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Universal Avionics Gaining in Helicopter Marketplace

 - April 14, 2021, 4:46 PM

Universal Avionics is moving further ahead with development of its ClearVision enhanced flight vision system (EFVS) for helicopters, which features a head-wearable display (HWD) instead of a fixed head-up display (HUD). “The big play in the helicopter market is to go fully head-up,” said Universal Avionics CEO Dror Yahav. "We have several programs [underway].”

The Tucson, Arizona-based company’s InSight integrated avionics suite is also making progress in the helicopter market, having been selected by MD Helicopters for both new-build MD 902 Explorers and for retrofit into MD 902/MD 900 models. InSight provides synthetic vision, 2D topographical moving maps, electronic charts, checklists, systems synoptics, and engine instruments and rotor system data. Helicopter pilots can make selections on the primary and multifunction displays using a cursor control on the primary flight controls.

There are now two helicopter models operating with the ClearVision EFVS, the Leonardo AW139 and AW169, and testing is underway in Europe on a Super Puma installation. Swiss Helicopter rescue service Rega has opted for ClearVision in a new AW169 that it has ordered.

Although ClearVision is also available and flying in the fixed-wing market, Universal Avionics is targeting the rotorcraft segment because of the safety benefits it offers for challenging flight operations such as oil and gas, emergency medical services (EMS), and search and rescue. Many business jets have the latest EFVS on board but they aren’t flying in the same conditions. “This is a lifesaving machine,” Yahav explained. “They really need support,” especially because typically EMS operations happen at night in poor weather. “We see the demand is huge. The avionics they have now are not so great for what must be done.”

Universal Avionics parent company Elbit has long supplied military operators with advanced night vision (ANVIS) helmet-mounted HUDs, which work with its helmet display and tracking system (HDTS). The HDTS gives pilots an unlimited field of view when using the HUD as they can look in any direction and see HUD symbology and imagery on their helmet-mounted display, by slaving electro-optical sensors to the HUD and thus the pilot’s line of sight. Pilots who retire from the military and have flown with the equipment naturally look for similar capabilities when they take civilian flying jobs, Yahav explained.

The ClearVision EFVS and the SkyVis HWD capabilities share some characteristics of Elbit's military technology. The pilot can look in any direction while wearing SkyVis and see synthetic vision imagery and HUD symbology in the HWD, greatly enhancing the view at night and in low visibility. The EFVS imagery from typically nose-mounted camera/sensor packages is limited to the field of view of the cameras, which is about 35 degrees wide. However, helicopter pilots have the advantage of being able to slew the machine around to point the cameras in a different direction.

The benefits of ClearVision with SkyVis for flight in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) are that EVFS helps pilots fly in IMC as though the weather is clear. And at night, SkyVis can be hooked up with night-vision goggles so the pilot can fly with NVG without looking down at the instrument panel.

While regulators haven’t given helicopters operational credit for EFVS as they have granted lower instrument approach minimums or even EVS-to-land for airplanes, Yahav sees a path to “enhanced VFR” helicopter operations.

“We were able to show in flight test with OEMs and end-users, using the EFVS camera in IFR conditions in low-visibility can provide an enhancement that allows you to fly as if you’re flying VFR,” he said. “It’s a different concept than an instrument approach.”

The idea would be to demonstrate that the EFVS allows the pilot to fly as if visibility is, say, 2.5 miles but in reality is one mile. Universal Avionics is applying for that kind of credit and looking for a rulemaking that would allow substitution of an electronic device like ClearVision for natural vision. “This will take a few years to enter service,” he said.

Once pilots experience flying with ClearVision while wearing the SkyVis HUD, they quickly appreciate its benefits. “For them, it’s amazing,” he said. “They tell us it’s so hard to fly a helicopter when it’s marginal outside. Suddenly they can look outside without the need to glimpse down at the [panel instruments].”

Universal Avionics is working on enhancements to ClearVision, one of which would be slaving an electro-optical sensor like a FLIR system to SkyVis so it follows the pilot’s eye-tracking. Another is allowing two pilots equipped with SkyVis to share their views. For example, if one pilot is looking out the left window and sees conflicting traffic, they could share that view with the other pilot. “This is something the market said it wants,” Yahav said. “So CRM will become better.”