Laser obstacle avoidance could come to smaller helicopters

 - December 8, 2006, 8:53 AM

A laser obstacle-avoidance system now entering service on military helicopters might prove useful for civil applications. Selex Communications’ laser obstacle avoidance and monitoring system (LOAM),  installed on six AgustaWestland search-and-rescue EH-101s for the Danish Air Force, is said to be suitable for light singles as well.
The LOAM uses an eye-safe laser to periodically scan the area around the flight path and the system analyzes the returned echo pattern to identify possible obstacles and provide the crew with information and warnings.

The LOAM can detect wires with a diameter as small as 5 mm. “In fact, we could detect even smaller diameters, but, a wire [less than five millimeters] can be cut [by cable-cutting passive devices],” Luca Taverni, navigation and optoelectronic system engineer at Pomezia, Italy-based Selex, told AIN.

Thanks to a second-generation processing capability, the system can classify obstacles as wires, pylons and buildings. Each category should be viewed as a group: a vertical obstacle such as a tree will be highlighted as a pylon, a hill as a building or other extended obstacle and so on.

Obstacles can be highlighted clearly on the video or infrared image, supplied by the LOAM sensor unit, on a specific display or on the existing multifunction display. Should an escape maneuver be required, the crew would get some valuable guidance on the same image. “The pilot just has to overlay the flight vector on to the cue,” Taverni said.

If a flight-path vector cannot be displayed, the system offers a separate warning unit. It also gives escape guidance.

Case-by-case Certification
The 53-pound system is made of a sensor, a control panel and the warning unit. “It is never as light as we want it, but it is fine with a Eurocopter EC 130,” Taverni said. Selex used an EC 130 as a flying testbed.

Civil certification remains an issue, Taverni said, adding that only STCs seem possible in the near future. “The FAA and the EASA have no document to certify this class of equipment,” he explained, so the company will have to get the system approved platform by platform and contract by contract.

Although he could not provide a specific price for the system, Taverni predicts it will be affordable for small private EMS operators of helicopters with mtow of two to three metric tons. Selex, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, has flown its system on an AB212, among others.

In the U.S., Selex is partnering with Lockheed Martin Systems Integration-Owego to market the system. The company is already the prime contractor for the US-101. It is currently flight testing the LOAM on its UH-1 flying testbed.