pilot garb. Now in its second major rendition, the HMD can also be found on allied tactical aircraft all over the world. 

The system uses a visor that attaches to the crown of a pilot's helmet that projects critical flight data, weapons cueing and sensor symbology, as well as mission information generated from the aircraft's mission sub-systems and data-links in front of the pilot's right eye. The projection is reflected like a heads up display onto a piece of sapphire glass that is specially tailored to the contours of each pilot's facial structure. The unit isn't cheap, with each one costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Every JHMCS capable cockpit is magnetically mapped before the sensor tracking gear is installed, with magnetics being the system's primary mode of spatial tracking. JHMCS and the modern HMD for fighter aircraft concept serve a number of functions. These include elevating the pilot's overall situational awareness, enhancing their ability to keep their eyes "out of the cockpit," and most importantly, giving the pilot the ability to target weapons and sensors simply by looking at said object or locale. 

Bottom line: HMDS offer a massive capabilities leap for tactical aircraft crews. 

While some HMDs have night vision capabilities built in, JHMCS which the DoD is heavily invested in, does not. What this has meant operationally is that once night falls, pilots forgo night vision or they swap out their JHMCS visor and all its features for a pair of night vision goggles (NVGs). In other words, either the pilot can have the HMD or NVGs, not both at one time.

Israeli defense contractor Elbit and their partners in JHMCS American avionics giant Rockwell-Collins developed a novel workaround for this issue. The Digital Eye Piece (DEP) leverages JHMCS architecture already installed in many fighter cockpits and interfaces it with an eye piece that projects all the JHMCS symbology and information in front of the right eye of existing night vision goggle systems. 

Elbit

During initial trials, Elbit describes their adaptation and pilots' experiences with it as such in an official release:

This unique add-on solution transforms existing HMDs and Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) into highly advanced, cutting-edge night vision smart helmets, providing pilots with daytime cueing and display capabilities in their night operations. Its seamless integration requires no changes to aircraft installation or software. The DEP is a simple and cost-effective plug-and-play solution that enables pilots to transition from day to night configuration, improves situational awareness and meets the operational needs of military aviators.

DEP can be installed onboard any fielded JHMCS, D-JHMCS or JHMCS-II. The goal of the flights was to demonstrate the system’s performance in night flight, including A/A and A/G scenarios, in which effective flight missions generally cannot be executed. A variety of international Air Forces participated in flights onboard their F-16 aircraft. Feedback was very positive and the pilots emphasized the contribution of the system to night flight safety and effectiveness. Pilot feedback included: “the DEP improves situational awareness and reduces workload”… “the system improves night identification capabilities”… “the DEP provides more flexibility and better situational awareness for close air support”.

Elbit

Now the system is being fielded in large quantities to Air Force, Navy, and Marine fleet pilots and has already been used during combat operations in the Middle East. The 114th Fighter Wing, an Air National Guard unit flying Block 40 F-16CGs out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, better known as the "Lobos," was one of the latest units that put the system to the test. Major Jeremy Doohen, one of the wing's pilots, stated the following about his experience with the new system:

“With the U.S. being smart with their military tactics they look for opportunities where we can gain an advantage and a lot of times that’s at night... With this new system it allows our targeting cueing capabilities to be overlaid into our night vision goggles, before this, there were just night vision goggles... It doesn’t just turn night into day, it makes it a lot easier for you to pick out definition in the landscape and you can see a mountain... It gives us the ability to put our radar onto an aircraft or a target and have that overlay within our night vision goggles.. The technology is moving in the right direction so now we can say, ‘we can try that at night’ because now we have better capabilities at night... It’s exciting. It makes it that much easier for the pilot to accomplish the mission.”

USAF

One of the Lobos' F-16CGs getting some attention prior to a nighttime mission. Note the F-35-like "Have Glass II" paint that now adorns most of the squadron's Vipers.

While the system doesn't provide anywhere near the whiz-bang tech that the infamous F-35's helmet does, which is deeply integrated into the jet's design, adding a DEP that is built specifically for JHMCS equipped aircraft and can be slapped on existing NVGs, is a somewhat refreshing solution to a complex problem. It's also one that likely costs far less than deploying a whole new helmet mounted display system and its required infrastructure altogether. 

USAF

A 114th Fighter Wing pilot tries on the DEP system. 

Going forward, American fighter pilots flying 4th generation fighters can feel confident that the long-established U.S. military adage "we own the night" still holds water, and the ability to kill your enemy simply by looking at them even after the sun goes down thanks to the DEP certainly supports that statement. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com