Poor weather conditions, such as fog or blizzards that obscure the line of sight can be extremely dangerous and taxing on a rescue pilot’s physical and mental capabilities. Once the visual range drops below 800 metres, reaction times decrease and the chances of colliding with a construction crane, a power line or a mountain sharply increase.
While we certainly can’t control the weather, we can, however, enhance someone’s vision through augmented reality – scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a helmet-mounted display which relays information about dangers lying ahead directly to the pilot during flight.
“Our goal is to increase safety for pilots using augmented reality,” explains one of the lead authors on the study Franz Viertler, who is responsible for developing software that combines terrain information with sensor readings that can be taken en-route.
Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR for short, has proved especially useful here, stresses Viertler: the measuring instruments that can be attached to the helicopter’s skids emit radiation in the micrometre range and detect the waves reflected by hazards or obstacles.
This allows the pilot to see digitally rendered outlines of the landscape and the looming objects up ahead, as well as various other flight data, such as speed, altitude and position. The helmet is also equipped with a head-tracking system which adjusts the projections in accordance with the direction the pilot is looking at.
To test the new technology, Viertler and his team conducted a study with 16 professional helicopter pilots in a number of different flight simulators. They found that for ranges below 800 metres, and especially at 100 to 400 metres, the pilots not only were able to fly much faster and safer, but also reported the flight to be much less demanding both physically and mentally.
“The new technology can reduce the risk when helicopters are operated,” Viertler is convinced. “The main problem is poor visibility by clouds or snow, or dust blown up when taking off and landing. Augmented reality can help to overcome this white-out or brown-out phenomenon.”
While it’ll still be some time before pilots can benefit from this in their daily practice, the industry has already shown great interest in the technology, which Viertler recently presented to the members of the American Helicopter Society in West Palm Beach, Florida, meaning real-world tests in research helicopters might not be too far off.