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New technology makes Afghanistan landings safer

March 22, 2011, Salisbury, U.K. - The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), in conjunction with industry partners, has introduced new technology designed to help helicopter pilots land more safely and efficiently in Afghanistan.


March 22, 2011
By Carey Fredericks


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Scientists from Dstl, part of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), have led the technical development of a pioneering approach to the problem of a low visibility landing (LVL) phenomenon known as „helicopter brownout‟. Helicopter brownout occurs when a pilot loses visual references due to dust or sand re-circulating during take-off or landing, which is a major problem in desert conditions.

Over a six month period, working in conjunction with engineers at AgustaWestland, Dstl scientists analyzed incident data to understand what had happened and identify the causal factors. They also  conducted a rapid technology assessment of as many available solutions as possible including a simulator trial of one of the most promising technologies, 3D conformal symbology. This uses a small helmet-mounted display to provide a virtual 3D representation of the landing zone that stays fixed to the earth as the pilot approaches.

The symbology is carefully designed to augment the real world picture but also to provide all relevant information to allow the pilot to easily judge the height, speed and drift. It then replaces the real-world cues when they are obscured by dust. The display can be also be fitted to night vision goggles to ensure a 24-hour capability.

The technology was demonstrated at an industry event at the Honorable Artillery Company in central London to support the Government‟s National Science and Engineering Week. Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology opened the event with a speech in which he praised the collaborative efforts of British scientists and engineers.

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Mr. Luff said: “This is another brilliant example of how science and technology principles employed by some of the brightest minds in this country can benefit frontline troops. Whether in the public sector, or as part of industry, careers in science
and engineering have a positive and direct impact on British citizens and those who protect them.”

Ferranti Technologies‟ system was selected as the most promising short-term solution to address the specific problem in Afghanistan. The Dstl/industry team conducted successful flight trials demonstrating effective 3D conformal symbology in a Lynx helicopter from the Army Air Corps Development and Trials (D&T) Squadron based at Middle Wallop in Hampshire, in conjunction with the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron based at Boscombe Down.

The team, comprising members of Dstl, AgustaWestland and Ferranti, also conducted a further simulator trial using front-line Merlin helicopter crews to refine the solution and conduct a large number of helicopter take-offs and landings to show that the system did indeed make these safer. Follow-on development is nearing completion and subject to normal approval procedures the  production system is expected to be deployed to front-line helicopters in Afghanistan.

Major John Peters, Army Air Corps, lead test pilot for the LVL program said: “Brownout is a dangerous problem faced daily by UK helicopter crews in Afghanistan, when you come in to land the amount of dust blown up can completely obscure all visual references. This makes landing more difficult and dangerous and increases the risk of damage. The development of the low visibility landing system will allow helicopter crews to land much more safely in these conditions, giving them references when they would otherwise be blind.”

The ground-breaking work has earned the team a nomination for a Civil Service award, designed to recognize the very best practice across the entire civil service. The low visibility landing team was selected on the shortlist for the innovation award.

Dstl built a large-scale dust chamber on their 7,000 acre range at Porton Down to assess sensor technology which might be able to see through the dust and advise aircrew whether there are unseen obstructions. This innovative, temporary test facility used an inflatable  hanger. Typical landing site obstructions were put inside the chamber and it was filled with known concentrations of commercially sourced dust specifically chosen for its similar characteristics to Afghan soil.

Steve Warren, Managing Director of Ferranti Technologies said: “Basing this solution on combat proven in-service technology and the ability to work closely together with Dstl and our industry partners has enabled this team to deliver a ground breaking solution to aid our servicemen and women on the front line.”

Research continues into ways to allow pilots to operate more safely and effectively in low visibility conditions; civil applications could include the emergency and rescue services operating in adverse weather such as fog and mist.


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