Rugged, smart military displays and their commercial influence

Commercial technology must process information quickly, be sleek and compact in its design, offer a high-resolution image, and remain simple in operation. Rugged military displays must perform similarly but in incredibly harsh environmental conditions. Manufacturers of military technology are using these industry commonalities as inspiration behind the production of their rugged, smart displays.

Military technology moves at a very slow pace in comparison to that of the commercial world and is built to last longer. Military equipment faces many standards and regulations, training periods, cost restrictions, and extensive deployment times that just aren’t a factor in the development of commercial products. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally influence one another.

“Commercial technology is generally ahead of what the defense community has,” says Aneesh Kothari, vice president of marketing at Systel, Inc. (Sugar Land, Texas). “Only because it’s easier to not only innovate, but to deploy innovative technology in the commercial world.”

That said, designers have retained a feel for what’s coming next in the market and how that’s going to be adopted on the defense side. Rugged displays are no exception. Consumer technologies that most people are comfortable with using, like multitouch capabilities and 4K resolution, are making their way into military applications.

“Most of the people out in a combat environment – they’re a gaming generation,” says Mike McCormack, president and CEO of CP Tech (San Diego, California). “They’re used to multiple inputs coming into them rapidly and processing that information more rapidly than previous generations.”

Displays are being updated and modified generationally: The requirements are now those of millennial warfighters and a modernized battleground.

What makes displays rugged?

With military use comes a very specific kind of everyday abuse that leads to the absolutely critical ruggedization of a display. These operating systems see just as much combat as the user and need to be trusted to withstand it.

“Imagine that you have your display in front of you at your desk,” McCormack says. “Now imagine that I’m going to take you out to the Syrian desert, in the direct sunlight, there’s blowing sand, it’s going to be really cold on some nights, but in the afternoon it may get up to 120 degrees, but I want you to sit here and do the work on these displays. And there’s the possibility of live fire going on around you. You know as well as I do that your equipment is not going to survive.”

The CP Tech TFX rugged display (Figure 1), for example, is optically bonded to resist damage from blunt force and equipped with EMI shielding. Displays like this retain the ability to survive and function in an extreme military environment where a commercial-grade product would fail and cease to be useful.

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Figure 1 | The CP Tech TFX 3 is a rugged military-grade, high-performance 2U rackmount LCD display. Photo courtesy of CP Tech.
 

“When we think rugged, we think it must survive environmental requirements, and it must be supportable over the life cycle of a military program,” says Jason Wade, president of ZMicro (San Diego, California). “All of this while using an LCD that was initially designed for a commercial application.”

Putting the equipment through an end-of-life scenario simply isn’t an option for these displays and their manufacturers. A rugged display must meet the customer requirements through various modifications to the LCD and the electronics, but also sustain a five- to 15-year program. No exceptions.

Smaller and faster

Going beyond the physical demands of a rugged display, there are size and weight restrictions that these displays are expected to meet in their ruggedization, as well. Whether now or further down the road, the baseline model for a rugged display will become easier to update and modify to accommodate trends in the market and needs of the user.

“The need for size, weight, and power (SWaP) and even customization,” says Ross Hudman, sales and marketing manager at Digital Systems Engineering (Scottsdale, Arizona). “That always seems to be a driving force for us, especially in the ground mobile market. Customers are really looking for something that does more in a smaller package.”

Less seems to be more in the rugged display market, as space is at a premium for many uses. To cut down on computer and display sprawl, one solution may be dumb displays.

“A dumb display is going to be smaller; it’s going to take up less room, and it’s going to be cost effective,” Kothari says. “What Systel does is create an all-in-one line-replaceable unit (LRU) mission computer that handles all the sensor ingest, all the networking, and then connects to a variety of displays onboard the vehicle. And because you’re doing all the computing in a single box, your displays can then be dumb displays.” (Figure 2.)

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Figure 2 | Systel’s dumb displays are powered by a single LRU. Photo courtesy of Systel.

Military-use displays must be smaller, but they also must be more powerful. While consumer-technology capabilities are being adopted and implemented in the display’s design, those concepts need to be adjusted for the sheer amount of data that these displays take in and the intelligence being transmitted.

“Being able to provide a lot of data simultaneously is essential to the user,” McCormack says. “And whether you’re using it on a ground control station flying a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], or in a weapons platform on a Navy ship, you’re going to have multiple inputs that you’re going to need to display simultaneously so that you can react faster. So it’s more information, faster reaction times, and the ability to manage multiple applications simultaneously.”

Modifications and customizations

A baseline rugged display design for a manufacturer to use as a reference makes it easier to modify and customize the product to meet the operator’s needs, which often vary. Qualified intellectual property, or reusable design elements, acts as the skeleton for designers to add to as technology progresses or modifications are requested.

“The LCD display itself and all of the backlighting and rugged optical treatments that go on that display are proven elements that can be reused. The power supply is reusable, the video processing piece is reusable, the network communication piece is reusable,” says Steve Motter, vice president of business development at IEE, Inc. (Van Nuys, California). “The customization process is really integrating these proven elements that already exist and working within our customer’s installation size constraints and adding the display-bezel labeling and the number of buttons they are looking for.”

IEE’s Multi-Function Display (Figure 3) has customizable features like programmable joystick and customizable bezels. Offering these modification opportunities result in minimal development costs, which is ideal for the customer as they are not typically funded, nor have the time, to build displays from scratch.

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Figure 3 | IEE’s 10.1-inch Multi-Function Display features a programmable 8-way joystick and 13 programmable bezel push buttons.

“Maintaining the same form, fit, and function is the goal for any military display designer,” ZMicro’s Wade says. “It offers a seamless transition from older to newer technology for the user.”

Standards and regulations

While modifications are often made to rugged displays to meet the unique needs of the operator, there are a specific set of regulations and military standards that these products must meet. These rugged display design requirements differ between the specifications of the user.

“If you’re in an aircraft, you have much more sensitive electronics so mlectromagnetic interference (EMI) becomes critical to shield your system for that,” Kothari says. “On the naval side, depending on what the platform is, you’d have to consider salt spray, submersion, acoustic noise … if you’re on a helicopter you have to consider shock and vibration.”

Understanding those user groups’ requirements from an environmental and rugged design perspective is critical. This is where military standards come into play, MIL-STD-810G being the most prevalent. MIL-STD-810G is a test plan that subjects military gear, including rugged displays, to conditions that it will experience throughout its time in a military program. This could include shock, sand and dust exposure, gunfire vibration, and more.

The Digital Systems Engineering High Definition Rugged Monitor series (Figure 4) is among many other military displays that get put through their paces during testing to earn its military-standard compliance. Without it, a respectable mean time between failures on the battlefield would be impossible to attain.

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Figure 4 | Digital Systems Engineering’s 1080p Full High Definition Rugged Monitor series is MIL-STD-461, 704, 810, 1275-compliant.

“Manufacturers are trying to design a product that is encompassing and meets the requirements of all of those branches,” Hudman says. “There are commonality requirements in terms of shock and vibration and environmental factors.”

Other military standards that rugged displays often have to meet are MIL-STD-461, which details EMI requirements, and MIL-S-901D that simulates explosions in the water near ships and submarines. These standards are not limiting to the design of a rugged display, however, because they are simply vital to the display’s lifespan.

The future of rugged, smart displays

The military technology industry will always have a slow-moving nature, but that isn’t to say there aren’t exciting advancements on the horizon for rugged military displays. When 4K technology hit the commercial market about five years ago, most aged military programs weren’t written to support 4K resolution.

However, newer programs written around five years ago now have the capabilities to support 4K and design it into a display’s software. This reveals a multitude of opportunities for the functionality of rugged military displays, one of which is ZMicro’s Orion 32 display that incorporates virtual window technology. (See lead photo, page 18)

“We have a capability in our displays’ technology that we call Virtual Windows,” Wade says. “This enables users – particularly those who might be working with a lower-resolution software platform – to be able to consolidate multiple video feeds onto a common 4K screen without losing any resolution.”

Rollable, foldable, and wearable displays are also expected to hit the military market in the near future. These capabilities will drastically aid in launching the design of rugged displays to eventually support virtual and augmented reality. “The future does continue to evolve toward that flexible, wearable display,” Motter says. “In addition, the idea of virtual reality where the operator is wearing the display in an immersive environment is a huge area of development and investment in the display industry.”

Then comes the advent of artificial intelligence that – while admittedly farther down the line than most technological advancements for displays – will result in higher pixel densities to pull more data out of a video stream. The goal is simply to maximize the amount of information that customers can get from these displays; in due time, these capabilities will be just a touch away.