The Heart of Darkness

Vision Technology Has Potential... and Limits
Scott Jamieson
February 28, 2010
By Scott Jamieson
In motorcycling we call it the “helmet effect.” Slip one on, and you feel safe. Add leathers, and you become invincible. Yet in the event of a high-speed collision, it just means EMS will have all your parts in one convenient package to haul to the morgue.

That false sense of security invades other aspects of modern living, from medicine and automobiles to contact sports and helicopters. Walking the Heli-Expo floor in Houston last month revealed an impressive array of technology to help the modern pilot “see,” and thus fly through various conditions that once would have grounded all but the most reckless pilots. Night vision goggles (NVG), enhanced vision, FLIR, and even synthetic vision create cockpits that make those of just a decade ago seem crude.

Yet watching a virtual, GPS-located helicopter navigate a computer-modelled terrain through a narrow valley at one Heli-Expo booth begs the question – where does technology end and reality begin? At the moment of impact is the answer that strikes the more cynical among us. As operators, regulators, integrators, suppliers and pilots in Canada struggle to keep pace with these new and exciting tools for commercial and EMS flying, it behooves us all to wrestle with a few questions before adding these technologies to our nightly routines.

Training is a good place to start. How much and what type is enough? How many hours should a new pilot have before even thinking of using NVG? In the U.S. the FAA introduced minimum training requirements last fall outlining the hours required for both ground and flight NVG training. Should we be doing the same here? Perhaps an industry-wide certification system would be a better place to start. Or do we simply let operators decide?

Who should be doing the training – military pilots, trained colleagues, or civilian trainers who have themselves been certified as trainers? Talking to Kim Harris at Heli-Expo, there is a case to be made for the latter. Harris is operations manager with ASU and a 10,000-hour pilot with experience in the military, EMS, and commercial helicopter operations. He has profound respect for the mission-specific military pilot experience when it comes to NVG, but feels a broader background is needed.

“I would fly with these (military) guys anywhere. But commercial NVG use is different. The military is about being dark, quiet. In EMS or commercial applications, you want to see and be seen. I have one exercise where I show trainees, some with military experience, a night scene. I ask them to spot the pole in the distance with their NVG alone. They are all over the map. Then I show the same scene but with properly applied search light, and it’s clear as day.”

Similarly, the “train the trainer” approach has its attractions, but not every pilot makes a good trainer. How do we select those in-house trainers? As an industry, should we be certifying that process or again leaving it to individual operators to decide?

Even the suite of products that makes sense for your operation is open for debate, as there is more than just NVG to consider. Operators have different needs, different cultures; pilots have varied backgrounds and aptitudes. Taking the time to clearly outline operation-specific needs and measuring the fit of each technology may be the first step any operator should take. Do you really want your young pilots trying to match skills in night flights through valleys and
canyons, or attempting increasingly daring landings in tight night locales? Or are your needs more suited to a tool like enhanced vision that will simply allow pilots to handle existing, yet demanding, VFR conditions more safely and to respond better to deteriorating conditions as they arise?

Like the merging of laser and vision scanning with X-ray technology in today’s manufacturing sector, it is certain that future cockpits will blend these technologies in an elegant vision solution package that will make many of the above questions irrelevant. This future package will handle conditions from fog and rain to snow and nightfall in a way that is intuitive to the pilot. But we’re not there yet.

The good news is we’re not alone in asking such questions. The Helicopter Association of Canada is co-operating with Transport Canada in the NVIS Standards Development Working Group, which will meet at the HAC convention in Quebec City this April. No doubt they welcome industry input. Moreover, Helicopters magazine met with numerous vision experts in Houston, all of whom are keen to help in the education process; some are included in our roundtable on page 29. Let the discussions continue. 

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