Honeywell reveals latest synthetic-vision concept

 - October 16, 2006, 7:57 AM

Honeywell researchers are demonstrating a synthetic-vision system (SVS) that uses terrain and obstacle data taken from the company’s enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) to paint computer-generated views of the world ahead on aircraft flight displays.

The concept overlays symbology borrowed from Honeywell’s head-up display (HUD) designs on a compelling 3-D view of hills, mountains, obstacles and runways in colors reminiscent of a VFR sectional chart. Fly too close to terrain or an obstacle, though, and the portion of the display the computers deem the biggest danger will turn red and the EGPWS will issue an aural warning.

Roman Jamrogiewicz, Honeywell vice president of engineering and technology, said SVS is just one of several advanced technologies the company is involved in now that it has completed the major engineering projects related to the Primus Epic avionics system, EGPWS and reduced vertical separation minimums. But SVS is certainly among the most fascinating technologies for professional pilots, many of whom undoubtedly view such cutting-edge developments with equal amounts of interest and skepticism.

The FAA, too, has been understandably skeptical of SVS in general, although there are signs that the agency is growing more receptive to avionics manufacturers’ ideas for replacing traditional blue-over-brown attitude indicators with video-game-like presentations of the earth below.

“When the FAA flew with our synthetic-vision system recently, they went into it kind of with their hands in their pockets, as if what we were about to show them wasn’t going to be any good,” Jamrogiewicz recalled. “But they came out of the airplane after the demo flight with big smiles on their faces.”

Jamrogiewicz said the FAA representatives who came along for the flight demonstration indicated they were impressed with what they saw. Still, a timetable for when a Honeywell SVS-based cockpit can be certified and enter flight operations in the real world is anybody’s guess.

The Market for an SVS Cockpit

While it is difficult to gauge what is on the drawing boards at business aircraft manufacturers, Gulfstream at this stage appears to be the most interested in applying SVS concepts to the cockpits of its airplanes, at least among top-of-the-line models.

Gulfstream vice president of material James McQueeney said the business jet maker remains committed to “bringing cutting-edge technologies” to the aircraft family, and pointed specifically to Honeywell’s research and development work on SVS as an area where safety enhancements could be made. He stopped short, however, of saying Gulfstream planned to bring SVS to future Primus Epic PlaneView-equipped airplanes.

Test pilots from NASA and Gulfstream last summer flew a GV equipped with a synthetic-vision system intended to explore advanced-vision and runway-incursion technologies that engineers say can one day be brought to civil aviation.McQueeney pointed to those test flights, as well as to certification of infrared enhanced vision sensors in a number of models, as signs of Gulfstream’s desire to bring advanced-vision technology to its customers.

Flying with the computer-generated images of the terrain, the GV pilots involved in the NASA trial flew a series of instrument approaches to the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia using only SVS for visual guidance.

In addition to the SVS evaluation, a runway incursion prevention system was also tested aboard the GV. Both experiments were part of NASA’s Aviation Safety and Security Program, which researches and evaluates new onboard systems that are intended to improve pilot situational awareness and reduce controlled-flight-into-terrain accidents and runway incursions.

Much of the equipment used in the NASA trial, however, was supplied by Honeywell competitor Rockwell Collins, which is also actively researching SVS technology of its own. For its part, Honeywell plans to begin demonstrating SVS for the press and select customers later this year. The company clearly believes that its EGPWS-based design is superior to competitors’ synthetic-vision concepts, and in fact views the market for such technology as perhaps a way to recover revenue that has disappeared now that the FAA mandates for terrain awareness and warning systems and RVSM have come and gone.

Assisted Recovery Technology

Of course, the array of new safety technology that researchers at Honeywell are dreaming up today could very well be the basis for new FAA and international mandates tomorrow. One new concept that has been garnering the attention of lawmakers is what Honeywell calls assisted recovery. The idea is to use the EGPWS database and automatic flight controls to prevent pilots or anybody else from intentionally flying an aircraft into the ground or buildings.

According to Jamrogiewicz, assisted recovery would first warn pilots if they were flying too close to the ground, obstacles or even prohibited airspace such as temporary flight restrictions (TFR) or air defense identification zones (ADIZ). If the pilots did nothing to alter their course after receiving a warning, assisted recovery would gently steer the aircraft away from the hazard or TFR/ADIZ area. The airplane’s computer would continue to direct the aircraft away from what it considered to be a threat regardless of the pilot’s control inputs.

Such a system would be useful if pilots were to become lost or confused about their position. And it could potentially save lives if terrorists took control of aircraft as they did on 9/11. “Understandably, pilots are not at all convinced about the assisted-recovery concept,” he said, adding that airline pilot unions could be the biggest barrier to seeing such technology on commercial airplanes. Honeywell researchers, meanwhile, will continue refining assisted recovery in the hopes of developing a system that pilots will accept.