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Jane's Defence Weekly

September 8, 2004

US Army Fields Helmet-Mounted Displays In Iraq

By Scott Gourley, JDW Correspondent, California

The US Army is using helmet-mounted display (HMD) technology to provide C4ISR situational awareness to elements of its initial Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT), now operating in Iraq.

Called Nomad, the HMD technology displays Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) screen information to vehicle commanders travelling in open-hatch configuration.

Manufactured by Microvision of Bothell in Washington, the Nomad HMD utilises technology originally developed at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab).

According to Tom Sanko, Microvision's vice-president of marketing, HIT Lab efforts led to a concept they called the "virtual retinal display".

"We call it a scan beam display," Sanko said. "That's a microscopic light beam, typically created with a low-power laser, that is bounced off a mirror or a couple of mirrors that are moving really fast. By modulating the laser and knowing the position of the mirror you can essentially paint a picture, fooling your eye into thinking that there's an image there when it's really just a fast moving spot of light."

After focusing initial technology efforts toward several army aviation programmes, Microvision introduced a portable battery-powered HMD design in the late 1990s.

"We came up with some prototypes, tested those and got some pretty good results," Sanko explained. "And we used all of that experience to come up with the very first commercial product that Microvision ever did, which was called the Nomad Augmented Vision System. It was still fairly big, clumsy, heavy, and expensive - but it worked. It was a see-through, head-worn, daylight-readable, high-resolution display that ran off a battery."

Company representatives took a greatly improved version of that system to the Association of the US Army annual meeting in October 2002, where it was seen by two representatives from the army's initial SBCT, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. That exposure led to an invitation for formal follow-up demonstrations at the brigade's home station: Fort Lewis, Washington.

"The whole premise is to enhance situational awareness," Sanko said, "so you are no longer in the belly of the vehicle looking at a computer screen. You're able to stand in the hatch and look at your surroundings at the same time that you see the screen."

The Fort Lewis demonstration led to interface experiments between Nomad and the Stryker vehicles' on-board FBCB2 situational awareness computers. Nomad HMDs were subsequently fitted in 20 of the vehicles before the brigade's April 2003 field training exercise at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California, and its May 2003 certification exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Based on that field experience, the SBCT reportedly used a portion of its pre-deployment Rapid Fielding Initiative funding to install Nomads in 100 brigade vehicles.

The manufacture of the 100 units was completed in December 2003, after the SBCT had deployed to Iraq. Installation of the systems, which required running cables inside the vehicle up to the hatch, was completed by Microvision field engineers at Camp Udari, Kuwait.

"To our knowledge it's the biggest helmet-mounted display fielding ever in the military, at least for ground troops," Sanko noted.

Sanko added that positive field reports have led to continuing discussions with the army's second SBCT: the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.

"What we found out is that the second SBCT were looking for even more capability," he said. "They have got all these sensors and other things in the vehicle, and the brigade commander wanted the ability to switch back and forth between all the different displays. So we have rigged up a kind of converter box and a remote control that will allow the commander to stand in the hatch and switch between FBCB2, the infra-red sensor view and the remote weapon station sight image."

As JDW went to press, the enhanced Nomad system design is reportedly being finalised with concurrent efforts to identify procurement funding before the brigade's anticipated deployment late this year. Looking even further beyond that deployment, Sanko sees another generation that he calls "Ultimate Nomad".

"We actually sell this commercially as a wireless computer," he said. "So someday - I'm not sure when - you theoretically could stand in the hatch with one of our Ultimate Nomads and control the FBCB2 remotely. You could even be outside the vehicle walking around."
Ultimate Nomad? Sounds good to me...

Thanks to view.


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