Helicopter flights through fog, which may have caused a fatal crash in London last month, should become less hazardous following development of a helmet that projects information regarding the terrain ahead onto its visor.
Helmets featuring so-called head-up displays, developed by Israel’s Elbit Systems Ltd. to help fighter pilots shoot down enemy planes, are being evaluated for use in civil helicopters by the German Aerospace Center or DLR. The system can project digital maps featuring obstacles and relief, as well as speed and altitude, and could be adapted to show live radar images.
“Helmet-mounted displays open the helicopter pilot’s eyes even in the worst weather conditions,” Helmut Toebben, business manager at the center’s institute of flight guidance, said in a telephone interview. “In particular, the technology opens up the possibility of landing safely in limited visibility.”
Flight tests employing the DLR’s own EC135, a civil chopper built by the Eurocopter unit of European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., have demonstrated the technology’s effectiveness in poor weather, Toebben said. Mist or cloud was probably a factor in the London crash on Jan. 16, in which the pilot and one man on the ground were killed when an AW101 helicopter built by Finmeccanica SpA’s AgustaWestland unit collided with a crane at the luxury St George Wharf development near the River Thames.
The DLR’s trials used a version of an Elbit helmet designed for military models such as Boeing Co.’s Apache and known as the Jedeye -- a pun on the Jedi warriors from the Star Wars films, who were able to sense their environment even while blindfolded.
Search-and-rescue helicopters are among likely customers for the helmets, since they invariably operate in harsh weather conditions but can be grounded when visibility drops below 1,500 meters (4,920 feet), the DLR says. It’s also looking at their application in avoiding wind turbines, which are an increasingly common hazard to helicopters, especially on offshore flights.
Industrialization of the plan would need to involve Elbit or another manufacturer, with the DLR acting as technical partner, according to Toebben, who is based in Braunschweig. Bringing down costs to make civil sales viable is a priority, he said, declining to reveal what the price of the helmet might be.
Elbit’s Jedeye can help military pilots land helicopters in environments where sand kicked up by the rotor blades limits visibility. Such “brownout” conditions have led to numerous crashes in Afghanistan.
Civil helicopters generally navigate using visual landmarks such as major roads, railways, buildings and lakes that are easily identifiable from the air. While augmented in recent years by satellite-positioning technology, operations remain restricted mainly to daylight hours and clear weather.
Cockpits can be upgraded with instrumentation necessary to fly without visual cues, though most can only interpret ground-based navigation signals likely to be unavailable during the bulk of a flight.