Eurocopter and French aerospace research center Onera are jointly investigating how augmented reality, for the senses of vision and touch, could benefit helicopter pilots in the future. The two organizations are developing an advanced flight simulator, also known as a “neuro-ergonomic” platform, initially aimed at finding ways to avoid obstacles and terrain.
Fly-by-wire controls–predicted to make their way into civil helicopters after a few enter service in the military–are opening new possibilities. One of them is force-feedback in sidesticks to reduce the mental processing a graphical depiction of the situation or an aural alarm requires. “Giving the pilot haptic information frees up some cognitive resources to manage the mission,” Jean-Christophe Sarrazin, an Onera neuroscience researcher and specialist in human-system interface, told AIN.
One obvious application is obstacle avoidance. If sensors detect an obstacle close to the flight path, the sidestick could make itself “harder,” resisting pilot inputs that bring the helicopter closer to the obstacle. Reciprocally, it could get softer in those input directions that move the aircraft away from the obstacle. Researchers have rejected the option of physically preventing the sidestick from moving in one direction because “pilots don’t like a solution to be imposed,” Sarrazin noted.
He emphasized that helicopter cockpits are becoming more and more complex, with ever more systems and modes. “Even one uncluttered touchscreen can hide a hundred functions,” the researcher pointed out. As a result, the cockpit is becoming less intelligible, Onera experts believe, spurring interest in the haptic interface.
The platform Onera is using is immersive, with three vertical displays and one horizontal one to be added on the ground. There, a pilot can help assess a new interface solution. He can be fitted with sensors for movements, muscle actions and, soon, brain activity.
“We devise models of cognitive functions and biodynamic properties of the human pilot,” Sarrazin said. For example, researchers are creating a model of an arm, with its muscles’ capabilities and kinematics. In fact, Sarrazin and his colleagues use the models to devise a solution before a pilot evaluates it. “This is as important as using a fluid dynamics model to design a wing,” he noted.
Another way of augmenting reality is through a helmet visor. Thus far aimed primarily at military crews, the technology could be applied in commercial operations. For tactical flights (fast and at low level at night), Onera is looking for the right ground texture on the helmet’s display. “There are optimal values for bush size and density for the crew to have a good estimation of their height and speed,” Sarrazin explained.
So what about a civil medium twin flying to an offshore rig? In 2009, a Super Puma crashed into the North Sea. AAIB investigators established that the crew’s perception of the position and orientation of the helicopter during the final approach was erroneous. No crewmember was aware that the helicopter was descending toward the surface of the sea.
According to Sarrazin, displaying suitable shapes in the peripheral vision of the pilot may help improve height and speed awareness. There is even hope that such a system could be affordable. Military helmets such as Thales’s Topowl are understood to cost on the order of $150,000 to $200,000. Meanwhile, the price for the automated rig approach system the FAA has certified on the Sikorsky S-92 is in six figures. Live-view goggles for cameras mounted on remote-controlled helicopter models carry three-figure price tags.