These days, depending on the location of the runway and the technology on board the aircraft, many commercial airliners are able to land in foggy conditions. Once on the ground, however, things can get tricky. Ground controllers can’t see the planes, while pilots have little or no visibility as they try to navigate their way to the gate.
Indeed, fog was a contributing factor in the worst ever aviation disaster when two Boeing 747s collided at an airport on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 with the loss of 583 lives.
If pilots could see the way ahead in foggy weather, they’d be able to confidently and safely get the plane to the terminal building without having to refer to maps of the airport, taking their eyes off what’s immediately in front.
With this problem in mind, NASA has been working on producing a pair of augmented reality glasses which would allow pilots to see a virtual representation of the airstrip and taxiing routes.
The headset, which weighs less than a quarter of a pound (113g), incorporates a lens that fits over one eye, providing the pilot with a variety of information, as well as a virtual view of the surroundings. It’s even designed to track head movements, quickly providing an accurate and realistic virtual image for the pilot.
Speaking about the special headgear, Trey Arthur, an electronics engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia where the glasses have been developed, said, “If pilots are not familiar with the airport, they have to stop and pull out maps. This display, in the new world where these routes are going to be digital, can tell them what taxiway they’re on, where they need to go, where they’re headed, and how well they’re tracking the runway’s center line.”
Similar heads-up display (HUD) technology is already used by pilots of some military aircraft, and while many of the latest commercial airliners have this kind of technology as part of the cockpit instruments, it has up to now lacked NASA’s head-tracking technology. In tests, pilots rated the headset higher than the cockpit technology which provided them with similar information.
The US space agency made the technology available for commercialization earlier this month, though Trey Arthur is still working to improve the headgear.