A short train ride from London into the garden of England, as Kent is known, sits BAE Systems' Rochester facility. It's a site of some historical significance in aviation terms, as the WWII Short Stirling bomber was built here, but it's now where BAE Systems develops and manufacturers some of it's electrical systems. 

Rochester is the birthplace of flight control systems for both military and civilian aircraft, like the Boeing 777 for example, as well as things like the Striker II helmet-mounted display, active inceptor systems and advanced heads-up display technology. 

After being security screened, dressed in a red visitor's overcoat and with smartphone cameras taped up, we head out to see some of the very latest in military aviation technology.

BAE Systems

He's too close for missiles Goose, I'm switching to guns

We've met the Striker II helmet-mounted display before, part of one of the most sophisticated flight helmets out there. It probably comes as no surprise that the Striker II shares a lot of technology with the latest AR and VR kit in development, like Microsoft HoloLens and HTC Vive.

Striker II has seen combat deployment, on Typhoon for example, and it adheres to a theme that runs through much of what BAE Systems' is about. That theme is making sure that the pilot is "eyes-out", as aware of the environment they're operating in as possible, rather than being constrained by the aircraft. 

The aim is always to increase safety, survivability and effectiveness, and Striker II does this by ensuring that the pilot has easy access to important information all the time. Rather than depending on a heads-up display fixed to the aircraft - and only visible when looking through it on a single axis - Striker II brings all this vital information to the visor of the helmet.

Like Microsoft's HoloLens, this is an augmented reality, here projected on to the inside of the curved visor, and giving the pilot a 1280 x 1024 resolution display within a 40-degree field of view. Unlike older helmet systems however, Striker II has built-in night vision, so there's no need for bulky external NVGs (night vision goggles). 

Sitting in the cockpit of BAE System's fast jet flight simulator, we're facing a gamers dream setup. There's a huge curved projection spanning nearly 180 degrees ahead of us. We're sitting in the pilot's seat, Striker II helmet feeding us information, with flight controls in hand.


We're flying off the coast of Wales. Not only is the flight information always in our field of vision, but the projection is gloriously photo realistic too. We know the ground around Mount Snowdon well and we dip into the valleys at 600 knots, able to keep all the essential information in view while looking out at the countryside. 

The projected image is bright and sharp and there seems to be no latency as we we move the aircraft or our head around. But there's a lot more on offer. There are independent channels for each eye, so 3D imagery can be projected and it's capable of lossless digital zoom, depending on mission requirements. Again, this means the pilot can spend more time looking out, rather than looking down into other displays in the cockpit.

The skin of the helmet is dotted with motion markers, so that the exact position of the helmet can be detected by an on-board camera in the aircraft, the same way as HTC Vive's movement can be tracked around a room with sensors. The aircraft will know where you're looking. Combined with external cameras, you could have imagery projected to the display, so you can basically see through the aircraft.

BAE Systems

I'm giving it all she's got, Captain

Slipping into the seat of BAE Systems' helicopter simulator doesn't bring quite as much excitement as the fast jet, but we're soon impressed. Gripping the controls, we're introduced to active inceptor systems. 

Put simply, an active inceptor is like force feedback joystick. In this case it's the cyclic stick, meaning that the aircraft can provide dynamic feedback as we manoeuvre. The aim is to give the pilot more information during flight, allowing you to feel how the aircraft is flying, where a passive fly-by-wire system might not. 

On an active inceptor system servos can change the feel of the controls based on the situation of the aircraft. In our helicopter demo, as we push the cyclic to extremes, we can feel it pushing back. The idea here is to let the pilot get more information about safe flight limits through feedback, leaving them to concentrate on the mission. 

Again, this sticks to that eyes-out theme, where the pilot can be more aware of everything around them, with additional feel from the inceptors during flight. It's just like adding realism to gaming using haptics.

Where we're going, we don't need roads

These systems that we experience during our time at Rochester are only a small part of what's going on at the BAE System's site. We're shown how the printed circuit boards are assembled on site, a process that's designed to ensure absolute quality. These are circuit boards in aircraft computers, they cannot afford to have anything wrong with them. 

We learn that a Striker II takes about 16 days to assemble on the site, as well as seeing how they are environmentally stressed to test performance through extreme temperature and G forces, again, on site. But we're also told the next-generation is in development, aiming to bring full colour to the system too.

We also see the future of heads-up displays, which embrace micro digital displays, replacing cathode ray tubes (yes really) with LED systems.

But the whole time, we can't help thinking this is all like a giant computer game. Through VR demos, AR apps, haptics, taptics and other feedback that we've experienced in the consumer world, everything is heading in the same direction. We're reminded of 80s films like The Last Starfighter and WarGames, where badly dressed kids take on military might with 8-bit computer game skills.

We might have moved past 8-bit graphics, but we're still just badly dressed kids.