US army to give Apache helicopter pilots full-colour target images

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 1:07am

The US Army has unveiled technology that will allow Apache helicopter pilots to see targeting and surveillance data in full, high-resolution colour, instead of the present fuzzy black-and-white images.

An official said sensors developed by Lockheed Martin over the past four years could help avoid mistakes such as the 2007 attack by two United States helicopters that killed 12 people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff, after they were mistaken for armed insurgents.

An investigation of the incident found that forces were not aware of the presence of the news crews and believed a camera held by one of the men was a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

"This additional situational awareness ... will give soldiers what they need to make the right decisions on the battlefield," Lieutenant Colonel Steven Van Riper said when asked if the technology would help avert such mistakes.

"That's our goal ... This will cut dramatically the amount of voice communications and other things that take precious time on the battlefield, time that could be used better to make decisions," he said during a demonstration at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where the army tests new aircraft.

"Now they can focus on those tasks and not worry, 'Am I looking at the right thing'?"

Van Riper said the sensors would help pilots better track suspicious cars identified by troops on the ground by their colour, or even individuals tagged in specific clothes.

"We will be able to see the red car versus the blue car, or the yellow building versus the green building, whereas before we were totally reliant on being able to communicate either verbally or through tactical text messages," he said.

Army officials displayed the equipment during a flight at the sprawling facility in Huntsville, showing reporters a side-by-side comparison of the black-and-white video captured by the current sensors and the high-definition colour equipment.

Van Riper said the army was moving to implement the technology as quickly as possible, but said it could take seven years before all 680 helicopters had the new sensors and displays.

He said the equipment would be the most advanced on any rotorcraft used by the regular army, although some special forces had similar equipment.

The technology changes, developed at a cost of US$60 million over the past four years, grew out of an effort to remove obsolescent parts from the overall sensor package, which was first developed about 30 years ago, officials said.

Apache pilots are enthusiastic about the changes.

Chief warrant officer Paul Steele, a test pilot who has been flying Apache helicopters since 1991, said that the new equipment marked "a great leap" in a pilot's ability to operate on the battlefield.

Van Riper said the army hoped to award Lockheed a contract to start building the sensor upgrade kits later next year after completing additional flight and environmental testing.

He declined to estimate what the new equipment would cost.