LONDON – BAE Systems hopes to begin operational trials of an augmented-reality system onboard a Royal Navy warship next year as part of a £20 million ($27 million) investment the defense contractor is making in advanced combat systems technology.
Company officials said at a briefing in London Nov. 22 that they planned tests of augmented reality for a bridge watch officer role early in 2019 and expected the technology to be tried operationally during the second half of the year.
“We have taken the navy through this and they are really excited. What they want to do is to take the technology into operation as soon as next year if they can,” said Frank Cotton, head of combat systems technology at BAE.
The augmented-reality glasses would allow the officer of the watch to blend real-world visuals with data generated by sensors, like radars and sonars, laid over the top in a similar fashion to digital helmet displays used by combat jet pilots.
Cotton said BAE is using technology from its new Striker II pilot’s helmet to help develop the system for the Royal Navy.
Microsoft’s commercially available HoloLens augmented-reality headset, meanwhile, is set to feature in the Information Warrior 2019 exercise between March 25 and April 11.
HoloLens, though, is better suited to gamers and software developers than for military use.
Affordable, lightweight glasses, more suitable for the military environment are being developed by BAE, and the company hopes to take these to sea for operational testing in the second half of the year.
Cotton said the Royal Navy is expected to use a Type 23 frigate for the sea trials.
There are some issues around the possible impact of bright sunlight and what happens in rough seas, but the use of Striker II technology is helping resolve the problems, said Cotton.
A successful trial of the system will likely open the way for other augmented-reality applications across British warships.
“Once we have lightweight glasses the potential to use them elsewhere across the ship is absolutely massive,” said Cotton.
Development of a commander's table with 3-D capabilities is one area likely to be looked at.
Control of fast jet and helicopter operations around the deck of warships like the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier are potential areas of interest. Deck gunnery teams also are among the other potential user of the technology.
The principle task of the officer on watch is to ensure the ship's safety.
Currently from their position on the bridge officers request the information they need via radio from the operations room to verify what they can physically see.
Cotton said it’s a tried and tested process that works well but is not hugely efficient, particularly with the increasing amounts of data available from onboard and offboard sensors.
“The bridge watch officer is quite often overloaded when he can see lots of things out the window and he’s trying to tie them up – via voice – with a set of operators in the bowels of the ship,” he said.
With a set of lightweight augmented-reality glasses that changes, with the bridge officer able to see the needed information without having to call in the operations room.
BAE is working with computer company Dell to provide secure wifi technology to link the bridge with the operations centre.
“When [the bridge watch officer] looks out of the window at a real-world object instead of having to ask the operators whether or not what he is seeing is friendly or hostile, whether or not its an inflatable boat or a fishing vessel, he can use his glasses ... to interact with the combat mission system directly,” said Cotton.
“He can display video of what the object is, he can get classification data and if what he is seeing doesn’t match the data that the system is telling him, he’s got the ability to change that data. If he suspects that something is potentially a hazard, he can flag that in the system directly, without having to tell the operators to do that for him,” said the BAE executive.
“The system gives [the operator] an awful lot more control and allows them to concentrate on what they are looking at rather than having to relay the information back to the ops room,” said Cotton.
For now the augmented reality technology development is probably among the most mature of the updates envisaged by BAE in its £20 million update of combat mission system capabilities now underway.
But a series of other initiatives are ongoing around artificial intelligence, open architecture and even eventually ditching the banks of flat screens and keyboards that typify the current operations room by replacement with something more futuristic.
“Virtual reality, augmented reality, touch control, gesture control, voice activation, these are the types of technology we’re exploring. Not all of them will be appropriate for a Royal Navy operations room, but some of them will be,” said Cotton.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.