For Release: May 27, 1997
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
H. Keith Henry
NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
TRW Space & Electronics Group, Redondo Beach, CA
RELEASE NO. 97-038 (NASA HQ Rel. 97-111)
WEATHER-PIERCING CAMERA MAY REDUCE AIR TRAFFIC DELAYS
Air traffic delays due to poor visibility caused by weather can
be virtually eliminated if technology being developed by U.S.
industry and government looks as good in the air as it does on the
NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA, is working with a
consortium led by TRW Inc., Redondo Beach, CA, that is preparing to
demonstrate in flight a weather-piercing camera that has allowed
researchers to see through fog, smoke and clouds. System checkout
will begin later this month, followed by 60 hours of test and
demonstration flights in September.
The camera "sees" in the millimeter wave portion of the
electromagnetic spectrum, a portion that is invisible to the human
eye. It produces video images that enable a pilot to discern
features like runways, obstacles and the horizon.
These features are sufficient to safely land, take off, roll out
and taxi at any airline terminal in the country -- not just the
three dozen or so major airports that have costly systems to aid in
low visibility approach and landings. The camera is a passive
sensor that does not emit signals in an airport environment,
allowing multiple equipped aircraft to operate simultaneously on
the ground without risk of interference.
"This sensor program directly supports NASA's new goal to safely
triple capacity at our nation's commercial airports within the next
ten years -- regardless of fog, clouds, smoke and dust, or other
conditions that normally limit pilot visibility," said Tom
Campbell, head of Langley's Electromagnetic Research Branch.
In 1994, the TRW-led Passive Millimeter Wave Camera Consortium
was awarded a multi-year, $15 million cost-sharing contract under
the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's
Defense Dual-Use Technology Initiative to adapt this technology to
an airborne camera for military and civilian users.
Langley has served as the government's principal representative
and is funding the flight test element of the program.
In addition, Langley is performing lab tests to determine which
materials are most "invisible" to millimeter waves and, therefore,
good candidates for the protective nose radome that will house the
camera on the flight test aircraft. The tests also will provide the
consortium's radome design team with data about optimum material
thicknesses, protection from rain erosion and protection from
The aircraft is a one-of-a-kind Air Force C-135-C aircraft
nicknamed the "Speckled Trout," to be fitted with the
millimeter-wave camera and its new radome this summer. Once
installed, the camera will generate video images of the forward
scene in low-visibility conditions. These images will be displayed
on a see-through heads-up display suspended between the pilot and
The sensor uses a focal plane array of about 1,000 receivers
made up of monolithic millimeter wave integrated circuits developed
by TRW. Each of these complex circuits, formed on a sliver of
gallium arsenide, replaces bulky, heavy and costly components,
resulting in a compact device.
"We're very excited about what we have produced under this
program," said Dr. Steven Fornaca of the TRW Space &
Electronics Group, the consortium's program manager. "Based on the
images we have acquired under low-visibility conditions, and the
quality of the receivers we've developed, we are confident that we
are bringing to the aviation market a needed product that can be
manufactured efficiently and at low cost."
Other consortium members are McDonnell Douglas, Long Beach, CA.;
Honeywell, Minneapolis, MN; Composite Optics Inc., San Diego, CA;
NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA; U.S. Air Force Wright
Labs, Dayton, OH; U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air
Force Base, CA; and the U.S. Army Research Lab, Adelphi, MD.
NOTE TO EDITORS: Video B-roll and photos are available by
calling Keith Henry at 757-864-6120
text-only version of this release