Augmented reality helps pilots see through the clouds

TUM Mitarbeiter

Original press release was issued by the Technical University of Munich.

Every car driver knows what it’s like to try navigating in heavy rain, fog, or a snowstorm. Poor visibility makes many seasoned drivers pull over until they can continue safely,  but this is not the case for pilots of rescue helicopters. If there is an emergency, they simply have to cope with bad weather and impaired vision – if they are lucky. Most of the time, they are forced to stay on the ground because the situation is too dangerous. Researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have set out to remedy that. Enter augmented reality.

In the research simulator at the TUM’s Institute of Helicopter Technology, the scientists analyze how augmented reality can improve the performance of pilots. (Source: TUM Mitarbeiter)

The crucial information about the pilot’s surroundings – such as a hill, a tall building, or a wind turbine closing in – is projected from the on-board computer to a see-through head-mounted display. Thanks to this system, pilots can visualize environmental hazards hidden to the naked eye and maneuver around them, while maintaining full awareness of the cockpit. In addition, a head-tracking system ensures that the projections adjust to the pilot’s line of sight – depending on whether he is looking forward, downward or out the side of the cockpit.

“Our goal is to increase safety for pilots using augmented reality,” explains Franz Viertler, one of the researchers. Together with his colleagues at the Institute of Helicopter Technology, he has developed software that combines terrain information with sensor readings that can be taken during a flight. Light Detection and Ranging, LIDAR for short, has proved especially useful here, stresses Viertler: the measuring instruments that can be attached to the helicopter’s skids emit radiation in the micrometer range and detect the waves reflected by hazards or obstacles.

Aaron Barth tries out the new head-mounted display in the research simulator. (Source: TUM Fotostelle)

But not only is this AR system functional – it achieved positive results with test pilots on a flight simulator. The engineers recorded how 16 professional pilots flew and queried them afterward on their stress symptoms. For ranges of sight below 800 meters, the pilots benefited measurably from the terrain and flight data displayed. They not only flew more quickly and more safely than without the head-mounted display, but they also felt that the flights had been less demanding both physically and mentally. The advantages of the system really came to bear when visibility was extremely poor, e.g. in visual ranges of just 100 to 400 meters.

However, it may take some time before pilots benefit from this in daily practice: the collection, evaluation and projection of the data must first be tested in research helicopters. “We cannot leave that to our simulators,” explains Viertler. Here, support from the industry is required. Fortunately, the industry has already shown great interest in this technology.


Michal Dudic

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