Edward Tessen Tanaka
Jul 11, 2012

Aviation Warrior flight suit

Press photo of Raytheon's latest defense offering: the Air Warrior system.Situational awareness, as the term implies, deals with our ability to recognize and perceive factors in our immediate environment. However, because of the cognitive limitations of the human mind, even when a person is paying attention, bad things can happen. A busy baker burns a cake. A pedestrian walks into a glass door. A waiter spills a beverage on a customer. A hiding birthday party jumps out and yells "Happy Birthday," taking a person by surprise. While these problems sound relatively harmless and perhaps even embarrassing, situational awareness, in some scenarios - when a person has seconds or even milliseconds to react -- can mean the difference between life and death.

Suppose, for instance, that a military pilot was on the receiving end of a supersonic surface-to-air missile and is now down behind enemy lines. That could really ruin a pilot's day, especially when bad guys on the ground come calling. Unless, of course, that pilot is wearing the Aviation Warrior flight suit designed by US defense contractor Raytheon. A prototype, which was on display at the recent UK Farnborough Airshow, integrates a number of portable technological devices directly into the flight suit.

The Aviation Warrior, which is operated using a small processor not much larger than a smart phone called the Soldier Computer Module, would have been especially useful for Air Force Pilot Scott O'Grady who was shot down by an SA-6 surface-to-air missile and had to spend 6 days avoiding capture. The device, which can operate even when the pilot is no longer with the plane, transmits information to the helmet visor display and also to a small display screen on the pilot's wrist. The wrist display even utilizes finger gestures with a zoomable user interface much like a best-in-class smartphone, therefore increasing ease-of-use because of the user's familiarity with the interaction design.

The helmet monocle allows pilots to "take navigation and battlefield information with them when they leave the aircraft" and will display critical information such as enemy position, according to Wired. Raytheon is also developing a cooling suit, and the helmet will display oxygen and coolant levels for the suit. It also allows pilots to see a virtual map of the ground, including icons to represent both friends and foes, so that they know which areas are safe when they land.

While the benefits of this system are irrefutable, like any new technology it is not without its shortcomings. Because of security concerns, the devices cannot yet receive information wirelessly. The helmet and wrist display are hardwired, with the helmet being connected to the cockpit, meaning that it is not yet mobile. When the pilot leaves the cockpit, the mapping and location information goes with the device and updates must be transmitted via radio. Also, like all mobile devices, battery life A Raytheon Integrated Defense building in San Diego, California.is a concern.

Although Raytheon will not discuss pricing, the Aviation Warrior uses common non-proprietary electronic components to reduce cost. Interestingly, while in alignment with a cost reduction design philosophy, the system utilizes Windows 7. The decision to use Windows -- while cost effective -- does generate some questions regarding the stability of the system. The infamous blue-screen of death -- well known in corporate offices across America -- takes on an entirely new meaning in a combat environment.

Regardless, the future of the Aviation Warrior project looks bright. The need for devices which improve situational awareness, in both civilian and military scenarios, has immense and immediate benefits. While the project has been only been funded by the US government to the amount of $4.7 million, the potential upsides are difficult to refute. This holds true not only for users of such technologies - who depend on it for their lives - but also for the manufactures who see the potential financial benefits.