Air warrior gives aircrews digital edge

Most of the attention and development related to network-centric warfare systems pertains to lifting the fog of war for ground troops.

Helicopter pilots are at the other end of the spectrum. They not only travel with the electricity and lifting power to carry sophisticated electronics but also are plugged more tightly into the upperechelon command-and-control system to direct their deployment and fire control.

Air Warrior, the third part of three Warrior development programs within the Program Executive Office-Soldier, focuses primarily on comfort and survivability factors for helicopter pilots and crew.

Its most successful components include a microclimate vest designed to keep aircrews cool during missions in which cockpit temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the length of the mission. Developed for CH-47F Chinook, UH-60M Black Hawk and Apache helicopter pilots, the vests have proven so successful at keeping crews comfortable and alert that other U.S. and foreign aircrews are ordering them, said Army Lt. Col. John Womack, product manager of Air Warrior.

Air Warrior’s main net-centric warfare component is the Electronic Data Manager (EDM), a tablet-type computer system that aircrews wear strapped to one leg. It provides more detailed situational awareness data, especially about ground forces, than what is available through the basic equipment aboard Army helicopters.

Built using mostly commercial hardware and software, EDM provides Global Positioning System functions with routing data in addition to the locations of threats and mission waypoints. It also provides configurable mission and flight checklists and links to maintenance programs.

It runs on Microsoft Windows XP Professional and includes as much as 1G of memory, a digital processor and a diagonal transflective LCD touch-screen monitor with an optical film over it that redirects ambient light to enhance visibility of the LCD screen rather than wash it out.

“One problem with the environment in the cockpit is visibility in direct sunlight, so the LCD addresses that,” Womack said.

EDM, now in its third iteration, has USB and Ethernet ports for connectivity and solid-state flash memory that uses less power than the 30G hard drive that had been in previous versions. It is less susceptible to vibration and has a battery designed to last five hours when the unit is unplugged.

“The battery we had in the previous version was mainly to get the aircrew from their building to the aircraft,” Womack said. “It worked for about 30 minutes. The new one can keep them working dismounted for an extended time.”

About 17,000 sets of Air Warrior gear have been deployed among U.S. aircrews, and about 2,000 include the EDM unit. That number might increase over time, Womack said, but aircrews are lobbying to incorporate some of the EDM functions in the displays already built into the cockpits.

Having one display for aircraft-specific systems and another for integration with ground forces makes sense because one member of a two-person aircrew can pay attention to flying and the other can focus on coordinating with ground troops, Womack said. That setup also is practical when there are more than two crewmembers, some of whom don’t have access to navigation and Blue Force Tracking data in the front of the aircraft.

He said it makes sense to integrate much of the connectivity and tracking data in the pilot’s screens, too.

“Our primary challenges, apart from the human factors, are in how the systems are used in the cockpit and how they can be used effectively without interfering with flight controls,” Womack said.

EDM and other Air Warrior systems integrate well with Land Warrior and Mounted Warrior systems but are designed independently. They vary in size mostly because of the different physical environment for aircrews compared with the needs of Strykermounted or ground-pounding infantry.

“We didn’t intentionally design something that was different from the ground units, but the challenge was a lot different,” Womack said. “Unlike the ground systems that are mostly line-of-sight [radio-network connections], this is all satellite. Each platform, on the ground and in the aircraft, reports its own position, and that goes back to the network where it’s distributed out to the same air and ground assets.

“So in terms of sharing information, the ground forces are on the net, and the pilot can touch an icon to see who they are and what information is available there,” Womack said. It relies mainly on the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below network and Blue Force Tracking, he added.

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