BAE Systems: Vision of the Future for Fighter Pilots

When a fighter pilot is flying a high-speed jet, every second counts. In futuristic TV and movies we’ve got used to seeing pilots reading displays right in front of their eyes, think Iron Man and Top Gun. Well real life is catching up with the revolutionary Striker II Digital Helmet-Mounted Display made by BAE Systems.

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Welcome to Third Angle, where you find us navigating through the night sky like Iron Man.


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a fighter pilot like in the Top Gun films? In the past, when flying a high-speed jet, the pilot would have to look down at the dials on their dashboard to see critical readouts such as altitude and remaining fuel levels. More modern aircraft contain a display fixed in the cockpit in which symbology – i.e., lines and markers – are overlaid over the windshield, allowing the pilot to see all the information they need without having to look down at the dashboard and away from piloting the plane. BAE Systems have taken this a step further by creating the Striker II, a helmet-mounted display that enables pilots to see symbology overlaid onto the real world in 360 degrees.

About BAE Systems in Rochester

At BAE Systems in Rochester, the site has a rich history of aviation from 1930 onwards. They do everything from STEM work all the way to pilot, government, and industry. Rather than producing full-size aircraft, it produces flight controls, avionics, helmets, hubs, and mission computing. The airport is also a general aviation training facility and a place where things like the air ambulance, military aircraft and helicopters can come for fuel.

Fiction becomes reality

Anyone who has seen the Top Gun films will have seen an approximation of what the pilot sees on a head-up display. When you go to Striker II, going from that old analogue technology to the modern HD technology, it is able to provide far more information which is relevant to the pilot – without looking away from the job in hand. Similar to Iron Man’s helmet, the fully HD colour display gives the pilot instant information about their surroundings. It contains pioneering new features, including a night vision and a 3D audio system that uses spatially positioned sounds to communicate to the pilot where other aircraft are – using red symbols for hostile, blue for friendly and yellow for unidentified – as well as speed and altitude information, giving the pilot situational awareness which reduces the workload and takes them straight to decision-making – even when operating at night.

The need for speed

Previously, with Striker I and other systems, the pilot would have to clip on night vision goggles. And those night vision goggles are heavy, they’re half a kilo, they hang off the front of the helmet, they unbalance the helmet quite significantly. These aircraft they can regularly pull 9 G’s, so that means that everything becomes nine times heavier – including your own head. The neck strain that can come from that is immense. And generally, when pilots are flying with goggles, they limit the G that the aircraft can pull down to about 4.5G, which is not ideal for anyone. What we’ve done with Striker II is included a digital night vision sensor. So those old bulky analogue goggles are thrown away, they’re not required anymore. And we’re able to provide that night vision image over the entire visor that the pilot is looking through at the flick of a switch.

Roger, that’s your bogey

One of the things that is a growth option for Striker is a thing called 3D audio, where we can spatially position sounds very accurately. Nigel Kidd, product director for helmet-mounted displays, explains, “It’s more than just stereo. We can position sounds around the pilots such that if we give them a symbol on their display, we can make a sound come from exactly where that symbol is in the real world. So again, it’s about grabbing attention and making it intuitive, not having to think: ‘Okay, I’ve got a tone, where’s that tone coming from?’ It’s immediately apparent and you can look straight at it.” The helmet is able to provide information that can keep the pilot safe, reduce stresses in stressful environments and reduce the chances of mishaps. This type of technology moving from the high-end, fast jet fighter aircraft down to utility aircraft, both military and non-military.

Beyond aviation

The commercial world is full of discussions around augmented reality and extended reality and mixed reality. BAE has been doing that here on site at Rochester since before those terms were coined. The technology the company is developing as part of these latest head- mounted displays has applications not just for aviation, but for keeping people safe in all sorts of environments: soldiers, ships, understanding where shipping lanes are and what other ships are out there, armored vehicles, where you have to see through the armor and have situational awareness. Paul Harrison, who manages the flight simulation facility at Rochester, says, “We developed the very first heads-up display here in the 50s/60s for the Buccaneer aircraft. That was augmented reality, for the very first time ever.”

The future of flight

As for the future, BAE is always looking at what the next thing is. “We are already working on what comes next,” said Paul. “We’re looking at the Tempest programme, the GCAP aircraft, that will come in the 2030s. And what does the pilot of the future need to do? And what do they need from their display system? What technology and capability can we provide as a part of that?” One is, that they see the pilot of the future more as a mission commander than as a pilot. AI systems will be helping them to fly the aircraft and controlling unmanned aerial vehicles around them, drones, in a very data-rich environment – again, which is even more information flowing all the time. How they utilize that information is key. Another development is the virtual cockpit environment where the helmet is able to provide all of the information the pilot needs.

Design is key

Striker II is considered one of the world’s most advanced helmets. It not only protects the pilots head, but it also displays mission-critical data in color on the pilot’s visor using augmented reality. Developing a helmet that provides protection and getting all the electronics into it is no mean feat. And as you can imagine, one of the most complex parts of the helmet is the carbon fiber shell. This is where PTC’s 3D CAD solution, Creo, comes into play. BAE Systems uses Creo’s style tool, which is the is ISDX module.

What is ISDX

ISDX is PTC’s top-tier surfacing module. It gives design engineers – and surfacing experts, frankly – very, very precise control over the flow and management of surfaces, starting with curves and building all the way out into controlling all the intricate connections between surfaces so that they can achieve a very, very nice aesthetic effect while also – and this is really the important part for our company like BAE –creating those surfaces parametrically. The real power here actually is not just in being able to create what we would call Class A surfaces – super high-quality surfaces intended for the exterior of any product – but the real power is that you have a highly technical application here in the development of this helmet. And what’s underneath has to be designed also with incredible precision and with safety in mind for the pilots.

Why Creo

The design techniques for what’s inside the helmet might be very, very different, and might use very, very different tools. And the power of ISDX being integrated, sure it’s got these great tools for advanced surfacing, but the fact that it’s integrated so deeply into Creo, and provides real parametric surfaces because of the design techniques use an ISDX that can be linked and associatively developed alongside other types of geometry that are built for purposes of designing the other parts of the helmet, that’s where the real power comes in. I’m sure BAE has really leveraged the connective tissue between internal surfaces and internal structures and the beautiful external surfaces of his helmet. It’s a really great application.

Surfacing needs

There’s a whole suite of tools in there to make sure the design engineer can really see clearly how the surfaces are flowing. Sometimes your eye can be confused, so we have these great plots that we can overlay onto the surfaces to make it obvious how the geometry is flowing so they can really get a sense of what it will look like in certain lighting and in reflective environments and so forth. It’s just part of what people who are surfacing experts expect. And again, because it’s there integrated into the tool, you can instantly see how the flow of the surfaces are changing with these different visual effects as you do your design work. It’s a really, really great set of integrated tools.


Huge thanks to Nigel Kidd and Paul Harrison for showing us around the simulation facility at BAE Systems in Rochester.

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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Recording by Hannah Dean. Sound design and editing by Clarissa Maycock. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode Guests

Nigel Kidd, Director Head Mounted Displays, BAE Systems

More About BAE Systems

Brian Thompson, Divisional GM, CAD Segment at PTC

More About Creo