No blind spots here: This immersive new helmet creates a complete VR environment for F-35 fighter pilots

After years of development marred by delays and cost overruns, the F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is beginning to reach milestones as it moves closer to its role as the military’s top fighter jet. Besides its amazing vertical take off and maneuverability in the air, the fighter also features some slick technology on the inside, including an advanced pilot helmet — previewed by Wired — which would knock the socks off any science-fiction fan.

Built by defense contractor Rockwell Collins over the past five years, the new F-35 Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System takes the cockpit’s heads-up display (HUD) and moves it inside the helmet. Projected inside the visor, this HUD creates an immersive environment that’s filled with information critical to the flight, as well as the jet’s available weaponry. The HUD is designed so the pilot can always see the most useful information such as airspeed, weaponry status, and altitude while performing a bevy of other in-flight tasks. Integrated eye tracking also allows the pilots to make selections and even aim missiles using only their eyes.

Rockwell Collins’ helmet provides more than just useful data as it also integrates itself into several key aircraft systems. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping of these extra features is the helmet’s inclusion of an exterior visual system which literally allows the pilot to look through the aircraft. The helmet can accept input from six cameras outside the jet, providing a 360-degree view of the environment around the plane. The system also detects a pilot’s head movement and sends the appropriate video feed to the HUD. For instance, when a pilot decides to look down, the HUD won’t display the interior of the cockpit. Instead, it pulls a video feed from the undercarriage of the jet and displays the world beneath the plane. The system also has support for night vision which allows the pilot to see in the dark without fumbling with a pair of goggles.

The carbon fiber helmet weighs roughly five pounds and will be custom fit to each pilot during a two-day fitting process. During this process, each pilot undergoes measurements of optical parameters such as eye spacing, pupil alignment, and more. Each helmet is then carefully crafted to ensure it works properly with the pilot’s unique anatomy and is comfortable to wear, even for those who wear glasses. Though originally designed exclusively for the F-35, the new Gen III Helmet may make its way to other industries and applications, such as firefighting, where a helmet-projected HUD could provide life-saving information.

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