New vision for safer flights

Working to make flying safer, more than a dozen pilots are testing technology to “synthetically” give pilots a clear view of their surroundings.


Working to make flying safer, more than a dozen NASA, airline, industry and government pilots are testing technology to “synthetically” give pilots a clear view of their surroundings.



Technicians equipped a Boeing 757 jet with cockpit displays and radar equipment that give pilots clear electronic pictures of what’s outside, regardless of weather or time of day. The jet is based at NASA’s LangleyResearchCenter, Hampton, Virginia. The Airborne Research Integrated Experiments System is flying over NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia, to test the Synthetic Vision and Enhanced Vision Systems.



Synthetic Vision combines Global Positioning System satellite signals with an on board photo-realistic database to paint a picture of terrain for the crew. Also on board the jet is an enhanced weather radar capability that can help pilots spot traffic and obstacles that aren’t part of the Synthetic Vision terrain computerised atlas. NASA researchers developed the system. NASA is testing this version of “enhanced vision” to determine if it can effectively fill in the gaps and help pilots see hazards, such as traffic on the runway or even a cellular tower recently added to the landscape.



“We’ve added new software to the X-band weather radar that’s already on many airliners to produce a more detailed picture of what the radar would normally see,” said Steve Harrah, Synthetic Vision sensors lead. “This helps verify the accuracy of the Synthetic Vision terrain display and gives the pilot a more complete picture of what’s on the ground.”



Included in the flight tests are Synthetic Vision and Enhanced Vision cockpit displays developed by BAE Systems, Los Angeles, and Nav3D Corporation, San Carlos, California. These displays use Enhanced Vision technology presented on a head-up display directly in front of the pilot’s eyes.



It supplements the on-board computerised terrain atlas provided on the head-down display. BAE Systems is assessing the effectiveness of fusing Forward Looking Infrared images with active millimetre wave radar pictures for enhanced vision. Millimetre wave radar produces a more detailed image than X-band radar, but the system does not have as much range.



During the tests pilots from the airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration and aircraft manufacturers will fly the 757 on approach to Wallops. On most research scenarios the front windows of the evaluation pilot will be blocked.



The evaluation pilot will have to rely on the synthetic vision and enhanced vision displays. Traffic or obstacles may be on the runway, unbeknownst to the test pilot. If the displays work, the pilot will be able to see the traffic and avoid it. Otherwise, the safety pilot, who is also in the cockpit and always has an unobstructed view, will take over.