Eyes up for a full view

Military helicopters, aircraft and ships could soon be fitted with imaging technology to enable them to navigate through poor weather, following research at Qinetiq for the Ministry of Defence.

The technology specialist is developing a device based on a passive millimetre wave sensor able to penetrate fog, drizzle and dust particles, allowing the pilot or captain to see a low-resolution image of the view ahead.

The technology could be used to produce a head-up display for military pilots flying in poor weather conditions, said Andrew Brookes, aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. ‘Anything that will help the pilots to see things such as mountains in poor visibility is obviously important for flight safety,’ he said. ‘It should help pilots to avoid impact with the ground.’

The device will have a typical range of 3km in bad weather, which should help to avoid disasters such as the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash in 1994, he said. The aircraft crashed in thick fog killing all 29 onboard, including the majority of Northern Ireland’s senior intelligence officials.

The technology could also be used to improve aiming weapons in low visibility, and to help pilots differentiate military targets from civilian vehicles during combat, said Brookes.

Millimetre wave sensors monitor differences in heat energy radiating from objects, in this case mountains and other large features. The sensor will pick up radiation with a wavelength of about 3mm, which is not scattered by fog particles, said Dr Roger Appleby, technical leader for sensors and electronics at Qinetiq. ‘Particles such as fog and dust, which are a few microns in size, are too small to be picked up by the sensor, making them transparent,’ he said.

The team has produced an initial prototype device, which is being tested. The researchers would also like to extend their work to ultimately replace the mechanical controls within the scanner with electronics, reducing the size of the device from a small cube to a flat shape, said Appleby.

As well as military applications the sensor could also be used by pilots in civilian aircraft and search- and-rescue helicopters.

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