Watch: Synthetic vision to allow pilots to fly 'blind'

A DARPA video shows helicopter pilots using real-time visualizations to navigate and avoid obstacles.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to help helicopter pilots see through smoke and dust, as well as avoid dangerous collisions.

The agency’s Multifunction RF (MFRF) program is developing an onboard sensor that would provide a variety of functions that include enabling take-off and flying in degraded and zero-visibility conditions, avoiding collisions with terrain, obstacles and other aircraft, and improving target detection, identification and engagement. Current sensor systems are too large and power-intensive, according to DARPA.

The Synthetic Vision Avionics Backbone portion of the program was successfully demonstrated in UH-60L Black Hawk flight tests in late 2013. DARPA recently released of the demonstration.

The SVAB uses a combination of millimeter-wave radar with several terrain databases and onboard platform navigation to create real-time 2D and 3D visualizations of environmental conditions. The pilots can then refer to the visualizations to navigate.

As development continues, the MFRF program is looking to create a software-adaptable system architecture – meaning that future upgrades could be hardware-independent. The program is envisioning the installation of the system into existing and future aircraft.

“These successful tests take us closer to future cost-effective, ‘plug-and-play’ systems that would improve situational awareness and mission effectiveness for manned and unmanned platforms alike,” Bruce Wallace, DARPA program manager, said in the release.

Honeywell, which conducted the tests, won a DARPA contract in 2011 to develop its Synthetic Vision System.