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Wanted: Better visibility for helicopter pilots

Mar. 14, 2013 - 06:49AM   |  
Two Task Force Saber, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade OH-58D Kiowa Warriors fly toward a training range near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on March 2, 2012.
Two Task Force Saber, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade OH-58D Kiowa Warriors fly toward a training range near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on March 2, 2012. (Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon / Army)
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The Army is developing technology to see through the dust, snow and other conditions that can blind helicopter pilots when taking off and landing, Army modernization officials say.

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The Army is developing technology to see through the dust, snow and other conditions that can blind helicopter pilots when taking off and landing, Army modernization officials say.

Weather, brownouts and whiteouts have been common problems for helicopter pilots, especially in Afghanistan. These conditions are collectively known as degraded visual environments, or DVE.

A Defense Department rotorcraft survivability study released in 2010 found that roughly 80 percent of rotorcraft losses were due to non-combat and nonhostile-related incidents, and that a lack of situational awareness was a key factor.

To help pilots see and fly better, the Army is taking a multipronged approach: developing sensors that see obstacles through hazy conditions; heads-up displays that overlay map data and symbols to create a synthetic picture of the landing zone; and advanced flight controls.

“It’s a combination of things,” Col. Richard J. Koucheravy, aviation division chief in the office of the G-8, told Army Times. “The priority of effort is sensor, because the technology isn’t fine enough without weight trades we can’t afford.”

Col. Frank Muth, the G-8’s director of materiel, said the Army’s five-year program objective memorandum contains funding for the project.

Central Command has already sought to field some related systems on a limited basis. Sierra Nevada Corporation was awarded a contract in 2012 to fulfill a DVE operational needs statement and deliver its Helicopter Autonomous Landing Systems.

HALS, slated for reportedly five UH-60L Black Hawks, includes a 94-gigahertz millimeter-wave radar, as well as three-dimensional imagery and landing guidance symbols.

Army acquisitions officials have said the Army may employ a mix of sensors.

Over the long term, HALS and other millimeter-wave radar technologies will be evaluated by Army developers alongside a wide range of other sensing capabilities, according to the Army acquisitions officials.

These capabilities may include forward-looking infrared technologies and laser detection and ranging sensors, which use applications to provide a detailed picture of a given landing area.

The active sensor would detect transient items, such as cables, soldiers and vehicles that aren’t in the static terrain data on maps. Then, the system would overlay the obstacle-revealing sensor data onto existing three-dimensional maps from digital terrain elevation data.

“A structure or ridgeline, the DTED data has it, and the pilot virtually knows he has an obstacle,” Muth said.

The Army could take advantage of the sensors some of its helicopters already have.

The AH-64 Apache, for example, has an infrared-capable system called the Arrowhead, and its heads-up display can fuse some of that imagery with what crews see through the cockpit.

The overall effort to overcome DVE could have wide-ranging consequences. Helicopters that do not have sensors will likely get one, according to Koucheravy.

“Eventually, we believe every aircraft will need a sensor,” he said. “Every aircraft probably will need some capability to fuse what’s seen by the sensor in a heads-up display, whether or not it’s an [eyepiece].”

Black Hawks could be the initial focus of that effort. They represent half of the Army’s manned aircraft, they have no sensors and they have less sensitive flight controls than, say, the Chinook.

By contrast, the Army’s attack and reconnaissance helicopters tend to take off and land at operating bases, and although they are exposed to risky environments, they’re not often landing in them, Koucheravy said.

“The landing and takeoff regimes, especially in unimproved areas, tend to be the bigger risks,” he said. “If you’re in a utility aircraft, you’re going to land in dusty LZs more often. We want to attack that as the highest priority.”

The sensors and display would work with an advanced flight control system that would improve the aircraft’s handling and allow for precise movements, technology aimed at preventing DVE-related accidents.

Advanced flight control systems are already in the CH-47F and UH-60M aircraft.

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