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Release: Monday, April 2, 2001

UI researcher looking for friendly skies receives $120,000 in grants

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Airport delays during bad weather may be greatly reduced by providing pilots with computerized "pathway-in-the-sky" guidance displays, according to a University of Iowa College of Engineering researcher.

Tom Schnell, assistant professor of industrial engineering and director of the Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) in the Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD), has been awarded a two-year, $120,000 grant to assess pilot performance on flight decks equipped with guidance systems called synthetic vision information systems (SVIS). The grant was awarded with funding from Rockwell Collins; the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, which underwrites NASA funding; and matching equipment funds from the University of Iowa.

Schnell, who is evaluating the SVIS system inside a flight simulator for NASA and Rockwell, says it could revolutionize air travel. If successful, it would allow commercial air carriers to make much better use of existing airspace, permitting more planes to land safely during low visibility conditions.

"Many airport delays are caused by poor use of airspace, rather than a lack of airspace," he says. "In the present airspace system, aircraft on instrument flight plans are following airways and jet routes that do not always allow for direct routing to the destination. Also, all pilots are required to follow the same, strictly prescribed, instrument approach procedures in instrument weather conditions when landing. However, under a new concept called "free-flight," pilots will be able to go more or less directly from origin to destination, and the instrument approach procedures may become more efficient through the use of SVIS technology.

"SVIS gives the pilot a synthetic view (on a display) of what would be seen out of the window if the weather were clear. In addition, weather information and other air traffic may be shown on the SVIS displays. Therefore, it is conceivable that SVIS will allow pilots to essentially fly 'visual' approach procedures even in adverse weather. SVIS may result in getting airplanes in and out of airports more efficiently," he says.

The SVIS concept is likely to facilitate the free-flight idea by offering pilots a computer-generated pathway-in-the-sky, leading their plane along the safest and shortest path to the destination airport runway. In addition, the screen displays a real-time, computer-generated image of the airport and the surrounding terrain, a view especially helpful during low-visibility operations close to the ground. The pilot keeps the computerized symbol of the predicted aircraft position centered on the pathway-in-the-sky all the way to a safe landing.

SVIS may also be the key to avoiding runway incursions and loss of situation awareness when taxiing the aircraft on the airport taxiways. Schnell notes that the importance of crew situation awareness on the ground is especially evident after Flight SQ006, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-400 bound for Los Angeles, lined up and began to take off from the closed runway 05R (right) instead of the longer adjacent runway designated 05L (left) last October.

Perhaps the biggest question regarding SVIS is how "user-friendly" it would be for pilots and what, if anything. needs to be done to improve the display format.

"Our job is to evaluate what information flight crews might need and whether it is a good idea to give them more information than they already have. We are evaluating several display formats in order to come up with recommendations to make to NASA and Rockwell Collins. We are concerned about the human factors," says Schnell, who is also measuring pilot eye movements on the SVIS displays, assessing pilot workloads and situation awareness. Later this year, airline pilots will conduct actual test flights at Eagle Vail (Colorado) with the SVIS-equipped NASA Boeing 757 research aircraft.

Until then, Schnell and the students he credits with having helped him construct the simulator (including graduate student Sohel Merchant), will continue to research the human factors issues surrounding SVIS. Additional information can be found at http://boeing737-400.ccad.uiowa.edu/.

The project is part of a larger Synthetic Vision research effort sponsored by NASA's Langley Research Center Aviation Safety Program (see http://www.syntheticvision.com/). Other companies, agencies, and universities involved include NASA, Technical University Delft (the Netherlands), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Boeing, Rockwell Collins, Jeppesen, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, RC Flight Dynamic, and American Airlines.