Most helicopter pilots rely on their eyes or other optical-based sensors to navigate and land.  However, there are many obscurants in the environment that significantly reduce visibility and can impact a pilot’s ability to safely land his/her helicopter. These obscurants can include dirt (brown out), fog, rain, and snow (white out). In this condition of degraded visual environment (DVE), pilots need additional sensors or other geospatial information to help them navigate the terrain and safely land – primarily avoiding many typical landing zone obstacles, such as trees, power lines, large rocks, ditches, vehicles, buildings, etc. As a further complication, because Army helicopters need to operate in complex combat environments, GPS may not always be available. So the Army is looking for robust cost-effective solutions that will increase the ability of rotorcraft to operate safely in degraded visual environments.  

Use Case: Why it’s important

This capability will allow Army rotorcraft to operate safely in degraded visual environments. For example, many helicopters have been involved in a lot of crashes, and many of those are attributed to degraded environments. In other words, pilots can’t always see; they crash, run into power lines. Addressing this problem will improve safety and survivability of Army personnel. This technology could also be applied to the more general problem of autonomous navigation for aircraft and ground vehicles.  

Problem Sponsor: Andy Sullivan


Frequently Asked Questions

Do you use NGA intelligence and if so, where does it fall short of your needs. If not, why not.  Pilots probably do have access to some overhead imagery, but they’re flying helicopters and in remote parts of the world. We’re not sure if there’s full coverage or how easy it is to download that imagery and analyze it before a mission. This could certainly be a possibility.
For Helicopters in desert or even some forested environments, would varying elevation due to soil/sand drifts be a factor? How critical is a variance of 6 to 12 inches be to the safe landing of the aircraft?
Knowing the terrain (DTM) is critically important, for example, pitch and slope, as well as soil moisture, existence of bodies of water, etc.
What kind of time frame are we considering? Would the landing decision be made as the pilot is attempting to land?
Pilots are thinking about where they want to land about 1km out, so they probably need information at that point
Are helicopters able to receive microwave data from satellites? Or would the rotors create too much interference or static for a clear signal in that environment?
They can communicate.
To feed off that last question, is their a safe radius that needs to be established, and are there thresholds for percent slope.
Anything more than 10% slope, we start to worry about the safety of a landing.
How do the pilots analyze the data? Is it only last minute landing decisions or is it also pre-planned landing?
Landing decisions are made about 1km out, to some extent they may be pre-planned.
As GPS navigation is not always available, do aircraft have inertial navigation systems that use onboard imagery that can augment sensors data to provide the crew with geospatial awareness?
They generally have an INS system to help them with all of the motion that they go through.