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May 11
U.S. Army Looking to the Future with Kinect-Based Helicopter HUDs

By Phil West, Director of Solutions Development, Office of Civic Innovation

Today’s budget realities are forcing the military to find new ways to improve mission performance while spending less. An interesting example of how the military wants to address these goals showed up in a recent U.S. Army solicitation for “Low Cost Cockpit head tracking and gestural recognition.” A NextGov article provided an early look at the solicitation, which wants to determine the feasibility of adapting commercial gaming movement-recognition systems for Army helicopters and other aviation systems.

Flying in often dangerous weather, hostile territory or both, many military helicopter pilots rely on Heads Up Displays (HUDs). By projecting vital real-time mission, vehicle and targeting information into pilots’ field of vision, HUDs enable faster, better decision-making that reduces mission risk and improves combat and mission performance.

An early example of a Natural User Interface (NUI), HUDs have been around for decades. Current head positioning sensing systems rely on two different technologies:

- infrared lasers to scan the helmet or cockpit to determine their positions relative to each other

- electromagnetic coils inside the helmet change voltages in an electromagnetic field generated within the cockpit, based on the pilot’s head position

Both these technologies have weaknesses that limit their applicability – sunlight and other heat sources can affect IR detectors, for instance, while the electromagnetic system requires accounting for the location and composition of all metallic and conductive materials in a cockpit (of which there are many). Existing systems are expensive to develop, install and maintain.

The U.S. Army has identified commercial motion-sensitive gaming technologies as low-cost, plug-and-play options to replace these technologies. The solicitation foresees gaming technologies as “an integral part of future advanced/intelligent cockpit technologies,” such as determining whether pilots are conscious, tired, injured or focusing too much on one thing based on the pilots’ movements. The document specifically mentions Kinect, based on Kinect’s record-setting pace of global consumer adoption and how the popularity of the Kinect Software Development Kit is spurring rapid development of useful applications.

What’s even more interesting is that the solicitation describes how motion-recognition technologies could vastly help not just helicopter crews, but government and commercial operations across the board:

This system would have key applications to both commercial and military cockpits with greatest impact on those systems that do not have head tracking capabilities...Besides being applicable to aircraft cockpits, this system would also have application to almost all ground vehicles, C2 Vehicles, even fixed workstations: any work station where an operator is interacting with displays and control. Commercial application for such a ruggedized system are nearly endless and would include: monitoring vehicles and facilities for home land security and industry at large; a variety of automotive, trucking, commercial airline, etc. for monitoring operator status; and support aiding systems, and monitoring safety in shops, hangers (sic), construction sites, etc.

Finally, I find this solicitation epitomizes many pressing government IT trends, such as:

- doing more with less in austere budget environments

- the ongoing evolution of the federal mandate to replace as many custom and Government Off-the-Shelf (GOTS) systems as appropriate with Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) systems

- increasing acceptance of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies that enable government agencies to incorporate consumer technology into their mission portfolios

Currently in pre-release, the solicitation officially comes out May 24. Companies interested in participating have until June 27 to submit their proposals to the Army’s Small Business Innovation Research program. If you’re interested in other creative ways government and other organizations use Kinect, watch this video.

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