Military Embedded Systems

Rugged, smart displays enhance warfighter performance


July 19, 2016

Mariana Iriarte

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Designers of rugged military displays are looking to leverage innovations from the commercial world such as touch screens and 4K technology to enhance situational awareness for the warfighter. The challenge is finding ways for displays with the commercial capabilities to meet strict military requirements for harsh environments.

A rugged display may seem like a small part of the overall battlefield-equipment picture, but it has become a critical part of any air, sea, or ground platform as the main tool for delivering intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance data to warfighters, helping them make faster, smarter decisions. Rugged displays that users will see in the next few years will start to leverage some of the innovation seen today in the commercial market such as touch-screen technology and 4K capability.

Displays are essentially evolving: This means that “you’re starting to see more smart displays that are more computer-based display terminals,” says Ross Hudman, sales and marketing manager at Digital Systems Engineering in Scottsdale, Arizona. “These displays have memory, have storage devices, so they are now combining a computer and a display. I would say that’s a trend specifically more for land vehicles.”

For example, “There’s definitely going to be a transition to the way flat panels and LCD displays are used,” says John Wade, founder and CEO of Z-Micro in San Diego, California. “We’re seeing organic LEDs just starting to emerge in the commercial market and those are going to transition to the military,” Wade says. “Even further out, maybe ten years out, we’re going to start seeing flexible displays. So we’ll start possibly seeing displays that can be rolled and unrolled just like something out of Star Trek. It’s amazing how reality emulates science fiction.”

A rugged touch

The big challenge will be how military designers adopt new technologies, such as infrared touch screens, says Benjamin K. Sharfi, founder and CEO of General Microsystems in Los Angeles, California. “To me, that’s where you will see the next leap, moving from existing architecture technologies that we have, to the next generation. Even it if shatters slightly, you can still see it and use the touch screen. In infrared displays, sensors are embedded all around the display and it detects the breaking of the beam at a specific point or multiple points, so you can still use multitouch capabilities.”

With touch-screen technologies, system engineers must take into account that “the military is often wearing gloves,” says Roy Keeler, president of MilDef America in Washington, D.C. “And you can’t use capacitive screens, so one of the trends that we see is using resistive-type screens that allow you to put pressure on the screen and move the cursor to an area of interest on the screen,” Keeler says.

The military is craving and asking for what the commercial world has been enjoying: “Most of the commercial market now is using multitouch capacitive-type screens on their PDAs and on their handheld devices. That’s the stuff that allows us to do our pinching and swiping on our phones,” Keeler comments. That technology is seen with MilDef’s DS11 tablet, which has a 10-inch capacitive multitouch display and comes with an Intel i7 CPU. (Figure 1.)


Figure 1: The MilDef DS11 10.1-inch tablet has an IP65 rating. Photo courtesy of MilDef.

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Displays like Systel’s FPC5106 (see lead image) has “customizable function buttons and is multitouch screen-resistive. That’s something that we get asked for – that the touchscreen capabilities are multitouch-resistive so that they will work with gloves as well as styluses because that can be an issue in certain environments,” says Aneesh Kothari, marketing manager at Systel in Sugar Land, Texas.

Network-centric displays

The future of displays always includes the extension of video. “A game-changing technology,” Hudman says, “will be wireless video. These network-centric ideas of having everything communicate over Ethernet. It’s in the early stages, but I think in ten years it will be there.”

Even virtual displays are making the race to be used soon, on the wearables side of technology: “Virtual display might be something that a warfighter would wear, which would overlay battle data on top of the existing environment,” Kothari says. “As they’re moving around in a battle situation, they have data right there.”

As with every smart technology on a network, cybersecurity will be a requirement. “Historically, we would have a lot of what we would call dumb displays. As we move into more smart displays where they have a computer, you have to make sure that all the data is on there is encrypted and secure,” says Hudman.

Digital Systems Engineering’s LCD rugged monitor, which carries the IP67 rating, displays 1080p high-definition video during operations and has HDMI and DVI inputs. (Figure 2.)


Figure 2: Digital Systems Engineering’s ultra-thin High Definition Rugged Monitor (HDRM) displays up to 1080p HD video during operations. Photo courtesy of Digital Systems Engineering.

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Smarter displays, smarter warfighter

No longer are screens one-dimensional; the idea is to have “smart all-in-one displays, versus just monitors. A lot of rackmount applications may just want an LCD monitor and will plug that into a rackmount server and that is how it’s powered,” says Kothari. “Other applications – like vetronics applications, where it is panel-mounted, almost like tablets, but they are military, rugged, kind of small 10-inch displays – have to be an all-in-one display, that has to be smart with a touch screen and with some power behind it. All that included and [the display] still come in a small form factor because you don’t have a huge rackmount-type area to put in with motherboards, servers, and CPUs.” Moreover, says Z-Micro’s Wade, “With the emergence of new high-resolution displays, our customers are looking for higher pixel density. That factors into 4K displays but also smaller displays with greater resolution.”

While most of this technology is still years away, one thing is certain, Kothari continues: “Today’s generation is so comfortable with [the technology], I don’t think from that perspective, it’ll be a hard adoption. Now, of course, from a logistics perspective, and actually placing that and having that as part of the infrastructure, that’s very different and that’s where the trick is.”

Passing the test

No matter how amazing the features on new smart displays, they still must pass a series of tests and meet certain extreme requirements in order be qualified for battle.

Testing on these displays ranges from subjecting them to gunfire vibration to submerging them in water to brutal blunt-force challenges. Testing also varies between platforms, depending upon whether the end use is in an aircraft, onboard a ship, or on the ground with troops. Innovations are now emerging that bring modern-day smart display to the military services.

Engineers consider the platform before testing rugged displays because – depending on whether it’s land-based, sea-based, or air-based – “what we find for each of those is that the requirements vary depending on the type of platform [the display] will be mounted upon,” MilDef’s Keeler says.

When it comes to shipboard applications, typically, the weight is not the primary driver; it’s more ruggedization, Wade says. “There are requirements to meet higher shock levels. The 901D grade-A shock, for instance, is very specific to our shipboard customers.”

General Micro System’s SD19 rugged smart display is one example where engineers completed the MIL-S-901D shock testing. “With the Navy, it is completely different. Vibration is really not an issue, but imagine you’re taking a torpedo. The display has to be able to take a tremendous amount of peak shock and it has to be able to withstand and continue to be operational,” Sharfi says.

In this case, Sharfi explains, the SD19 display (Figure 3) “was slammed over and over again by a 400-pound hammer from five feet in the air. The noise of the strike was deafening and its impact shook the ground, but throughout the test the SD19 remained not only intact but completely operational.”


Figure 3: The SD19 RuggedView smart display has a hardened 4:3 aspect-ratio touch screen and an LCD. Photo courtesy of General Micro Systems.

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Testing displays for aircraft

“Conversely, for our aircraft customers, there’s flight-safety requirements that we have to meet and electromagnetic interference (EMI) requirements that are quite stringent,” Wade says. The standard MIL-STD-461 tests for electromagnetic compatibility – with the latest revision being MIL-STD-461G – and it is one of the “requirements to follow that will ascertain there is no interference or susceptibility to radios.

“Aircraft applications have stringent requirements due to the radios and the electronics that are part of airborne assets. So there’s an additional effort involved for the EMI for airborne platforms,” Wade continues.

Requirements even change within each specific asset; for example, “you have slightly different requirements where usually, depending on the type of aircraft, whether it is fixed-wing or rotary-wing, the shock and vibration requirements change,” says Keeler.

Meeting MIL-STD-810F

Rugged displays that undergo these tests will enable the warfighter to have a system that will last through routine use as well survive any harsh environment.

MIL-STD-810F “covers anything from shock, vibration, temperature, fungus, humidity, blowing dust – all of those,” Hudman says. “It comes down to making a product that is fully sealed, and won’t take in dust and water. It comes down to a product that is designed so that all the components stay intact and operable after shock and vibration.

“Just recently, for the combat rescue helicopter, our nine-inch HD display was put through general and gunfire vibration. The profile we were subjected to imitated a component that was on the drive shaft of the helicopter,” Hudman explains. “The most stringent profile found within the procedure of the MIL-STD 810F: We literally put our display through it, mounted it to the test fixture, and it shook it so hard that there were audible tones that you could hear throughout the building, so loud that you had to cover your ears.”

Another type of testing that displays undergo is the boot-kick test, in which the display is supposed to withstand a kick of a soldier’s boot. However, Hudman states, “at the end of the day, you always have glass in front of the display and those will never withstand a severe blunt-force shock.”

Testing displays for shipboard environments is not as harsh a process as it is for other environments. It is “slightly less rugged than you would have on either a ground vehicle or an aircraft,” Keeler explains. “In ships you need to have an IP67 type of enclosure, which keeps out water and dust.” A display needs to be submerged in water for at least three minutes in order to have the IP67 rating.


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