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Army engineers are hatching a plan that would let soldiers inside an armored vehicle see through its hull as if it were made of glass.

Researchers at the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center are developing the “virtual window” — a video display that could be mounted on inside of the rear ramp of an armored troop carrier and give soldiers a view of what’s waiting for them outside.

The idea came to industrial designer James Scott, who thought it would be “cool if soldiers could virtually see through the door out the back of the vehicle,” according to Andrew Kerbrat, a mechanical engineer who is leading the project at the center’s Warren, Mich., headquarters.

The center, known as TARDEC, built a working prototype from readily available “off-the-shelf” components in just 72 days, Kerbrat said.

The device uses a camera mounted on the back of a vehicle and a high-definition flat-screen monitor mounted on the inside of the back hatch.

Some armored personnel carriers, such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan, have small, bullet-proof windows that allow soldiers a limited view of the outside world. But in others, such as the Bradley fighting vehicle, outside visibility is limited to the driver, the vehicle commander and the gunner.

Having the virtual window in the back of the vehicle gives all members of the squad increased awareness of their surroundings, so they know what they are getting into before they leave the vehicle, Kerbrat said.

Bradley gunner Spc. Christopher Calvin, a 2nd Infantry Division soldier from Spring, Texas, said the virtual window would likely help soldiers riding in his truck to detect any enemies hiding behind it.

“It would give the dismounts critical data they need to make the decision, along with the guidance of the Bradley commander, on which side they should exit,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Michael Byers, a 2nd Infantry Division platoon sergeant from of Kirklin, Ind., recalled the disorientation he sometimes experienced when he exiting Bradleys during a deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division.

“When we would ramp down and step off, you would have to regain your bearings to your surroundings and location,” he said.

The virtual window would allow troops to look at and discuss the terrain that they were about to move across before they dismounted their vehicle, Byers said.

“This could greatly improve survivability in a firefight,” he said.

However, any such device installed on regular Army vehicles will have to be tough. Installing a monitor on the rear hatch means the soldiers would have to walk on it to get in and out of the vehicle.

“If there is an area where dirt, mud, sand and rocks on an Infantryman’s boot (is) ground upon, it would be the ramp,” he said.

There’s potential to link a screen to thermal imaging to see enemy forces at night, or to the Army’s computerized battle command systems to locate friendly forces on maps, Byers said.

If the cameras could be linked to a display for the driver, it might even help maneuver in tight spaces, added Calvin, who patrolled in armored vehicles in Afghanistan last year.

Troops also would likely use the virtual window to look for different things than the vehicle commander and gunner who are focused on enemy fire. For example, they might use it to identify cover before exiting the vehicle, he said.

Large commercial vehicles already use cameras to help drivers back up, but the devices don’t give drivers the sort of wide-view visual awareness that the virtual window aims to provide, Kerbrat said. The virtual window has been the subject of soldier innovation workshops — brain-storming sessions that bring together troops who have recently returned from Afghanistan, TARDEC personnel and college design students.

During a recent workshop, participants looked at ways to link the virtual window to video feeds from unmanned vehicles ahead or flying above a personnel carrier, he said.

However, the technology is in its early stages and it could be some time before the device is installed on regular military vehicles, Kerbrat said.

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