About three-quarters of military helicopter accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan occur while landing or take off in brownout conditions. New technology allows pilots to see in these zero visibility conditions.
Next month, the U.S. military's futuristic research agency will flight-test technology that allows helicopter pilots to take off and land even when visibility is cut to zero by blinding snow and fog or dust stirred up by other helicopters in the area.
These so-called degraded visual environments account for three-quarters of the helicopter accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Vernon Fronek, a business development manager for BAE Systems, which developed the see-through technology.
Fronek likened the experience of landing a helicopter in these situations to driving down the road in thick fog and losing visual awareness. "What would you do? Where would you go? How would you avoid obstacles?" he said in an email to NBC News.
The Brownout Landing Aid System Technology "provides 'continuous vision' in zero visibility," he said. It fuses data from sensors such as radar and lidar — a method that uses pulsed light to measure distance to objects —to generate visual information about obstacles and terrain.
The information, in turn, is presented on the helicopter's dashboard or displays integrated with a pilot's helmet. Such helmet-mounted displays allow pilots to keep their heads up and eyes focused outside the helicopter. It should even work with Google Glass, a wearable display technology, noted Fronek.
"We use open architecture display standards, so most likely, yes, we could make it work with (Google Glass)," he said. In addition to imagery, the system displays symbols that give the pilot information on the state of the aircraft.
The system, which weighs less than 50 pounds, has been flown on military test aircraft to prove its effectiveness. BAE is currently preparing for advanced flight tests with the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in August and October.
The company aims to market the technology to the U.S. military as well as to clients in France and the Middle East, Fronek added.
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.
First published July 18 2013, 9:41 AM