Wednesday, October 17, 2007

out with the old, in with the new.

In the most recent issue of S.W.A.T. magazine, Clint Smith reviews Aimpoint's latest offerings in the combat optics sector. He muses that "in a world of changing technology, one area that has seen quantum leaps forward over the last few decades is visual acquisition systems for weapons."

He's absolutely right, of course. Twenty years ago, electronic sights were new-fangled gizmos with some utility, but the old pros preferred (and preached the use of) iron sights for serious applications.

These days, everyone who's anyone in the business of professional violence has some sort of advanced combat optic on their rifle, and iron sights are mostly relegated to backup or emergency use. It's still important to be able to use iron sight, of course, but the latest generation of optical sights has made the rifleman far more effective. As the saying goes, if you can't see it, you can't hit it, and a rifleman these days has many excellent optics from which to choose, tools that make him or her drastically more efficient by several orders of magnitude. An infantry squad with iron sight-equipped rifle would be at a distinct disadvantage against a squad equipped with ACOGs, ELCANs, Aimpoints, or Leupold CQ/Ts on their rifles.

I thought about the article for a while, and then realized that this technological trend extends to other applications as well. Small, inexpensive electronics are now attainable to the regular guy on the street that make any super-expensive industrial-grade stuff from twenty-five years ago look completely ancient by comparison.

Take civil aviation as another example.

This is the cockpit of a Beech Baron 58 equipped with analog "steam" gauges. You have your avionics on the left side, your engine gauges in the center, and the radio/AP stack to the right. It's fairly easy to keep an eye on things once you're used to the layout. With steam gauges, the Baron feels and flies like a nice light twin.

This is the cockpit of the same plane equipped with the Garmin G1000 "glass cockpit" integrated EFIS. All the information of the steam gauges in the previous cockpit shot is consolidated on two 12-inch flat panel TFT displays, with an integrated communications panel between them. The left panel serves as the PFD (primary flight display), and the right panel serves as a MFD (multi-function display). On the left screen, the pilot can view all the information related to aircraft attitude, speed, heading, and vertical speed, without having to scan multiple steam gauges. On the right screen, the pilot has access to all engine- and fuel-related information, along with a moving map. With the G1000 avionics suite, the Baron feels and flies like a miniaturized airliner.

Aircraft equipped with the G1000 system also retain some steam gauges as backup (and primary) instrumentation in the event of a system failure. The whole thing is designed for redundancy--if one display fails, the other automatically switches to PFD mode, and the system is designed to run off a secondary power source in case the aircraft's alternator and primary battery go "kablooie".

Once you're used to flying with a glass cockpit, it's hard to go back to steam gauges. The difference in situational awareness and functionality is quite substantial. With the G1000 and its competing products, civil light aircraft now have flight information and navigation systems that were reserved to modern airliners just a few years ago, and unavailable at any price just two decades ago.

Of course, in both the shooting and flying communities, there are always the grumpy holdouts that pooh-pooh the newfangled gizmos. There are lots of rifle shooters that use (and preach the use of) iron sights as the only "true rifleman's sight", and there are doubtlessly many pilots that eschew the new glass cockpits in favor of the tried-and-true steam gauges. ("If it was good enough for Lindbergh, it's good enough for me!")

Alas, time and technology march on, and the newfangled technology of today is going to be the mainstream of tomorrow, even in fields that have more than their share of traditionalists.

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