EBACE Convention News

Synthetic vision with infrared becomes helicopter’s SmartView

 - May 20, 2013, 3:00 AM
As Honeywell’s AW139 approaches Manhattan from the south, the synthetic-vision system with infrared clearly highlights in red buildings that pose a danger to the helicopter, while the green flight-path marker (middle of left screen) shows a safe path away from these obstacles. The helicopter has four large, vertical, full-color Honeywell Primus Epic primary flight displays (PFDs), two in front of each pilot position.

Honeywell already delivers synthetic vision for business aircraft under the brand name SmartView, a system that uses the terrain database of the company’s renowned Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), merged with head-up display (HUD) symbology. It then presents the SVS graphics on an aircraft’s primary flight displays (PFD).

SmartView was certified under Part 25 for Gulfstream aircraft with PlaneView avionics, in 2008, and later for Dassault business jets with EASy II flight decks; and under Part 23 for Pilatus PC-12 NG turboprops with Apex cockpits. PlaneView, EASy and Apex are all based on Honeywell Primus Epic avionics. Each of these also has an integrated map display.

The situational-awareness advantages of enhanced, synthetic vision for airplanes are obvious, especially for operations on or near the ground, such as taxi, takeoff, approach and landing. How much more valuable then would enhanced vision be for aircraft, namely helicopters, that spend much more of their time closer to the ground?

“Helicopters fly close to the ground, often in obstacle-rich and low-visibility environments and, frankly, they are more likely to hit things than airplanes–and they do,” said Trish Ververs, an engineer fellow with Honeywell’s Advanced Technology Group. “We think an enhanced, synthetic-vision system would be particularly helpful in improving the situational awareness of helicopter pilots in target-rich environments, such as those in metropolitan areas, which are frequently also in congested airspace.”

Honeywell has been developing synthetic vision for helicopters since 2006. “We’re in the middle of flight test and one of the tests we do [covers] human-factors evaluations,” said Ververs, who specializes in crew interface and platform systems. “We want to see how pilots react and adapt to the system.”

Research Flights in a Target-rich Environment

Morris Township is home to Honeywell’s corporate headquarters and its company aircraft (including N139H, an AgustaWestland AW139 medium, twin-engine helicopter) are based at Morristown Airport. The Advanced Technology Group received permission to turn the executive twin into a test aircraft for a week. The New York City area provided a particularly target-rich environment for evaluating and demonstrating SmartView for helicopters, and the research team kept the N139H flying as much as possible.

“This is research, although we are at the point right before we transition the research to an actual product,” Ververs said before our 30-minute flight. From a research standpoint, the SVS project will reach “Technology Readiness Level 6” by the end of the year, she said. Then the project will transfer to engineering for “productization.” The engineering unit will decide what the end product will be, “depending on what our customers want and the features we have,” she explained, anticipating that Honeywell will have a final product within the next two to three years. Because SVS would be offered as part of a larger Primus Epic upgrade, it would not be individually priced, Ververs explained.

Showing the Value of Synthetic Vision plus Infrared

Marc Lajeunesse, whose title is Honeywell lead pilot (rotary wing), conducted the demonstration flights. His main job is flying Honeywell’s CEO and other top executives in both the AW139 and the company’s business jets. He has more the 13 years experience with head-up display technology. Lajeunesse said a key objective of the flight demonstrations, was “to show the additional value provided to the pilot by combining SVS with infrared, primarily in low-visibility and night conditions, but also in good visibilities.”

Another key objective of the demo flights was pilot evaluation of the flight-path marker (FPM) on the SVS display. Honeywell believes the FPM is key to any SVS display and it is currently available as part of SmartView. The concept is simple: the FPM points to where the aircraft will end up, if the pilot takes no actions to alter the flight path. Keeping this in mind, if the FPM overlays terrain or an obstacle on the SVS display, that’s where the aircraft it going to hit if the pilot does nothing.

Using an FPM to display flight path helps illustrate one of the differences the Honeywell design team needed to address, as it adapted SVS for helicopters. When an airplane takes off, the pilot raises the nose, and the FPM points up. When a helicopter takes off, the pilot lowers the nose and the FPM (before the software was altered) points down–as an airplane with its nose below the horizon is in a descent. Regardless where the nose is pointing, the FPM has to show where the helicopter would really go.

How to show obstacles is also important. “Airplane pilots tell us that, except for takeoff and landing, they are not really concerned about obstacles that are more than 1,000 feet below the airplane’s flight path,” said Ververs. “But helicopter pilots often fly below 1,000 feet and therefore need better depictions of obstacles, so they have a better idea what to look out for.” As a result, the helicopter obstacle database shows some obstacles in greater detail and adds others.

“Instead of showing sticks with heights for a bridge [as the airplane obstacle database does], we show the stanchions of a bridge and put a road between them,” said Ververs. “Instead of showing a stick for a wind turbine, we can show a wind turbine,” he continued. Honeywell has also overlaid the helicopter database with a power-line database, and shows these, too.

Flying with SmartView

Lajeunesse planned a demonstation route that took us south from Morristown Airport to Raritan Bay, northward up the Hudson River toward New York City (heading directly to the east stanchion of the Verazzano Bridge), past Roosevelt Island toward lower Manhattan at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers and along the west bank of Manhattan toward the George Washington Bridge. There we made a 180-degree turn to the south, flew back down the Hudson, made a right turn across Hoboken and finally picked up Route 280 heading northwest to return to Morristown.

The sky was blue and visibility unlimited (until it became hazy when we turned northward toward NYC). While the good visibility inhibited the CVS from showing off its capabilities in low visibility, it did allow us to make closer approaches to hard surfaces because we easily saw them through the windshield.

Along our route, we approached and flew close to numerous obstacles, including power lines, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, bridges, cellphone towers and so on. The color and visual warnings mirror EGPWS warnings. Green is safe, yellow is cautionary and red is danger. The audio warnings are also similar, including the “look ahead” alerts based on the flight path (“caution terrain” and “caution obstacle”). Because Lajeunesse purposely flew low and close to obstacles, there were almost continuous changes in colors on the SVS and audio warnings. He also described and demonstrated the FPM and I used it without difficulty to do normal turns, climbs and descents.

I marveled at what the SVS showed and even more so when switching to CVS to add infrared. Perhaps the most noteworthy difference between the two came when Lajeunesse flew south along the Hudson River. In only SVS mode, the New Jersey waterfront appeared as a diffused shoreline, like a beach in yellow fog, with tall red, yellow and black buildings indicated a bit inland. This waterfront area was not a database priority, Lajeunesse said, because it was at such a low level. In CVS mode, however, the IR clearly picked up docks, piers, buildings and other structures in several shades from black to white, depending on their heat signatures. It was like looking at a black and white movie instead of just mist.

Back at Morristown Airport, Lajeunesse demonstrated hovering, particularly having me note the transition from flight-path marker to heading indicator during a sidewards hover and back to FPM when he stopped N139H in a stationary hover. The transitions appeared so natural to me that they seemed like a non-event.

Although Honeywell’s SmartView for helicopters is still in development, it is nonetheless impressive. If brought to the market (and I think this is inevitable), I’m sure it will improve helicopter pilots’ overall situational awareness in all weather conditions and help lead to a reduction of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents.

I also predict that helicopter pilots a decade from now will see much better synthetic and infrared depictions in their cockpits. Flir has improved considerably in the past 20 years and both it and SVS will inevitably continue to improve. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the geo-referenced, 3-D image generated by future enhanced, synthetic-vision systems will be better than the current photo-realistic images produced by simulators today, and the position and height of each obstacle and terrain feature will be perfectly positioned as well. Even flying in nighttime, zero-zero conditions may become no more difficult than flying on the clearest of cloudless days.

See AINtv for video about Honeywell’s SmartView for helicopters and AIN’s June issue for the full report.