Government Technology

Synthetic Vision Systems Will Improve Aircraft Safety

October 10, 2006 By

Hackberry trees and saguaro cactuses fade into the darkness on the valley floor as the sun drops behind the McDowell Mountains, whose faint outline will be invisible in a few more minutes.

The Cessna Citation V jet is flying low -- dangerously low over such terrain at night were it not for a color screen on the pilot console that displays the mountains, an even closer jumble of brown hills and a blue stream of running water as if it were high noon.

It is not a photograph on the screen that Honeywell Aerospace pilot Sandy Wyatt is monitoring, along with traditional needles and gauges, to make sure he is navigating safely.

The image, which is constantly updated during the flight from takeoff to landing, is artificially produced to mimic the view a pilot would see outside the cockpit windscreen on a perfect blue-sky day.

Yet the simulation is an accurate three-dimensional representation of the world outside, derived from a terrain database of Earth and onboard equipment that use the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) to track the plane's path on the topographical map.

This may sound like science fiction, but synthetic vision is on aviation's horizon.

Proponents -- including the FAA, NASA and some airplane manufacturers -- say combining synthetic vision with technologies that improve real vision will help pilots envision and instantaneously understand what they otherwise couldn't see in bad weather, at night or in challenging flying environments that are filled with natural and manmade obstacles.

"There is a lot of progress being made," said John McGraw, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's flight technologies and procedures division. "We feel you will end up getting the best of both worlds by fusing synthetic vision with enhanced vision technologies that use external sensors on the aircraft to present the most accurate and reliable image of the real world outside."

Today, pilots must study their instruments and conjure up a mental picture of where they are and what the aircraft is doing based on the aeronautical map in the pilot's lap and cockpit gauges showing airspeed, altitude, course heading and aircraft pitch and roll in relation to the horizon. Those mental calculations take time and talent, adding significantly to pilot workload.

Many accidents occur because the pilot, who should always be thinking about what's coming next -- it's called "flying ahead of the plane" -- fails to keep up with current demands.

With synthetic vision and enhanced vision, which uses infrared or millimeter wave technologies to improve low-vision situations, boosting pilots' awareness of their surroundings is expected to help reduce the two leading causes of fatal aviation accidents -- flying into terrain and loss of control during flight.

More than 3,600 people have been killed over the last 20 years worldwide in accidents in those two categories, according to the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a joint government-industry group working to reduce the fatal accident rate.

One of the more notable loss-of-control accidents was the 1999 crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Piper Saratoga in the Atlantic. An accident involving a plane flying into terrain happened in 1995 when an American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed into mountains near Cali, Colombia, killing 160 people.

Besides improving safety, the advances in synthetic and enhanced vision research also hold the eventual promise of expanding air travel to hundreds of small and medium U.S. airports that lack the landing-guidance equipment necessary in severe weather.

Over the Arizona desert, the Citation V executive business jet is flying level at 3,500 feet -- too low to clear the more than 6,000-foot mountaintops of the McDowells straight ahead, bathed in darkness.

"Right here it is telling me that I don't want to stay on this tack very long," said Wyatt, development pilot of

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