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Synthetic Vision: Ascending to New Levels of Safety

Synthetic Vision

Ascending to New Levels of Safety

By Woodrow Bellamy III

Sponsored By


Imagine giving pilots the ability to make every type of low visibility airborne environment seem as though it were the perfect sunny, cloudless day. The research and development of the technology behind the next generation of Synthetic Vision Systems (SVS) is making that concept a reality. Hundreds of test flights, thousands of hours of human factors analysis and immeasurable time spent researching how technology such as synthetic vision can prevent aircraft accidents all over the world, is giving companies the details on the design, functionality and capabilities that technology is looking to deliver in order to improve safety.

Synthetic Safety

Today's synthetic vision technology has the ability to help pilots land aircraft in visual environments so degraded they appear impossible to navigate when viewed via high definition videos uploaded to the Internet and television. How is the industry getting to this point? One of the most helpful methods in allowing companies such as Garmin, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins to achieve this new level of sophistication with synthetic vision is by extensively examining human-machine interaction with the technology before it ever makes it through certification.

Synthetic vision is more than just another technological advancement in which avionics companies compete to have the best-selling product — it’s an industry-wide effort to improve aviation safety across the board. In fact, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), a voluntary organization with representation from Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer, the FAA, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and EASA, among others, is leading the way in synthetic vision research.

Between 2009 and 2013, the CAST performed an in-depth study regarding 18 separate loss-of-control events that caused aircraft accidents, some of them fatal. The study determined that 17 of these events resulted from a lack of external visual references (i.e., darkness, instrument meteorological conditions, or both) associated with flight crew loss of attitude awareness or energy state awareness.

Supporting CAST Intervention Strategies

Click to read the full pdf - SE200: Airplane State Awareness

"When we talk about energy state, what we mean specifically is a combination of the airspeed, altitude, rate of descent, to some degree the configuration of the flaps and the thrust,"

James Wilborn

Rate of Descent
(Flap Configuration
& thrust)
Energy State

"When we talk about energy state, what we mean specifically is a combination of the airspeed, altitude, rate of descent, to some degree the configuration of the flaps and the thrust," says James Wilborn, program manager for aviation safety enhancements at the transport airplane directorate division of the FAA, and the government co-chair that leads the CAST airplane state awareness study. "Not to be confused with how much fuel it has or something going on with the electrical system, it’s that overall energy of the airplane as it’s maneuvering."

During some phases of flight, a lack of external visibility can cause a flight crew to lose its perception of the critical functions of the airplane, even to the point where the crew can’t identify which way is up due to externally low visibility conditions.

At the end of its four-year study, the CAST produced an assortment of different safety enhancements. Safety Enhancement 200 (SE 200), recommends that manufacturers develop and implement virtual Day-Visual Meteorological Conditions (Day VMC) display systems, such as SVS, that will support flight crew attitude awareness, which replicates a Day-VMC-like environment to be applicable to new transport category airplane programs.

"We looked at the fact that, in the last 10 years, roughly two thirds of the fatalities in loss of control in-flight accidents involved flight crew loss of either attitude awareness — so fundamentally losing track of which way is up, losing track of roll or losing track of pitch, leading to an unrecovered roll excursion or pitch excursion — or a loss of energy state awareness losing track of the airplane’s energy state," says Michael Snow, who holds a Ph.D in Human Factors and works as an associate technical fellow for human factors engineering with the Boeing Commercial Aviation Safety Group. Snow served as the industry co-chair of CAST's airplane state awareness study.

"We produced 11 new safety enhancements, eight in the areas of air carrier operations and training and three in the area of airplane design. One of those, safety enhancement number 200, is the new one that CAST adopted at the end of 2013 that is a commitment through [Aerospace Industries Association] AIA for all four CAST represented [Original Equipment Manufacturers] OEMs to put synthetic vision in their next new type design,” says Snow. “Not anything in the current pipeline, not the [Boeing 737] MAX, not the [Airbus A320] neo, not the [Boeing] 777X, but the next all-new type design will have synthetic vision in it pending two conditions. One is that the team felt that there was some necessary [Research and Development] R&D still to be done, and secondly the need for converting that R&D to industry standards that ideally could become an Advisory Circular, so that when that next new airplane rolls around, we’ve dramatically reduced the technology uncertainty and the certification uncertainty associated with adopting synthetic vision in a new airplane," he says.

The world's biggest airframers agreed upon the conclusion of the study that their next all-new type designs will feature synthetic vision technology as part of the standard cockpit avionics package, Snow adds. Airframe manufacturers typically rollout new clean sheet airframe families every 10 years, so looking to include a next generation technology such as synthetic vision for safety purposes is a significant commitment.

Possibilities of flight. Made easy.


Smartview® Synthetic Vision System (SVS)

Entering the Next Era
of Aircraft
Synthetic Vision

The type of SVS that can significantly enhance safety, according to the CAST, is featured on a primary flight display, presented full-time in the primary field of view for both flight crew members with a representation of aircraft energy state cues, including flight path, acceleration, and speed deviation, in a manner similar to modern Head-up Displays (HUDs).

"CAST looks at a broad portfolio of answers, so the design changes are certainly important. They’re looked at as strategic value; long term, they tend to be things that we’re promoting on *newer aircraft rather than trying to implement those on current aircraft. So, retrofitting and things like that are generally not part of the plan. We address our short-term risks usually through training, our recommendations and changes in operations," says Wilborn. "Synthetic vision fits into the bigger picture of all of those items. That said, it was one of the most effective mitigations that we rated amongst all the things we had in the set of safety recommendations as the result of our airplane state awareness study."

Gulfstream's Synthetic Vision-Primary Flight Display (SV-PFD) is based on Honeywell's SmartView® Synthetic Vision System

The recommendations produced as the result of this study represent the current transition that an elite group of avionics companies are undergoing, taking SVS from only providing enhanced situational awareness, to becoming a navigation tool that allows pilots to fly their aircraft completely from within the synthetic environment of the system display. Whereas legacy synthetic vision technology primarily include a single terrain and obstacle database, newer technology coming into the market are more intuitive using guidance information, advanced navigation symbology, and 3-D environments on large Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs).

Along with these safety recommendations for NextGen synthetic vision technology, other aviation government-industry groups are working on design standards that will lead to lower landing minimums at airports through the use of runway aids presented within the SVS's field of view for the pilot.

Thea Feyereisen is an engineering fellow in the flight safety systems group of the Honeywell Aerospace Advanced Technology organization helping with the development of standards that will guide the design of new SVS. She is a member of the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Special Committee 213, working on new Minimum Aviation System Performance Standards (MASPS) that will allow pilots to safely fly their aircraft completely using a SVS down to as low as 150 feet above the runway, which is also known as the decision height. SVS allows this to be done with as little as 1,400 feet of visibility beyond the aircraft. Today, that type of capability requires a significant amount of additional ground infrastructure or onboard HUDs. CAST recommends the SVS included on the next generation of airframes feature the MASPS Special Committee 213 is presently developing.

"The current standard [Category 1 Instrument Landing System] CAT 1 ILS approach standard minimums are 200 feet," says Feyereisen, who is also a pilot. "A decision height is the point where the pilot transitions from looking at the instruments to looking outside and being able to fly with visual cues from the outside world. Right now, with that decision height at 100 feet on a Category II approach, it imposes a heavy burden on the ground infrastructure and imposes a lot of burden on the crew with heavy training. So we think that with this new technology we can alleviate some of those burdens."

Pilots would like to have that decision height lowered to a minimum of 150 feet or below, says Feyereisen, to help make landings smoother.

"If you want to go down to 100 feet today, the airport needs to have a lot of additional equipment and the crew needs a lot of additional training. What we’re proposing is two things: Rather than having that ground infrastructure, which is very expensive, we can have additional avionics capability onboard the aircraft to augment the lack of ground infrastructure. Furthermore, the crew itself doesn’t need all that additional training that is currently required on the CAT II ILS approach because of the synthetic vision display with the HUD technology — even though it’s on a head down display, it has symbology that is HUD-like. With this HUD-like symbology and the visualization of the runway within the synthetic vision system, pilots are able to fly that much more precise than with traditional instrumentation," Feyereisen says.

RTCA is looking at publishing a new performance standard for using an SVS capable of guiding a pilot to a decision height of 150 feet by March 2015, according to the FAA. These standards will take the results of that CAST study and combine them with the information about SVS performance and functionality from countless hours of human factors and modality research to provide guidance for deploying synthetic vision in the next generation of airframe families from OEMs such as Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer and others.

Pilots and operators flying everything from air transport flights to search-and-rescue and chartered flights in today’s environment are also in agreement that synthetic vision can provide significant safety and operational enhancements.

“Would a system with enhanced vision technology provide situational awareness benefits? Absolutely, especially when dealing with severe weather,” says William Bohlke Jr., president and pilot for Virgin Islands-based Bohlke International Airways, as well as an aircraft commander flying a C-130 Hercules for the Puerto Rico National Guard. Flying in the Caribbean, Bohlke Airways pilots encounter all types of Degraded Visual Environments (DVEs), most frequently the result of tropical storms.

Synthetic vision also has benefits for rotary wing aircraft, says Denis McCall, director of operations at Air Methods, the largest air medical operator in the United States, with a fleet of more than 450 helicopters.

“The rural areas we go out to, there can be flat light, which makes it hard to tell where the ground ends and the sky begins, you can see power lines off in the back there, animals on the ground; these are places where we operate, this is where we go. Synthetic vision, heads-up display type information, obstacles, terrain avoidance, that’s going to be what we need to get in and out of these places time and time again. We truly believe that we can improve the margin of safety with technology,” says McCall. “Ideally what we would like to do is get a synergy around all those different types of safety items, technologies, so that we can synergize it and reap these rewards and make all the operations safe. It doesn’t just apply to [Helicopter Emergency Medical Services] HEMS operations; this could apply to all operations, general aviation or anybody else. The risk that the EMS pilots face doesn’t change. It’s the technology that is out there that has changed and helps us mitigate those risks.”

Synthetic vision technology is reaching the point where it is becoming a navigational tool that simplifies the gate-to-gate experience of operating an aircraft, giving pilots the guidance to fly with unlimited visibility. Looking down through the next generation of SVS will be no different than looking up and outside of the cockpit, which is going to lead to the simplification of flying with instrument procedures and a reduction in airport delays despite projected increases in air traffic. This new era of synthetic vision on the next generation of airframes will be standardized with a focus on safety and providing operational credit such as lower also improving situational awareness in low visibility conditions.

“One of the drivers for [Synthetic Vision Guidance System] SVGS is trying to provide operational credits for airlines and operators,” says Feyereisen. “If they’re able to achieve lower landing minimums or they’re able to reduce training costs or even if they’re able to reduce fuel use because the energy management with this advanced symbology is so much greater than what we’ve previously had, there’s great benefit in that. Ultimately, it is a safety system — saving fuel, being able to complete the mission more often than not, reduce delays — that’s one of the reasons why we’re so excited about synthetic vision guidance systems.”

Sponsored By


Story: Woodrow Bellamy III
Editor: Veronica Magan

Design, Layout and interactive:
The Digital Development Team @ AI

Copyright © 2015. Access Intelligence, LLC.

Synthetic Vision: Ascending to New Levels of Safety