Technology Allows Helicopter Pilots to 'See' Through Blinding Dust
Rotorcraft mishaps in desert areas are more likely to be caused by brownouts than by enemy fire. As a helicopter comes in for a landing, its spinning blades can kick up dust clouds that can completely obscure a pilot’s view. Operators go from a clear picture to having no view outside of the cockpit, and they only have a couple of seconds to get their bearings, Paul Cooke, BAE’s defense avionics business development director and a former Apache pilot, told National Defense Oct. 11 at the Association of the United States Army’s annual exhibition in Washington, D.C.
BAE’s brownout landing aid system relies on radar to scan an area in real time, creating a visual representation akin to that of a flight simulator. This allows a pilot to see on a display all that he can’t through the aircraft’s windows — mountains, wires and even people and ground vehicles.
“If you can’t see the outside you can just look at the inside in the virtual world and fly it just like you would a flight simulator,” Cooke said.
Obstacles such as wires, boulders, fences, poles, vehicles and personnel are distinguishable from terrain features on the rendered image, which a pilot can view on a normal display or one mounted on a helmet.
The system works alongside digital terrain elevation data and other landing aids that helicopters already have on board. It employs a 94 GHz seeker and weighs no more than 30 pounds, making it useful for large and small rotorcraft, Cooke said.
“While there is not currently a requirement for this type of system, I think the winds are starting to shift in favor of a material solution,” Cooke said.
Brownout conditions are to blame in three out of four rotorcraft accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cost the U.S. military more than $100 million each year, according to the Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement. There was a belief for a long time that these mishaps were due to a lack of pilot training and inexperience, Cooke said, but that is changing. In 2009, military officials told Congress that the problem went beyond training and that pilots could benefit from a sensor that gives them visual awareness when they can’t see anything outside their cockpit.
BAE’s landng aid is similar to other products out there, including a Sandblaster system developed through a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program.
“The concept is proven. I think that the game now is to get it in a mature, lightweight, deliverable package,” Cooke said. “We’re the right size and weight that we can get something out to the field quickly.”
Landing is only part of the problem. The system also can detect and warn of wires and towers during low-level flight. And a pilot can scan an area before taking off to familiarize himself with surroundings should a brown-out occur once the helicopter begins its lift.