Between 2001 and 2010, loss of control in flight was the leading cause of aviation fatalities, according to industry research. Of the 18 fatal commercial plane crashes in that decade, 17 involved loss of outside visual references in conditions requiring pilots to strictly use instruments.
The Space Act Agreement signed between NASA and Boeing aims to improve flight training and aviation safety using NASA’s synthetic vision technologies on Boeing’s 787 simulators. The effort is part of a larger industry effort initiated by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST). The team includes airplane manufacturers, airline customers, regulatory agencies and other aviation players who identify technology enhancements to improve aviation safety.
Synthetic vision systems are one focus area — they provide pilots with a virtual representation of the out-the-window view from a cockpit display, independent of actual weather or visibility conditions. The technology, which today is only in use on private business jets, potentially could improve aviation system safety in limited visibility conditions as well as enhance aircraft operations.
NASA research technical lead Kyle Ellis hopes the collaboration with Boeing and other industry partners will help identify what makes up a best synthetic vision system for attitude state awareness for all pilots – not just seasoned veterans.
In January, 24 junior pilots from Colombia’s Avianca Airlines will each spend a day testing out NASA’s synthetic vision system in a Boeing 787 simulator at Boeing’s Miami training facilities.
“Avianca is already sending pilots to Miami for training, and we are just extending their trip by a day to participate at minimal cost,” said Ellis.
The pilots will gain firsthand exposure to new technologies that could help improve the flight deck. “We want it to be as realistic as possible. We are using the full crew — we want them to interact with each other and get feedback from the pilot in command and others on what they think of the technology,” Ellis said.
Both Boeing and NASA have been interested in synthetic vision systems for a while. Boeing demonstrated synthetic vision in 2014 as part of its ecoDemonstrator aircraft program to flight-test new technologies aimed at environmental sustainability. NASA first developed synthetic vision systems in the 1990s and began evaluating the technology for attitude state awareness in 2015. January’s simulation will be the agency’s sixth experiment in the latest series of tests and the first NASA-led research on synthetic vision systems at a commercial facility. Because of security constraints, the agency typically relies on research study participants who are highly experienced pilots (often military) and native English speakers, which doesn’t reflect today’s global pilot community.
“The pilot population is getting younger and younger and they are coming to commercial aviation with less experience,” observed Capt. Jim Wilkerson, Boeing flight crew training instructor. “Through Boeing, NASA gets a much more common slice of the worldwide aviation community.”
Ellis agreed. “The new face of aviation are these newer pilots, and where are you seeing them? In a lot of the emerging markets like Latin America and Asia."
NASA hopes the simulations will determine first that the synthetic vision systems do no harm — that is, that pilot performance “is just as good or better than not having the technology,” Ellis said. “Second, if the pilots do perform better, how much better are they performing?”
Wilkerson, a 16-year Boeing veteran and former U.S. Air Force pilot, is a big advocate for synthetic vision technology.
“Anything that helps me have a better focus on where I am in terms of a stable flight path in relation to the terrain around me is a benefit," he said. "This will be one more enhancement like the ground proximity warning system that provides pilots better awareness of the state of the airplane and where the airplane is to the world around them.”
Wilkerson noted that pilot-based research to date has shown “a significant preference for synthetic vision in high-workload situations. In many cases, the synthetic vision improved the reaction time to enhance the ability of pilots to quickly and safely recover the airplane and get it back to a stabilized setting,” he said.
CAST’s goal is to have synthetic vision systems as a baseline capability on all future transport category aircraft. “We are closing out our research in this area by the end of September 2018,” said Ellis, adding that NASA remains committed to the 2020 timeframe for issuing guidance on synthetic vision systems to the air transport community through RTCA and ultimately the FAA and global aviation community.
The latest experiments would not be possible without strong support from several aviation partners. Besides NASA, Boeing and Avianca Airlines, L3 and Rockwell Collins are playing critical roles, with Rockwell providing the synthetic vision hardware, which simulator manufacturer L3 is integrating into the simulator facility.
“We couldn’t do it by ourselves,” said Ellis, acknowledging the considerable resources and expertise being shared. “It’s great to have everyone come together in a spirit of safety at an international level.”
NASA is relying on pilot feedback in several synthetic vision system experiments such as the one planned at Boeing facilities in January. Among the surprising findings already uncovered: the terrain shown on the display shouldn’t appear too realistic.
“Our research has found that when you make it totally realistic, there is so much contrast that you can’t decipher your air data information because there is too much in there,” explained NASA’s Ellis. “What’s the right balance in terms of contrast on the screen for the images, color gradient and the grid lines — so, what shows you relative motion, especially when you are in an unusual attitude? Also, how big does the display need to be for the pilot to see to decipher what is on the display? These are just a sample of the major questions we are looking at.”