THE SEE-EVERYTHING HELMET
Now pilots can pick off bogeys using X-ray vision.
WHEN MAJOR WILL ANDREOTTA began flying for the US Air Force in 2006, he had to do a lot of work. He was training on the F-16, a fighter jet first deployed in 1978 and almost everything was analogue. “I would tell my wingman to target something, then call over: ‘Confirm your this, because I'm seeing that,' ” he says.
In comparison, the F-35 that Andreotta flies now is a marvel: it has six external articulating infrared cameras and sensors that send maintenance data to the ground crew. And, as of this year, it comes with a helmet unlike any other in the world – one that synthesises all the live feeds from the plane's exterior cameras and sensors into a lucid, customisable augmented-reality display. Developed by Rockwell
Collins, the company responsible for avionics in the Boeing 787 and for NASA'S unmanned aircraft projects, the Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System gives a pilot as much visibility as he would have if the entire cockpit were made of glass. “What I wore on the F-16,” Andreotta says, holding up the R5,5 million carbon-fibre masterpiece, “was a literal helmet compared with this.”
The difference such a piece of equipment makes to flying is striking. Now, when Andreotta looks down at his boots in the cockpit, the helmet pulls data from a camera under the plane and shows him a thermal image of whatever's below, as if there were no floor. If he tells his wingman to target an enemy, he watches for a circle to appear around that plane or building. “I can do all that in five seconds or less without having to ask for confirmation,” he says.
With so many sensors and readings, there's potential for information overload. But the system is as customisable as a smartphone. “People always ask, ‘Doesn't that get to be too much? Doesn't it take away from what you need to do?' ” he says. “It's the opposite. I can put whatever I want – another aircraft's range, bearing, airspeed, or altitude, for example – up on my screen.” The screen doesn't take over a pilot's entire vision and whatever numbers and stats he chooses to add appear just outside his focal point. In fact, the F-35's computer prevents pilots from getting overtaxed by helping them prioritise information. The visor will show the numbers for a target 15 kilometres away, but not a target 30 kilometres away. It knows that the closer one is, the more imminent threat. That is, unless Andreotta decides the distant target is more important. There are some decisions only a human can make.
29,979 km Low-frequency longwavelength radiation is great at penetrating solid objects such as the walls of buildings, but can’t carry as much information over a given period of time as shorter waves. At a super-long wavelength, the Rescue Dog MINEARC Through-theEarth System can transmit text messages through the earth to miners trapped as far as 1,5 kilometres underground. 666–600 m In medicine, radio-frequency ablation attacks cancer without traditional surgery by sending waves at this wavelength through a needle, killing cancer cells with heat. 3,4–2,8 m (87,5–108 MHZ) FM radio. Megahertz numbers correspond to radio-station names. 1–0,94 m 53–43 cm The FCC broadcast spectrum auction: the band once used for broadcast TV channels and coveted by cellular carriers happens to be in a sweet spot for communication. It’s capable of carrying a lot of information and pretty good at getting through walls to the people who need it. 49,3–48,8 cm The wavelengths that correspond to TV channel 37 have never actually been used in the US for TV, because they are set aside for radio astronomy. my. 12,5 cm (2,4 GHZ) Traffic jam: the FCC has designated the 2.4-GHZ band for unlicensed use, so microwave ovens, Bluetooth speakers, Wi-fi routers, baby monitors and some cordless phones use frequencies in this area. This is why using your microwave and a Jambox at the same time can cause static. 3,89–3,79 mm Common adaptive-cruise-control systems use this band – which is a problem for radio astronomers, who have been allotted an adjacent portion of the spectrum. Research suggests cars with ACC should ideally be kept about 30 to 40 kilometres away from radio telescopes.p 12,5–10 mm
400–300 nm The human eye has the equipment to see near UV, but it is normally blocked from our perception because it can’t penetrate the lens of our eyes. People who have their lenses removed during cataract surgery are often capable of seeing near UV. 200–122 nm A new aeroplane lavatory being developed by Boeing briefly turns on a far UV light when unoccupied – in fewer than three seconds, it kills 99,99 per cent of germs. 0,05–0,01 nm 100 nm At wavelengths shorter than this, EM radiation is ionising – it carries enough energy to strip electrons from atoms – and can cause serious health effects, such as cancer. < 1 pm Gamma radiation created The Incredible Hulk in comic books and in real life can give you radiation poisoning. Gamma-ray imaging is used by customs and border protection officials to look inside containerised cargo.