Iowa Engineer Magazine: More Than A Bird's Eye-View

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Iowa Engineer magazine, 2007 Number 1

The pilot fixes his gaze on the landscape beyond the cockpit windshield, a relatively flat expanse of terrain topped by a small ridge in the distance. Inside the cockpit, just to the right of the controls, an 8” touch-screen provides three graphic images—a forward-looking view from inside the cockpit, a profile view, and a view from above the airplane as it flies across the terrain. As fog rolls in and the evening darkens, the pilot searches for a leather flight bag, fishes out a flashlight and a flight chart, and then hears, “OK, you can stop now. You just crashed the plane.”

Crashing your plane—or in aviation vernacular, “Controlled Flight Into Terrain”—is a leading cause of aircraft loss and death in general aviation. Only 6,800 commercial planes are registered to fly in the United States, compared to about 211,000 General Aviation (GA) aircraft. The National Safety Transportation Board reports that approximately 1,400 GA aircraft crash annually, claiming an average of 510 lives. General Aviation for business and pleasure, therefore, is an important part of what goes on in our skies.

Tom Schnell should know. The associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and director of CCAD project development and its Operator Performance Lab (OPL) is a commercial pilot and instrument flight instructor, licensed to fly single- and multi-engine aircraft, certain business jet aircraft, and gliders. With a grant from NASA, Schnell and his team of about 15 research engineers and students are conducting human factors research to help increase general aviation (GA) pilots’ situation awareness while decreasing their workload. The OPL team has achieved this by developing a portable, low-cost vision system for GA aircraft that provides a synthetic window into the world surrounding an aircraft.

The Synthetic Flight Bag™ displays three images of the terrain and the aircraft in flight to help GA pilots navigate in conditions of reduced visibility. The display shows representations of the aircraft’s location relative to terrain and—in the form of a red color overlay—an indicator of where Controlled Flight Into Terrain could occur.

“We want to simplify navigation to the point where flying even in darkness or bad weather will be like following a highway in the sky,” says Schnell, who expects the new technology to become commercially viable soon.

While the Synthetic Flight Bag™ is an important contribution to flight safety, deployment and use of such advanced technology needs to be accompanied by proper pilot indoctrination and training. “Most pilots are used to flight charts and Visual Flight Rules,” Schnell says. “Even those pilots who are licensed to use Instrument Flight Rules will need training and practice—both in simulators and in aircraft—to maximize the benefits of advanced avionics displays.”

In addition to the Synthetic Flight Bag™ work station, Schnell’s “shop” employs a Beech Bonanza A-36 flying laboratory, a Boeing 737-800 full flight deck simulator, and various other state-of-the-art simulators that the research team uses to investigate synthetic and enhanced vision, flight simulation, and pilot eye movements, and to assess situation awareness and pilot performance.

Students are an important part of the research team. Mike Keller designs software for flight and ground transportation simulators in OPL. A doctoral student in industrial engineering, he and Schnell co-direct the aviation research branch of OPL. “Working here has been a critical component of my professional development,” says Keller, who was invited to join the lab following an undergraduate internship with Rockwell Collins. “I’ve helped design cutting-edge flight deck displays for fixed and rotary wing aircraft and helped support flight tests across the country and internationally. Working in the lab also has taught me how to interact with the global research community, project sponsors, and fellow engineers.”

“Engineering students should be working on a high-end playing field to learn what they’ll need in the real world,” Schnell says. “They should understand that engineering in the real world is very labor-intensive, demanding, and challenging. It involves actually designing and building equipment, testing an idea numerous times, and continuing to push through until the project is completed successfully.”