Touch screens. Love them, hate them.
How many times have you touched something on your smartphone screen, expected something to happen, and … nothing does.
So you hit it again, and again, until something does happen.
Now imagine you are in a jet fighter, over hostile territory, and you are faced with enemy ground fire and threatening aircraft in the vicinity.
You touch the display, and … nothing happens. You’ve just lost valuable time, that could mean the difference between life and death.
According to an exclusive interview with an anonymous US military pilot published by alternative aviation magazine Hush-Kit and Popular Mechanics, this is a serious issue on the new F-35, the most advanced fighter jet flying today.
The latter is the first jet to use a number of new technologies designed to make it the most lethal and survivable warplane around. It includes helmet-mounted displays, voice recognition tech, and, yes … touch screens.
The problem? Some of those bells and whistles have landed with a resounding thud. In theory, they sound great, in practise, not so much.
The pilot tells Hush-Kit the cockpit itself is “beautiful,” full of screens that allow you to bring up an incredible amount of information about the fighter with just a few finger swipes, and customize the data to tailor it for the particular mission.
The F-35 is the first to use touch screen technology.
Unlike switches, which take up permanent cockpit space, touch screens allow the same LCD screen space to be instantly repurposed, the report said.
One minute, a display could be used to pull up data on an aircraft’s fuel reserves, and the next, it could help target an enemy position on a mountainside.
That goes a long way toward simplifying the cockpit and not overwhelming a pilot with wall-to-wall physical switches, dials, and single-use displays, the report said.
But the problem with touch screens, the pilot explains, is a lack of tactile feedback.
Switches have a nice, satisfying click that instantaneously lets the user know they were successfully flipped, the report said.
The anonymous pilot reports failing to get a result from a touch screen about 20% of the time:
At present I am pressing the wrong part of the screen about 20 [percent] of the time in flight due to either mis-identification, or more commonly by my finger getting jostled around in turbulence or under G. One of the biggest drawbacks is that you can’t brace your hand against anything whilst typing — think how much easier it is to type on a smartphone with your thumbs versus trying to stab at a virtual keyboard on a large tablet with just your index finger.
According to Quora.com, the F-35 simply utilizes an infrared touch screen, which is where the frame around the screen has a number of infrared light emitters and receivers.
When a pilot’s finger touches the screen, horizontal and vertical beams of light are blocked, indicating to the computer the X and Y co-ordinates of where the screen was touched.
This means the pilot can interact with the screen with their bare hands, or with gloves, or even with a stylus so long as it’s not transparent.
The “glass,” as pilots call it, looks like two iPads sitting next to each other. Pilots can divide the screens any way they want in order to easily see different systems.
Pilots can easily change the display anytime just by scrolling through these “portals” using the “hands-on throttle and stick,” or HOTAS.
Some pilots have gotten to calling the F-35 “the Burger King” jet fighter, because you can adjust it anyway you like, as in “have it your way.”
As for the advanced helmet, this thing is loaded with tech.
According to Air & Space, it combines a sensor suite, night-vision technology, an information-packed display system, line-of-sight tracking based on head movement, and targeting software — all designed to give pilots a god-like view: everything, everywhere, for the pilot to select to avoid sensory overload.
Whereas fighter pilots once checked a head-up display on a fighter’s windscreen for information such as airspeed, heading, altitude, rate of climb, and information about other aircraft — friend and foe — in the same piece of sky, the F-35 pilot sees all this and more on the helmet visor.
A pilot can either tap a touchscreen on the cockpit avionics panel or press a single button on the F-35 control stick to choose among three feeds: real-time video of what’s going on outside, thermal imagery, or night vision.
The cost of this helmet? A cool US$400,000.
Sources: Hush-Kit, Popular Mechanics, Air & Space, Quora.com, Lockheed Martin