Helicopters can now be flown and landed in poor visibility conditions
QinetiQ has developed and successfully flight trialled a Day Night All Environment (DNAE) visibility solution that provides helicopter pilots with alternative, complementary sources of imaging information, enabling them to fly safely in low light or adverse weather conditions. When added to a suite of navigational and tactical guidance aids also being developed by QinetiQ, the existing operational envelope of the aircraft can be considerably expanded.
Helicopter operations are often constrained by a variety of environmental conditions. Atmospheric obscurants such as fog, cloud, rain and snow can lead to hazardous situations. Low light levels and the need to operate at low altitude or to fly over featureless terrain with low scene contrast present similar operational challenges. Visibility is often further reduced by wind and re-circulated dust when operating at low levels (brown out). These conditions can result in loss of spatial awareness and can adversely affect the precise control of the aircraft, particularly during final approach and landing.
The recently completed HawkOwl Trial was conducted by QinetiQ using a Sea King Mk IV-X, and was sponsored by MOD Director of Equipment Capability (DEC) Air Littoral Manoeuvre (ALM) under the Day Night All Weather Helicopter Operations Applied Research Programme.
“This is a significant step forward for military and civilian helicopter pilots and should make operating in adverse conditions much safer,” stated Tony Wall, MD of QinetiQ’s Air business. “By combining various types of existing sensor technologies with other workload reducing solutions into a single system, pilots, rather than being overwhelmed with excessive information, can easily select the optimum level of detail needed to safely operate the aircraft.”
QinetiQ used colour panoramic and display night vision goggles (NVGs) together with a head-tracking system, onboard mission planning and route generation; precision navigation; dynamic flight path guidance; and conformal, task dependent, symbology; all integrated into a single system. Inputs from thermal imaging and low light TV sensors were fused in real-time to provide optimum imaging on a head-down display. The real-time adaptive image fusion process along with all other technical aspects of the programme underwent a variety of qualitative and quantitative assessments during the flight trials, to determine the performance of the system and the capability it provides.
The onboard systems provide the pilot with a ‘safe corridor’, which appears as a wire frame that is projected into the NVGs, through which the pilot flies the aircraft. Other symbology can also be included to assist the pilot’s view of the real world, by providing earth-referenced markers of obstacles and other points of interest on the ground. Dedicated landing symbology enables more accurate helicopter positioning, hover and control of descent rate and drift for precision landings in poor visibility conditions such as brown out. The system has been designed to enable “add on” upgrades to current helicopter platforms.
Air Commodore Carl Dixon at DEC (Air & Littoral Manoeuvre) has also stated that he was particularly encouraged to hear the positive and operationally focused comments about the recent trials from both the test pilots and technical advisors. He went on to reconfirm that he was keen to focus efforts to get particular aspects of the programme to the maturity level where they can be pulled through, ideally in concert with appropriate aircraft design authorities and avionics manufacturers.