Warplanes: UAV Cockpits


November 8, 2007: Cockpit designers (who have been around for over half a century) and video game designers (who have been around for several decades) are combining their talents to create better "work stations" for those who operate UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). There are basically two kinds of UAV "cockpits." One is indoors, for the larger (several hundred pounds and up) UAVs. These work stations basically do a lot with a PC keyboard, a joystick and several (sometimes half a dozen) flat screen displays. These last items have basically pushed the heavier, bulkier and more expensive CRTs out of the PC market. The military loves them, because they take up less space, are lighter (and thus easier to move) and consume less power (important when you are using a generator for juice.)

These larger UAVs usually have multiple cameras on board, and the trend is to have more. So you can have one display showing the ground below, and another showing one or more "navigational" (the view from the front or side of the aircraft" views.) Your typical 22 inch (diagonal) flat screen display provides a viewing area of 11x19 inches. You can easily have six of these in front of you. There are mounts for this arrangement, sold mainly to financial institutions (where traders need to monitor a lot of information). For the UAV pilot, there is also the need for a display showing a map, and the UAVs position on it, and another showing UAV status. There is more and more data becoming available. For example, there is a feed with the location of friendly units in the area, and feeds from other UAVs, aircraft, helicopters or even troops on the ground. The military calls combining all this "fusion," while civilians witness it as a "mash up" when they combine Google Earth vids with other web data.

For larger UAVs, there is usually a second member of the crew, who just monitors another bunch of displays that show only data from the camera pointing down. But the sensor operator is catching a live feed, and this increasingly requires additional displays to view earlier activity. Or two different types of vidcam may be used (photo and heat sensing, for example.) It's also becoming more common for the video feed of the ground to be sent off to local ground units for immediate use. The intel personnel at the ground unit headquarters are getting their own specially designed display array.

What the cockpit designer and video game guys do is use their experience with what people need to see, and how they see it, to place the right information on the right display at the right time. The video game designers are actually taking the lead here, because video games are closer to the actual environment a UAV "pilot" works in, than is someone in a fighter aircraft cockpit. But for the UAV controller, things work better if what's in front of you is laid out to give you what you need when you need it.

The smaller (micro, or under ten pound) UAVs are used by "pilots" who are outside. The simple expedient here was to give the UAV pilot a device that looks a lot like a game controller. Except it has a small color flat screen built in. Kids have been using controllers like to fly simulated aircraft on TV sets for over a decade. Works as well on the battlefield for micro-UAVs.

For the small (hundred pounds or less) UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles), "hands off" control systems are being developed. These allow voice commands to control the robots. Other solutions in the works are a small wireless keypad that would be attached to a soldiers rifle, enabling him to control the droid, while still being able to use his weapon. Another option uses a special electronic glove that allows the robot to be controlled with hand signals.




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