FAA Flying Lab. Photo courtesy of the FAA
The FAA is researching potential uses of advanced vision systems for helicopter operations in increasing situational awareness and enhancing safety in both normal and low-visibility conditions, particularly for offshore operations and air ambulance missions.
The research’s overarching objective is to reduce the helicopter fatal accident rate, in part by mitigating weather and visibility limitations, developing better landing-area and heliport standards, encouraging the industry to design helicopters that can fly slower and closer to landing areas and improving navigation systems to support those closer operations.
In July, Astronics said its Max-Viz subsidiary would support that work under a cooperative research and development agreement with the FAA, using its Max-Viz 1500 and Max-Viz 2300 installed on the agency’s Sikorsky S-76A flying testbed (registration N38) at the William J. Hughes Technical Center at Atlantic City, New Jersey, International Airport.
Elbit Systems earlier this year said it is supporting the FAA's research with its Heli-ClearVision system installed on that S-76. The agency's partners also have included Honeywell and Rockwell Collins.
Avionics spoke with FAA Research Engineer Cliff Johnson at the Technical Center about the research’s rationale, scope and timeline.
What is the objective of the advanced vision system, or enhanced helicopter vision system, research?
We’re looking to evaluate the concept for doing the same type of operations you have today too runways, with enhanced helicopter vision systems (essentially like enhanced flight vision systems in fixed-wing aircraft) enabling helicopters to use technologies other than natural vision to land at a helipad or heliport.
Why don’t enhanced vision system rules exist for helicopters approaching and departing heliports and helipads?
Mainly because most heliports are visual operations, so it’s visual procedures from, say, a point in space, flying visually or under visual flight rules. There are not many IFR-rated heliports in the world and none in the U.S. that I know of.
On the fixed-wing side, typically there is an instrument approach to a runway where you have 1,000 feet of lead-in lights and markings. You have obstacle and obstruction protection.
You don’t have all that, necessarily, at a heliport. So you’re trying to assure that you can have the same level of safety on these approaches. Without having those technologies, the community hasn’t really looked at doing this. There hasn’t been a regulatory basis for that.
So I think the push was there on the fixed-wing side to get in — we want to fly in all-weather operations. Work started more than 10 years ago on the rule for enhanced plate vision systems for fixed-wing. That rule being applied all the way to touchdown was just announced earlier this year.
On the rotorcraft side, going to a helipad, there’s really no basis. What we’re really trying to do is create the basis for those rules, taking a modest approach to get us there, learning from what we’ve done on the fixed-wing side and then adapting that for helicopters. It’s just because the technology hasn’t been there and the concept has been new and the fact that it’s a little bit more challenging to do this in a helicopter to a helipad because you don’t have all the other safeguards and protections that you have going to a runway.
What's driving the research?
There has been demand that has been voiced by several operators in the helicopter air ambulance community as well as those in offshore environments through various forums. This has come up at HAI safety events, safety forums, at Heli-Expo over the years, as well as some of the helicopter operations subcommittees and some other things that have been occurring in EASA and some of our European counterparts and other folks as well.
At the end of the day, it comes down to what business case for an operator. “How many more approaches could I do? How can I quantify some of the safe operations with these types of devices that I couldn’t do if I didn’t have these in place?”
That’s been the driving force that we have seen from the operators and the folks from some of the industry groups that have come to the FAA and said, “Are you working on enhanced, synthetic, combined vision systems for helicopters?”
This is something that has been in the works for the FAA for quite some time. We’re finally getting it to where we have funding in place, where we have industry support to look at some of these types of devices going forward. They’ve all sort of come around to where everything is ready. The technology is in a place where we can actually do this, where one or more of those pieces were missing before.
Are the Elbit and Max-Viz activities focused on different aspects of the issue of applying advanced vision systems to helicopter operations?
We’re trying to look at the use of enhanced vision from several different concepts of operation. We’re looking at both the onshore domain as well as the offshore domain. We’re at the point in the research and testing where we’re trying to look at different technologies.
Elbit and Max-Viz are two of our research partners that have agreed to work with us in collaboration by using some of their systems, integrating them onto the FAA’s helicopter and then running a series of experiments. These are looking at both the conceptual and the operational questions surrounding how do we use the device. Is it feasible for what we want to do?
We also are looking at some of the human factors issues and other considerations that need to be examined and studied to give us enough data to say, “OK. Do we have enough data on these types of operations now that the FAA could then start into policy guidance or rule-making activities to enable these types of operations with other than natural vision?"
There hasn’t been a lot done in the helicopter world in the past. We have series of flight tests and experiments planned at different heliports, in different environmental conditions, in different lighting. We’re flying in daylight, we’re flying at night, to try to get data on how the concept works. If it works, if it’s feasible, what are the types of things a pilot needs to see, and what are the visual cues that a pilot needs to have with devices to enable safe operations to a helipad that’s similar to what we have today with natural vision?
What’s the timeline for the work?
We’re starting testing now. Our initial phase of research is going to continue over the course of the next year. Then I think the agreements that we have with both Elbit and Max-Viz are looking at this more in terms of a three- to five-year effort. Obviously it could be shorter than that, or it could be a little bit longer.
I don’t want to necessarily say that in three or five years we’re going to have a rule in place or a change. The goal is to get that at some point in the future, but we’re not sure, given the time frame that it takes for regulation to be in place. It kind of depends on what we see. Initially we’re going to look at doing this within the time frame of the next year or so to run some of these experiments. Then we’ll have an initial set of data, and that will focus our efforts on where we need to go going forward.