If you think your office needs a lick of paint and some new furniture, spare a thought for fighter pilots. Those who fly fighter aircraft like the F-16 or the Tornado are still, in effect, working in a 1970s office - because that's when those aircraft were originally designed.
It takes a very long time to build a new fighter jet. Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor is currently the only supersonic stealth fighter in active service ‒ but when the contract for the first prototype was signed in 1986, Apple's top-of-the-range Macintosh Plus computer had a mere 1Mb memory and no hard drive. The F-22 carried out its first combat mission on 22 September this year – three days after Apple released the iPhone 6. Technology has transformed in those intervening 28 years, and nothing dates faster than yesterday’s vision of the future.
Today’s aircraft designers must guess what the world of 40 years’ time might look like – a task that even the innovators in Silicon Valley might baulk at. "At the moment, I'm looking at stuff out to at least 2040," says Mark Bowman, chief test pilot for BAE Systems at Warton, Lancashire.
So how have designers dealt with these issues in the newest generation of fighter aircraft, and what technologies are they preparing for the cockpits of the future?
The most modern jets – such as the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that is yet to enter service – feature helmet-mounted displays, voice-activated controls and airliner-style control sticks. This is a big change from the cockpits cluttered with dials and buttons that fighter pilots flew in a few decades ago.
But the innovation is not for its own sake – the reason the cockpit has changed is because today's pilots are doing different jobs to the fighter pilots who flew 20 or 30 years ago.
"Due to advances in aerodynamics and automation, the handling of the aircraft is almost becoming a secondary issue," says Bowman, whose job involves helping to design, plan and test new developments on the Typhoon. "So the role of the pilot moves more into mission management: it's about decision-making. Therefore we need to look at what technologies are that are out there that are going to improve his ability to do that."
Today's combat pilots may need to be simultaneously tracking an unidentified aircraft, watching live video footage of troops on the ground under fire from enemy forces, and talking to commanders back at base. They shouldn’t have to also be scanning an array of dials and instruments to work out whether they're pointed in the right direction and how much fuel they've got left.
"What we want a pilot to do is to look out of the window, because that's where the mission is," says Bowman. "So that drives us into a philosophy that looks more at what information we can put in front of the pilot's eyes."
Although it first flew 20 years ago, the Typhoon's designers had anticipated many of these needs. None of the navigational or system-status instruments seen in older aircraft appears in the jet's cockpit: instead, information is shown on three full-colour monitors and a HUD, or head-up display ‒ a transparent screen placed at eye level which shows text and symbols that are in focus as the pilot looks through it to the skies beyond.
From crash helmet to sensor
There is a drawback to the HUD: the pilot has to be looking straight ahead in order to see the information projected on it. The logical next step, therefore, was to put the HUD into the visor of the pilot's helmet. The Typhoon helmet ‒ designed and built at BAE's plant in Rochester, Kent, with each one individually tailored to precisely fit the shape of every pilot's head - does just that. Cameras inside the cockpit track dozens of diodes on the outside of the helmet, so the computers always know which direction the pilot is looking: the information projected onto the visor moves to match.
"We've moved away from the helmet being a crash helmet and a walkie-talkie into it being a sensor," Bowman explains. "It's now actually one of the integral part s of the system.” Lockheed took this philosophy a stage further on the F-35, which doesn't have a HUD at all. The information that would have been displayed on the HUD, as well as video taken from cameras placed all around the aircraft exterior, is displayed in the helmet, enabling the pilot to "see through" the fuselage, and even to look at the ground below, through the floor of the cockpit.
The traditional centre stick has also gone, replaced by a side stick on the right of the pilot. There are no mechanical cables connecting the controls to rudders or flaps, but the side stick is programmed to vibrate as if it were attached - enabling the pilot to feel the aircraft's flight behaviour through the stick.
Future fighter cockpits look likely to take these ideas far further.
Anything that will allow the pilot to be fully aware of what’s going on around them without having to break away from the mission to check something inside the cockpit is likely to improve performance, so will be considered.
"Eye tracking; gesture control; neuro control; augmented reality - these sorts of things are being looked at," says Bowman. "If we go to an extreme, there might be something like an avatar with you in the cockpit, potentially helping you with decision-making."
The Typhoon and F-35 may offer the best clues as to what the fighter cockpits of the future will look like, but there is another aircraft which points an intriguing direction forward. The Reaper unmanned aircraft ‘cockpit’ isn't inside the aircraft: the crew ‒ a pilot and a sensor operator ‒ sit in front of an array of screens in a ground control station, which may well be thousands of miles away. In the future, that remote cockpit might not need to be on the ground: it could be inside a fighter jet, with one pilot controlling their own aircraft and a number of other unmanned ones at the same time. This wouldn't necessarily just be about gaining numerical advantage.
"We fly people in Typhoons up to +9G and down to -3G, and you don't really want to go beyond that," Bowman says, referring to the multiples of the force of gravity that a pilot experiences during hard manoeuvres and which can cause pilots to black out. "But if you were linked to some sort of unmanned combat aircraft, that may give you higher levels of agility.” With no human in the cockpit to lose consciousness from excess Gs, the sky really could be the limit.
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