Let’s face it, there’s a lot of cool tech in the cockpit. But beyond making the flying experience a lot more like Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, the practical implications of augmented reality technology from head-mounted wearables are enormous. They promise to elevate the amount of useful real-time information available to pilots—and their development is well underway.

Until very recently, military pilots have been the exclusive users of helmet mounted display technology. Helmet mounted sights were initially developed to assist in missile targeting, with helmet mounted displays gradually evolving to offer other flight data in a monochrome layout.

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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s futuristic helmet is the latest version of military-grade helmet mounted display technology, although the system remains mired in controversy with some saying the benefits don’t outweigh the costs (reportedly half a million dollars per helmet!)

Now, miniaturized versions of helmet mounted displays for civilians are in advanced development stages, and are set to offer features and benefits that the military has yet to. A startup called Aero Glass first showed off their augmented reality system for pilots at the AirVenture 2014 convention and air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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It is important to note that Aero Glass is essentially an app, relying on digital eyewear hardware from different providers. This first version used Epson’s Moverio BT-2000 headset, and is currently in the hands of 200 beta testers.

Interestingly, the Aero Glass interface is depicted working seamlessly with an older steam gauge cockpit. This would be particularly useful for pilots performing checklists, and can tell what the pilot is seeing via the device’s front-facing camera. These checklists can be customized for each individual pilot and cockpit, meaning the system could be fitted to practically any aircraft or user.

When the pilot looks up from the instrument panel, runway overlay information seamlessly appears. Because the unit’s forward-facing camera could be disrupted by inclement weather, this information is derived from “computer vision” processing. Using Qualcomm’s Vuforia framework for digital eyewear, it relies on the user’s head position and tracking of the aircraft’s position relative to the runway.

So when exactly will these products be commercially available? It’s a complicated answer based on several variables. Flight Club spoke to Jeffrey Johnson with Aero Glass, who shared that the company is in receipt of a “fairly substantial” grant from the European Union to continue development of their solution. They’ve also demonstrated a new version of their product using Osterhout Design Group’s glasses.

We also spoke to Mick Eddy with Osterhout Design Group, who confirmed they’re working closely with Aero Glass and even showed off their next-generation glasses together at this year’s Augmented World Expo (better known as AWE) convention. Osterhout Design Group’s eyewear has also caught the attention of NASA, who may be using the firm’s eyewear on a future mission to the International Space Station.

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With the FAA requiring that some aircraft share “automatic dependent surveillance broadcast” (ADS-B) data—basically, their position, as determined by satellites—with ground stations and each other by 2020, the market for augmented reality systems is expected to grow substantially over the next few years. Many aircraft will receive avionics upgrades in advance of this new mandate, so companies like Aero Glass and Osterhout Design Group are in the waiting game to see how things play out before committing to a market-ready solution. Mergers and acquisitions are a frequent occurrence in the tech space, meaning a lot could change if one or both of these companies is acquired before a product is launched.

Pricing for Osterhout Design Group’s eyewear is currently about $2700 per pair, and when it becomes available to the masses, Aero Glass software would cost a few hundred dollars more for a subscription (the data they use is always in flux, so subscriptions are a necessary model). Aero Glass expects their next round of beta testing to occur in the fourth quarter of 2015 or first quarter of 2016.

So, unless you’re a beta tester, this technology still remains on the horizon. In a few years’ time, however, we can very likely expect to see augmented reality as quite common. That’s very exciting because the demonstration videos clearly show how useful the technology could be for navigation, safety, pilot training, and many other roles.

Photo credit: Top shot via embedded YouTube

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