KGAN-TV: Researchers Give Pilots Sight in Storms

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Last January, a medical helicopter flying from Mason City to Emmettsburg crashed in a field, killing all three of the people on board; the pilot reported encountering ice and snow just before that crash.

Now, researchers at the University of Iowa and engineers at Rockwell Collins are working on new technology to keep pilots and crew safe in those kinds of low visibility situations.

"Flight in degraded visual environments is dangerous. It's dangerous when you do it close to the ground, and the technologies that are available now from fusing different sensor sources together really makes that much safer," said associate professor of Industrial Engineering Thomas "Mach" Schnell. Schnell runs the Operator Performance Lab at the Iowa City Municipal Airport, where he and his team have built a lab around the idea of avoiding obstacles, because in a helicopter, one wire or target can be deadly.

"Every river has a wire, every valley has a wire," Schnell said. Those wires are hard enough to see from the sky, but a pilot might as well be blind when the conditions get rough, like dense fog, thick smoke, or heavy rain. Schnell's goal is to give pilots back their sight.

The lab is combining different kinds of laser and infrared scanners that can shoot through snow or dust and feed back to the pilot something better than what the human eye, or even a single sensor, can see.

"And so by fusing the data together, the hope is that we can produce a product that can allow the pilot to observe his environment much better and avoid any obstacles," Schnell said.

Those extra eyes are especially important for military pilots who might have to land in a cloud of dust to rescue someone. Those kinds of crashes cost the United States Military $100 million every year.

"If something goes wrong and the helicopter loses visibility to the ground, flipping, crashing -- maybe the occupants walk away from it -- but now, you have to start bringing in additional assets. Pretty soon, you have an escalation of the problem, drawing more attention to the problem," Schnell said.

"Those accidents are happening every year," said Rockwell Collins senior director of Rotary Wing Solutions Boe Svatek. "And will continue to happen until solutions like this are brought to bear."

Rockwell Collins will eventually create the product that the U.S. Army plans to start using in 2017.

"The fact that we're going to save lives and prevent injury is certainly really compelling to be a part of these projects," Svatek said.

Svatek has spent more than a decade building on the research that has led up to this point. While the project has the chance to save the federal government billions of dollars in prevented crashes, there is no price tag for the human lives that will be saved, he said.

"I have a very vested interest in keeping my friends and relatives safe by using these technologies," Svatek said. And those technologies have the chance to keep everyone's friends and families safe, too.

Schnell said EMS pilots could feasibly start using the sensors at the same time the military does.

"If you take the concept of having to rescue someone, at night, in bad weather, you can see how landing a helicopter in an unknown, austere environment can be a hazardous thing," Schnell said.

And as long as their blades keep spinning, these scientists will keep figuring out how the make the world safer.

"Any time you lose a vehicle with someone who was supposed to get rescued, nurses and doctors on board, it's a tragic loss and we need to avoid it," Schnell said.

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