Researchers at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center have dramatically improved upon existing ground collision avoidance technology for aircraft. NASA’s system leverages leading-edge fighter safety technology, adapting it to civil aviation use as an advanced warning system. It offers higher fidelity terrain mapping, enhanced vehicle performance modeling, multidirectional avoidance techniques, more efficient data-handling methods, and user-friendly warning systems. The algorithms have been incorporated into an app for tablet/handheld mobile devices that can be used by pilots in the cockpit, enabling significantly safer general aviation. This will enable pilots to have access to this lifesaving safety tool regardless of what type of aircraft they are flying. The system also can be incorporated into electronic flight bags (EFBs) and/or aircraft avionics systems.
The safety tool can be used for a wider variety of aircraft, including general aviation, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while also improving performance in the fighter aircraft currently using this type of system. This improved approach to ground collision avoidance has been demonstrated on both small UAVs and a Cirrus SR22 while running the technology on a mobile device. These tests were performed to prove feasibility of the app-based implementation of this technology. The testing also characterized the flight dynamics of the avoidance maneuvers for each platform, evaluated collision avoidance protection, and analyzed nuisance potential (i.e., the tendency to issue false warnings when the pilot does not consider ground impact to be imminent).
Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) remains a leading cause of fatalities in aviation, resulting in roughly 100 deaths each year in the United States alone. Although warning systems have virtually eliminated CFIT for large commercial air carriers, the problem still remains for fighter aircraft, helicopters, and GAA.
The innovations developed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center are laying the foundation for a collision avoidance system that would automatically take control of an aircraft that is in danger of crashing into the ground and fly it — and the people inside — to safety. The technology relies on a navigation system to position the aircraft over a digital terrain elevation database, algorithms to determine the potential and imminence of a collision, and an autopilot to avoid the potential collision. The system is designed not only to provide nuisance-free warnings to the pilot, but also to take over when a pilot is disoriented or unable to control the aircraft.
The payoff from implementing the system, designed to operate with minimal modifications on a variety of aircraft including military jets, UAVs, and GAA, could be billions of dollars and hundreds of lives and aircraft saved. Furthermore, the technology has the potential to be applied beyond aviation, and could be adapted for use in any vehicle that has to avoid a collision threat including aerospace satellites, automobiles, scientific research vehicles, and marine charting systems.