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NASA Tech Puts the Power to Prevent Plane Crashes in a Smartphone
October 20, 2014

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Our smartphones already do just about everything. Imagine if they could help keep airplanes from crashing into mountains.

Actually, they already can.

Mark Skoog, the chief engineer at the Automatic Systems Project Office at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center, is heading up a team that's already tested the technology on manned and unmanned flights.

Skoog has been involved in this kind of research for nearly 30 years. He gave a talk about it recently as part of the Autonomy Incubator seminar series at NASA Langley.

Controlled flight into terrain is a leading cause of fatalities in aviation, resulting in roughly 90 deaths each year in the United States. Although warning systems have almost eliminated this kind of incident in large commercial air carriers, the problem still remains for fighter aircraft, helicopters and general aviation.

Researchers are attempting to mitigate that problem with the development of an inexpensive, lightweight, easy-to-install automated Ground Collision Avoidance System, or auto GCAS.

Efforts to implement auto GCAS date back to the 1980s. Then, researchers were developing systems to automate attack features on the F-16 fighter jet. They wanted a high-authority autopilot to control the aircraft in air-to-surface attacks and dogfights. But the high-authority autopilot was dangerous at low altitudes.

"It was found you had to have automatic collision avoidance, because the pilot couldn't react quick enough to override a full-authority system that might be driving the aircraft into the ground," Skoog said.

The initial auto GCAS system researchers developed for the F-16 had limited functionality. Over the years, though, as more automation was added to the aircraft, researchers also improved the effectiveness of auto GCAS.

Following a 2003 memo in which the Secretary of Defense called for a 50 percent reduction in fatal mishaps involving military aircraft, the Defense Safety Oversight Council identified auto GCAS as a required technology to achieve that goal. The Fighter Risk Reduction Project formed to meet that need and in 2010 completed research and development of auto GCAS for fighters.

The project was a success and the Air Force is currently planning to install auto-GCAS systems in its F-16 fleet, but Skoog and his colleagues saw potential applications outside of military fighter jets.

"When we developed the software architecture we were hoping it would be adapted to any aircraft, and we had claimed that in the advocacy of getting this program started," Skoog said. "At the conclusion of it, we had still only over the 25-year history flown it on an F-16 … we figured we should do something on a different aircraft."

Skoog and his fellow researchers decided to test the system on two additional aircraft — a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV, and NASA Langley's SR-22. In order to do that, they loaded the auto GCAS software onto a smartphone and connected it to the autopilot systems of both aircraft with a USB cable.

Tests on the small UAV took place in and around Edwards Air Force Base, and included more than 200 collision avoidance recoveries over 21 flights. Tests on the SR-22, which was crewed with a safety pilot, mostly took place in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and included 71 recoveries over five flights. The system performed well in both aircraft, smoothly and successfully altering the flight paths of both aircraft to prevent collisions with flat ground and mountainous terrain.

The successful studies of auto-GCAS in the F-16, the UAV and the SR-22 are going a long way toward changing the perception of the technology. Pilots were once leery of it, but its image has improved as research has progressed and auto GCAS has gotten more sophisticated and able to seamlessly take over control.

"What we have gotten to is not only acceptance, but almost demand, or insistence, that this is the way I want it to be and I'm not going to accept it any other way," Skoog said.

Future versions of the technology may employ a phone's wireless capabilities to connect it to an airplane's autopilot system, or even exploit a phone's built-in location sensors to make a wireless or USB connection completely unnecessary. Skoog and his team are also working with avionics manufacturers to integrate auto GCAS software into their systems.

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

 

Mark Skoog, chief engineer at the Automatic Systems Project Office at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center, is heading up a team that's developing autonomous ground collision avoidance systems for aircraft.
Mark Skoog, chief engineer at the Automatic Systems Project Office at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center, is heading up a team that's developing autonomous ground collision avoidance systems for aircraft.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Page Last Updated: October 20th, 2014
Page Editor: Joe Atkinson