The iPhone-sized gadget that can pilot jet fighter crews to safety

Raytheon unveiled the "Aviation Warrior" prototype which adapts tech used to pilot fighter jets to become portable. It will allow downed pilots to navigate enemy terrain after leaving their aircraft.

Story highlights

  • Future military tech may include the ability to pilot a fighter jet using an iphone-sized device
  • Raytheon displayed new aircraft gadgets this week including the "Aviation Warrior"
  • "Aviation Warrior" tech will allow downed pilots to navigate enemy terrain after leaving their aircraft

It was only a matter of time before someone shrunk the dazzling computer wizardry used to pilot a fighter jet into a device the size of an iPhone.

We're not there just yet, but aviation engineers have unveiled a semi-working prototype they say will soon allow pilots to carry cockpit technology in their flight suit.

The Aviation Warrior, created by U.S. defense contractor Raytheon, was among a raft of new aircraft gadgets on display at the UK's Farnborough Airshow that appear to be adapting technology popularized by phones and tablet computer devices to fly modern jets.

CNN was given a first glimpse of Raytheon's revolutionary system on the sidelines of the event. If it proves successful, it could mean the difference between life and death for a pilot downed behind enemy lines.

John D. Harris, president of Raytheon Technical Services
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The Aviation Warrior uses a rugged processor the size of a chunky smart phone which is said to be as powerful as a laptop. This powers a heads-up display on the pilot's helmet and a small screen on their wrist.

Using these, a pilot can view full-color terrain maps and virtual images of the landscape around them on displays that adjust as they move their heads. Their helmets also relay surround-sound audio alerts, giving directional warnings of incoming missiles.

Already an advance on current in-cockpit systems, the Warrior technology will enable pilots to navigate through "brown out" conditions when dust or bad weather obscure land and hazardous buildings. It will also pinpoint enemy and friendly positions.

But whereas existing equipment must be left behind if the aircraft goes down and the pilot becomes separated -- now they can take the technology on the hoof.

"All the information they would typically have in a cockpit, with this new system they have it on their person, so when they leave the aircraft, they still have it with them," John D. Harris, president of Raytheon Technical Services, told CNN.

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Theoretically, the Warrior system could have been utilized in situations such as the notorious Mrkonjić Grad incident during the 1990s Balkans conflict.

U.S. Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady spent six days on the run from Serb patrols, eating grass and grubs to survive, after ejecting over Serb territory in June 1995. His ordeal was loosely adapted into the Hollywood movie "Behind Enemy Lines," starring Owen Wilson.

"Instead of the hide and seek of previous conflicts, particularly the Vietnam war, where a pilot would hunker down and wait for rescue, they now know how to get (to) safety," said Harris.

The Warrior system's wrist display uses the same "pinch-to-zoom" touch screens found on iPhones -- something its manufacturers believe will make it popular with pilots.

Touch screens are becoming increasingly popular in cockpits, replacing the enormous banks of complicated dials and switches used to control some modern aircraft.

French aerospace company Thales used Farnborough to unveil a programmable touch screen that allows pilots to customize and upgrade controls.So far, investment in the experimental Warrior system is relatively small. The U.S. military has awarded Raytheon a $4.7 million research and development contract. But if rolled out across helicopter and fixed-wing fleets, it could prove big business.

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Harris refuses to discuss Warrior's battery life -- an issue that blights user of many modern smart phones fitted with satellite tracking and other power-draining apps -- saying only that it meets military operational requirements.

He also declines to reveal its price, but Raytheon Tech's chief engineer Todd Lovell insists its use of commercially-available components makes it relatively low cost.

"We're using off-the-shelf items that are cheap and simple to upgrade," he said.

Added Harris: "It's about leveraging what's commercially available. We're introducing this in an austere environment and we're acutely aware of that."