Powerful tiny tanks with VR and futuristic cockpits could revolutionize the battlefield

Future U.S. military tanks may look and perform nothing like they do today.

In fact, they may not even have windows and instead seal military personnel inside a closed cockpit to better protect them against threats.

But how could they see the battlefield around them without windows? To see outside, Soldiers could use a new technology made by Honeywell that lets them “see” with virtual reality and augmented reality.

Using a headset and a wraparound display, drivers are given the effect of “seeing” beyond the armor to the war zone around them. The augmented reality even enhances their “sight” by overlaying crucial information like enemy movements and safe routes ahead.

This remarkable advance is part of the DARPA’s Ground X-Vehicle Technology program (GXV-T) initiative that could lead to an entirely new era of tanks and armored combat vehicles. GXV-T would offer tank-like protection on a vehicle that resembles a futuristic All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) but is smaller than a traditional tank.

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DARPA awarded eight contracts to work on the exciting, groundbreaking GXV-T. Honeywell is one of these companies.

Recently, Honeywell successfully tested this window-free tech on a tough, off-road desert course at speeds of more than 35mph. The drivers successfully maneuvered the course from inside the closed cockpit relying on the “sight” provided by the virtual reality system.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are already interested in DARPA’s vision for this radical new vehicle. The GXV-T would provide the U.S. military with enormous advantages over adversaries.  

Far Better Armor

The big advantage to no windows? Keep US military personnel inside a whole lot safer.

Another research thrust for DARPA on the GXV-T project is radically overhauling the approach to armor. For more than a century, the approach has been more armor equals more protection.

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There are, however, tradeoffs to more armor, such as adding more weight, which means less speed and agility. These capabilities can be essential in some scenarios so finding the right balance between the armor trade-offs is never easy.

But with GXV-T, the goal is a closed cockpit that allows reactive armor to enhance safety on the outside. Reactive armor detects threats and reacts. So, for example, when it anticipates the impact of a threat like an RPG, this armor would be able to shift and concentrate in the area it will impact.

Without the windows, it may be possible to do far more with less armor and still offer far better protection.

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How does it work?

Honeywell harnessed its experience with aircraft cockpits and applied it to creating a GXV-T “cockpit.”

Cameras and sensors fixed on the vehicle feed data to onboard computers. These stitch together the data into one cohesive image and the wraparound internal screens display this imagery.  

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The operator dons the special virtual and augmented reality headset and when that is combined with the panoramic screen it creates the effect of “seeing” outside the vehicle – whilst safely inside a closed cockpit.

Already, Honeywell’s virtual landscape allows an operator to off-road at realistic speeds. This set of initial tests were conducted with 160-degree views. DARPA’s aim is for a 360-degree view and although it may seem impossible, it may be possible to achieve that.

Motion sickness and eye strain are two common complaints and tough challenges for companies working to advance virtual reality. Honeywell seems to have cracked these pesky problems because the feedback thus far has been very positive with drivers not suffering from either complaint.

Augmented Reality View

Safety and protection is paramount, but another key advantage to this revolutionary approach is providing operators with enhanced “sight.” With augmented reality, operators can have crucial data overlaid as well.

Already, Honeywell has been able to build in speed, heading, and position data augmentation. But lots of further symbols could be added to further assist driver’s during their missions.

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Enemy movements, the best routes to avoid detection, upcoming difficult terrain, threat detection – these are just a few examples of useful data that could augment what a driver “sees.” Enhanced situational awareness will also improve safety for personnel.

In many ways, this is very similar to the data displayed in U.S. fighter pilots’ cockpits, but would now be available to ground forces in closed cockpits.

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What is GXV-T?

DARPA’s Ground X-Vehicle Technology program (GXV-T) is advancing tech for combat in many ways. Overall, the goal is to produce smarter, faster and more agile vehicles for the future force.

Another area that will increase protection, for example, is the progress being made to develop the GXV-T as ultra-stealthy.

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Tanks are not exactly known for being stealthy. But imagine if the military could have a vehicle with tank protection, but fighter jet stealth? Advances are being made in tech for the GXV-T to evade detection by the enemy from acoustic and electromagnetic methods through to infrared.

A new kind of driving

For the military, these kinds of big breakthroughs could pave the way to the future force taking tanks into battle that have remarkable advantages like this virtual and augmented reality and futuristic reactive armor. This would turn them into much lighter and far more agile vehicles, while providing even more protection for U.S. troops.

But there is also potential for significant impact in the civilian world. Honeywell’s achievement could help pave the way to a future where civilians take advantage of the enhanced safety closed cockpits could offer and drive windowless as well. Or windshields could become transformed into displays that offer augmented reality, suggesting optimal routes to avoid traffic so drivers will never have to look down at their phones for Waze again.

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.