Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

NASA has selected six industry teams for its Synthetic Vision programme to develop "virtual-reality" cockpit displays that improve safety in low visibility operations.

Synthetic Vision will combine satellite navigation with terrain databases and three-dimensional displays to show the aircraft's flightpath in relation to traffic, weather, terrain, obstacles, runways and other features.

Rockwell Collins has been selected to develop synthetic vision for business and commercial aircraft. Negotiations continue with a second team, says NASA project leader Dan Baize. AvroTec and Research Triangle Institute will develop general aviation synthetic vision systems.

Jeppesen-Sanderson will study terrain database requirements, while Ohio University's Avionics Engineering Center and Rannoch will be responsible for specific component technologies design.

A synthetic vision system will consist of "tactical" and "strategic" displays, says Baize. The tactical display will replace today's primary flight display or attitude director indicator, while the strategic one will replace the navigation display or horizontal situation indicator.

Unlike an enhanced vision system, which is based around an imaging sensor, synthetic vision uses computer-generated displays. "The picture of the external environment is entirely synthetic," says Baize. "It is database-based, not sensor-based."

The tactical display will show the flightpath as a "highway in the sky" over textured three-dimensional terrain and overlaid with traffic, weather and other hazard information. The strategic display will be a three-dimensional map that will allow planning and replanning of a flight. "The pilot will be able to view the flightplan relative to the terrain to anticipate any conflicts," says Baize.

Synthetic Vision is a five-year, $100 million effort under the umbrella of NASA Langley's $500 million Aviation Safety Programme. In the initial 18-month phase, NASA is committing $5.2 million, to be matched by $5.5 million in industry funds.

At the end of next year, the agency plans to select for further development one synthetic vision approach in each of the business/ commercial and general aviation areas, aiming for certification and commercial availability by the end of the programme.

Flight testing is planned by the end of next year, possibly using NASA's Boeing 757. Initial tests of candidate displays will be conducted next month, using Calspan's Convair 540-based in-flight simulator aircraft, Baize says.

These tests will mark the end of external vision system development under NASA's cancelled High Speed Research programme, but will be used to jump-start the Synthetic Vision effort, he says.

Source: Flight International