Helicopter pilots set to see in fog

Helicopters capable of flying through thick fog are being developed by engineers at AgustaWestland.

The Navigation and Obstacle Avoidance for Helicopters (Noah) system, being developed in a three-year project with the DTI, enables pilots to fly around obstacles such as mountains and other aircraft in zero visibility.

Sensors on the aircraft collect information, including radar data, height readings and air speed. This is combined with information from the onboard Traffic Collision Avoidance System, GPS and terrain databases, and processed instantaneously to produce a graphic display of the safest route.

The technology is based on Southampton university research into mathematical methods called ‘neurofuzzy’ theory. This links two branches of computer technology — fuzzy logic and neural networks.

Each sensor on the system has its own neurofuzzy estimator, which processes and refines new data as it arrives. The system can then create an overall picture of the helicopter’s position relative to static and moving obstacles.

The project, which is due to be completed in November 2003, resulted from research at Southampton University into flying helicopters safely in full white-out conditions following the Chinook helicopter which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994, said Professor Chris Harris, head of the university’s department of electronics and computer science.

‘Helicopters have a lot of data-gathering sensors on board, and the question was how to use this to ensure a very precise picture of where the aircraft is, as wellas accurate information on other aircraft and obstacles,’ he said.

The system can present the pilot with either a map of obstacles and other aircraft, weighing up different threats against their level of risk to the flight, or a suggested flight path.

‘The screen presents the pilot with a series of boxes, 10 seconds apart, which form a corridor that the pilot then flies through,’ said Harris.

Noah can be used during the day and at night, in all weather conditions, and can be constantly updated. ‘It is even able to detect objects such as power cables, which can be fairly catastrophic if they get mixed up with the rotor blades.’

The system can also deal with conflicting information received from electronic databases and its own sensors, such as recently installed power cables, he said.

AgustaWestland is conducting further work on the Noah system to produce the smarthelicopters, while the research team at Southampton University has recently developed the technology to create a system for managing ships in confined waters such as those around the South Coast.

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