I’m at Farnborough International Airshow, looking down into the cockpit of the jet fighter of the future – and it’s empty. Instead of the usual rows of displays, buttons and switches, there’s nothing but a seat and a stick.
Everything else is virtual, and housed within a helmet that heavily, but comfortably, encases the pilot’s head, showing your surroundings (simulated, in this case) in colorful full HD.
Raising each hand brings up a menu of switches that you can tap to to toggle different views, and pulling a slide-out menu displays a map of the terrain.
Friends and enemies are flagged in AR, and 3D audio lets you pinpoint their location, even when you can’t see them (active noise reduction cancels out the roar of your own engines).
You even have a virtual smartwatch. Raising your left wrist reveals various statistics about your health, including heart rate and ECG readings. If your vital stats indicate that you’re finding the current situation too stressful, the software could suggest handing over some tasks to a wingmate.
It seems strange to be putting so much trust in the helmet, but the plane will also be able to fly a UAV, with no pilot in the seat at all.
The next generation
This is a full-scale concept model of Tempest – a next generation fighter jet that will eventually replace the Eurofighter Typhoon. Tempest was a closely guarded secret until this week, when UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled the model and announced £2bn (about US$2.6bn, AU$35bn) of government funding for the project.
The final plane will be equipped with next-generation weapons technology, including drone swarms that will use artificial intelligence to locate targets, and directed energy weapons – all launched using the virtual controls, or remotely with the plane being flown as a UAV.
Tempest is being developed by BAE Systems with Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls Royce. It’s still at the concept stage, but some of the technology that will be used in the project is already on display at BAE’s stand at the air show.
The concept model features a Striker II digital helmet-mounted display, which is designed to give the pilot all the information they need to make split-second decisions and reduce the amount of time spent looking inside the cockpit.
Information is projected onto the helmet’s visor, and displayed at the same focal depth as the outside world. There’s a built-in digital night vision camera, so there’s no need for pilots to use heavy, obtrusive goggles, and whereas previous displays only displayed symbology in monochrome green, which could become confusing. Striker II can color-code enemies and friendlies, making it far easier for the pilot to interpret their surroundings.
Because the system is software-based, it can be upgraded easily without altering the physical cockpit to update it. This also has great advantages for training; engineers can create a simulator that’s identical to the real jet, and although a simulation is no substitute for flying an actual plane, but the gap is narrowing.
The software could also recreate the experience of flying one plane in a less expensive one, and even be used for aptitude testing as part of an interview process, in preparation for Tempest entering operation in 2035.