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NASA Completes Tests of X-59 eXternal Vision System

Flight software being tested in cockpit simulation.
Software in the X-59 simulator could predict where sonic booms would be felt on the ground.
Credits: Lockheed Martin

Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, have successfully completed a variety of testing for NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft’s eXternal Vision System (XVS) including in-flight tests and structural stability tests.

With the system now ready to be installed into the X-59, Langley researchers carefully packed-up the components and said farewell. The XVS is now at Lockheed Martin in California where engineers are ready to install one more piece of the supersonic commercial air travel puzzle.

The QueSST aircraft is on a mission to achieve supersonic speeds over land that create no more than a sonic “thump” to those below. The goal is to provide data that could convince U.S. and international regulators to change the laws governing supersonic commercial aviation.

A graphic rendering of the X59 eXternal Vision System
A graphic render of what the inside of the X-59 cockpit will look like with the XVS. The XVS provides a frontal view to compensate for the lack of a forward facing windscreen.
Credits: NASA

In order to achieve this, NASA engineers have designed a uniquely shaped aircraft with an elongated nose that requires the cockpit to sit low in the main body of the aircraft, leaving no place for a forward-facing window. This creates a visual blockage for the pilot and a need for further ingenuity. Enter the eXternal Vision System.

The XVS is a forward-facing multi-camera and display system that shows the airspace in front of the X-59 QueSST. A 4K-monitor serves as the central “window” allowing the pilot to safely see traffic in their flight path while also providing graphical flight data in an augmented reality for approaches, landings, and takeoffs.

“Our goal is to create an electronic means of vision for the X-59 pilot that provides performance and safety levels equivalent to, or better, than forward-facing windows,” said Randy Bailey, XVS subsystem lead.

The in-flight testing of the XVS technology took place on NASA’s Beechcraft King Air UC-12B. The hardware was installed into the cabin of the King Air and wired to an exterior camera on the nose. Live flight test scenarios were flown to collect data on the pilot’s ability to see and maneuver around another aircraft in the airspace.

Researchers then performed a side-by-side comparative evaluation by measuring the pilot’s ability to detect the additional NASA aircraft flying nearby.

During the tests one pilot was seated in the cockpit of the King Air and could see through the forward windows, while the other pilot was seated in the King Air’s cabin using only the XVS for external awareness. The tests included multiple scenarios such as an offset nose-to-nose trajectory, which is like having a car in your blind spot while driving. Other scenarios tested traffic crossing at the same altitude, like a dangerous city intersection, and aircraft approaching from below.

Within each scenario the two pilots would push a button the moment they detected the other aircraft, and the time it took each pilot to recognize the target aircraft was recorded for study.

 “I’ve continued to get more and more comfortable with the XVS through flight tests and our X-59 flight simulators,” said Nils Larson, NASA X-59 test pilot.

After the successful in-flight tests of the XVS, researchers then tested the structural integrity of the system through a series of vibration tests.

The XVS is comprised of three major components: the XVS pallet, the camera system, and the 4K monitor.  The XVS pallet is what contains the computer processors, network equipment, video distribution, and power distribution components – the brain of the system.

Researchers carefully tested the pallet at vibration levels expected in the flight environment to ensure the equipment will function nominally when installed on the X-59.

NASA researchers load the XVS into a shipping crate
NASA researchers at NASAs Langley Research Center carefully load the X-59 XVS into a shipping crate. The XVS was shipped to Lockheed Martin where it will be installed into the X-59.
Credits: David Bowman

Lockheed Martin, who’s building the X-59 at their Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California, developed an Environmental Requirements and Test Document that defines the expected environment for the X-59.

“All equipment that will fly on the X-59 has to meet the requirements in the document from either manufacturer certification, test, or analysis,” said Kemper Kibler, NASA lead hardware engineer for the XVS.

By conducting these tests, researchers were able to identify and correct any design or workmanship issues before the equipment is installed on the aircraft, preventing a scenario where a component could fail in such a way that causes damage to the aircraft or injures the flight crew.

The Low-Boom Flight Demonstration mission and the XVS team have performed multiple tests at different NASA and vendor facilities including temperature, altitude, vibration, explosive decompression, and gaseous nitrogen environments.

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