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Giving Pilots a New Eye in the Sky

In the fall of 2001, Raj Aggarwal suffered through 17 consecutive takeoffs and landings at the Vail (Colo.) airport. He says the three-hour roller-coaster ride was bearable only because he didn't have any breakfast. Aggarwal, a vice-president at aviation-electronics powerhouse Rockwell Collins, wasn't buzzing eagles. His trips occurred in an experimental Boeing 757, as six different pilots steered through the Rockies using only 3-D graphics of the mountains around Vail to guide them.

To an outsider, they might have seemed to be playing a video game -- perhaps a disturbing thought for white-knuckle fliers. But Aggarwal, who is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had his fingers crossed for a different reason. He hoped his graphics-navigation device -- called synthetic vision -- would pass the test with flying colors and open a new world of possibilities. Apparently, it did.

Designed to guide pilots in cloudy or stormy weather, Rockwell's tool uses the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) to pinpoint a plane's location, then draw on a database of satellite images to create a 3-D replica of the view the pilot would have seen in clear weather. It can also calculate and map the virtual path pilots must follow to get to their destinations. Thus, the device could help cut down on the number of fatal plane crashes worldwide, more than 30% of which happen because of poor visibility.

ANCIENT HISTORY. For airlines, in fact, synthetic vision might be the best thing since packaged meals. And avionics is only one of the many possible applications for the technology. With some modifications, it could be used to help submarines navigate, to help telecoms dig more precise cable trenches, to fight fire and crime, and to clear minefields. It's a major breakthrough in navigation tools and mapping -- and for the technology called geographic information systems (GIS), a $1.5 billion market.

The technique, which overlays maps with a variety of data, is in concept at least 35,000 years old. Early hunters living in what is now Lascaux, France, depicted the animals they stalked and their migration routes on their cave walls, effectively combining data with a map. Later, explorers overlaid their terrain maps with the data on -- or rumors of -- gold mines. More recently, biologists have used satellite receivers to track the migration routes of polar bears. And farmers have used the technology to estimate the fertilizer needs of their fields. The new generation of GIS devices should further widen the possibilities.

Synthetic vision for pilots, which companies expect the Federal Aviation Administration to approve in 2003, could be the first new application to hit the market. NASA has been working on the idea with manufacturers such as Rockwell Collins since 1999. By 2005, NASA will have spent $100 million on the project, says Dan Baize, project manager for synthetic-vision systems at the agency. Already, aircraft manufacturer Boeing (BA) features the device on its technology-demonstrator plane.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR. While Boeing is still evaluating synthetic vision and, experts say, might not start using it until 2006, the simplest such systems could make their debut in 2003. Avionics-electronics maker Chelton Flight Systems, a subsidiary of Britain's Cobham (CBHMF.PK), plans to install its Electronic Flight Information System in up to 200 planes in the mountainous Juneau region of Alaska. And rival Goodrich (GR) hopes to come out with its SmartDeck synthetic vision for small planes next year, says Ray Wabler, industry liaison for the company.

The potential market is large: About 2,000 new planes are sold in the U.S. each year, and about 200,000 are already in use, says Wabler. Add to that military aircraft, and the future looks bright for the new technology. Of course, cost is always a consideration, and the new systems don't come cheap -- around $25,000 to outfit small planes and $100,000 for commercial aircraft.

One other challenge is to ensure that synthetic vision doesn't backfire. In a well-publicized scandal back in 1998, a German couple drove their BMW into a river because their GPS indicated that a bridge crossed it -- when in fact there was a ferry. To make synthetic vision more reliable, many companies are connecting the device to sensors. Rockwell Collins' system can compare landmarks around the plane with the graphics shown to the pilot to make sure the right picture is displayed.

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. Synthetic vision could also eventually be used for fighting fires in buildings, says Keith Alter, an executive at synthetic-vision maker in Palo Alto, Calif. GPS could track the movements of individual firefighters on each floor of a burning building, allowing the commanding officer to estimate, using GIS, how fast the fire can be put out -- and to track his group. Of course, this can become possible only when GPS technology improves. Today, concrete walls and floors can block its signals.

Using the same idea, the police could track suspects or agents, says Kara Yokley, an analyst with tech consultancy IDC. During last winter's Olympics, public-safety agencies tracked their own cars to react to incidents faster. They used GPS and two-dimensional GIS software from privately held ESRI in Redlands, Calif., the world's largest maker of GIS software.

The technology could also come in handy for undersea navigation. Today, most submarines use 1960s-era equipment that's so inaccurate that the sub has to keep a wide distance between its hull and the sea floor, explains Alter. That's a problem whenever a sub needs to gather underwater samples or maneuver through a narrow opening. Or, operators laying cable underground could use GPS technology combined with the 3-D databases to see what's under the ground and avoid damaging existing utility lines, says Alter. The challenge here is that some databases of underwater terrain are still incomplete.

ANTI-TERROR WEAPON. Synthetic vision can also be used to discover unexploded missiles and mines. Already, Sky (his full legal name), who runs experimental avionics research firm Sky Research in Ashland, Ore., has used the device from to survey the Lowry Bombing & Gunning Range in Colorado for artillery shells and debris. The mapping software, with its precise flying path, allowed his plane to fly low and straight, he says.

While normally surveillance planes deviate from their course and miss patches of land -- which means they have to make repeat trips -- synthetic vision enables them to scan the whole area in one swoop. It's akin to figuring out how to efficiently mow a lawn, explains Andy Barrows, CEO of Sky, who changed his legal name in the 1970s to reflect his love of flying (he has more than 17,000 hours in the cockpit), says of his experience: "It's the easiest system in the world to fly."

The device could eventually be a valuable weapon against terrorism, preventing planes from hitting targets such as skyscrapers, says Rockwell Collins' Aggarwal. It could continuously scan the area around the airplane for landmarks (stored in a database) and turn the auto pilot on whenever a plane approaches the no-fly zone near one.

"Your imagination is the only barrier to what the [GIS] software can do," says Russ Johnson, solutions manager at ESRI. And, nowadays, the imagination of those who design these systems is flying high. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore., with reporting from Jane Black, in New York

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