By Andrea Shalal-Esa
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has unveiled new technology that will for the first time allow AH-64 Apache helicopter pilots to see targeting and surveillance data in full, high-resolution color, instead of the fuzzy black and white images they get now.
An Army official said new sensors developed by Lockheed Martin Corp over the past four years could help avoid mistakes such as the 2007 attack by two U.S. Apache helicopters that killed 12 people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff, after they were mistaken for armed insurgents.
U.S. Central Command has said an investigation of the incident found that U.S. forces were not aware of the presence of the news staffers and believed a camera held by one of the men was a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
"This additional situational awareness ... will give soldiers what they need to make the right decisions on the battlefield," Army Lieutenant Colonel Steven Van Riper, the Army's product manager for the Apache sensors, told reporters when asked if the new technology help avert such mistakes.
"That's our goal ... This will cut dramatically the amount of voice communications and other things that take precious time on the battlefield, time that could be used better to make decisions," he said during a demonstration at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Army tests new aircraft.
"Now they can focus on those tasks and not worry, 'Am I looking at the right thing?'"
Van Riper said the new sensors would help pilots better track suspicious cars identified by troops on the ground by their color, or even individuals tagged in specific clothes.
"We'll be able to see the red car versus the blue car, or the yellow building versus the green building, whereas before we were totally reliant on being able to communicate either verbally or through tactical text messages," he said.
Army officials showcased the new equipment during a flight at the sprawling facility in Huntsville, showing reporters a side-by-side comparison of the black-and-white video captured by the current sensors on Boeing Co Apache helicopters, and the new high-definition color equipment.
Van Riper said the Army was moving to implement the technology as quickly as possible, but said it could take seven years before all 680 Apache E-models are retrofitted with the new color sensors and displays. He said the equipment would be the most advanced on any rotorcraft used by the regular Army, although some special forces had similar equipment.
The technology changes, developed at a cost of $60 million over the past four years, grew out of an effort to remove obsolescent parts from the overall sensor package, which was first developed 30 years ago, Army officials said.
Apache pilots are enthusiastic about the changes.
Chief Warrant Office Paul Steele, an experimental test pilot who has been flying Apache helicopters since 1991, told reporters that the new equipment marked "a great leap" in a pilot's ability to operate on the battlefield.
Van Riper said the Army hoped to award Lockheed a contract to start building the sensor upgrade kits in fiscal year 2015, which begins October 1, after completing additional flight and environmental testing in coming months.
He declined to estimate what the new equipment would cost, saying the amount had yet to be negotiated with the company.
Matthew Hoffman, the Lockheed official in charge of the Apache sensor upgrade programs, said the new system was nearly three times more reliable and easier to maintain that the old one. The new sensors also allows pilots to see near-infrared imaging data together on one screen with the color imagery.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Nick Zieminski)