Honeywell’s Augmented-Reality Display (Almost) Gives Pilots X-Ray Specs

The EVS/SVS system combines infrared imaging and GPS-generated graphics to guide airplane pilots to the runway in low-visibility conditions.

You know the computerized voice that intones “Terrain! Terrain! Pull up!” when Tom Cruise is about to crash his plane in Mission Impossible 2? It’s real; a company called Honeywell invented it. They followed it up with the SmartView “synthetic vision system,” which extends the terrain-warning system into a 3-D visual display based on GPS data of every runway on earth (some of which Honeywell purchased from cash-strapped Russian spy agencies). And now they’ve combined SmartView with real-time infrared imaging called EVS, giving pilots a kind of augmented-reality view of runways so they can land planes safely even in crappy weather. Here’s how it works:


The live feed from an infrared camera in the nose of the plane — which can “see through” certain kinds of bad weather to reveal runway landing lights or other pertinent ground features — is perfectly registered via GPS on top of a 3-D graphical view of the terrain, creating a “blended image” that gives pilots “enhanced situational awareness in low visibility conditions,” says Bob Witwer of Honeywell’s Advanced Technology group. In English, that means they can see what they’re doing even when they can’t actually see what they’re doing. Think of it as something like X-ray vision, minus the titillating applications.

The primitive 3-D graphics look that way for a good reason.

Because the system (called EVS/SVS) is “all about enhancing safety,” Witwer tells Co.Design, “there are a lot of subtleties to the design that really underscored a critical philosophy for us in this man/machine interface in aviation: don’t give any info that the pilot doesn’t need, and only provide info when he needs it.” First, EVS/SVS doesn’t use fancy heads-up displays or any specialty equipment — it’s displayed on the same LCD flight panels that pilots are already trained to rely on. And the somewhat primitive 3-D graphics look that way for a good reason. “Some early customer feedback asked why would couldn’t make the synthetic terrain look photo-realistic — but our philosophy is, there’s detail that aids the mission and there’s detail that becomes clutter,” Witwer explains. “You want the real detail of the runway — the landing lights and numbers. You don’t want the pilot looking at the display and trying to see his house on the ground.”

Other subtle “human factors” in the system’s design include context-aware colorizing of the image: when the plane is on the ground, the infrared portion stays monochrome, but during flight (and landing maneuvers) when the blending between infrared video and synthetic graphics is most important, the infrared box includes slight colorization. “We still kept it visually distinct so there’s absolutely no ambiguity about the synthetic, constructed portions of the image,” says Witwer. “If a pilot is going to be staring at this display for multiple minutes, you need to provide the information in an intuitive way.”

The system simply enhances existing information.

But EVS/SVS isn’t intended to rewrite the rules of air safety; it can’t magically “see” in all low-visibility conditions. (“You can actually use other electromagnetic methods to penetrate weather better than infrared,” says Witwer, “but then the image isn’t as sharp. It’s a tradeoff.”) What Honeywell wants is to simply enhance the information that pilots already rely on. A common safety rating known as “Category 1” requires planes to abort a landing attempt if they descend to 200 feet and still can’t see the runway; using EVS/SVS, that safety “floor” can be pushed down to just 100 feet off the ground. “At 100 feet, if you can’t make out key runway features with the naked eye, you still have to abort,” says Witwer. “But that extra 100 feet of descent that EVS/SVS provides is often enough to get it done safely.” That could translate into significant savings on fuel, since aborted landings mean circling for another attempt or diverting to another airport.

EVS/SVS isn’t a formal product yet; Honeywell is still testing it. But the company expects to receive FAA approval as early as 2013. If the winter storms are as bad two years from now as they were this time around, Honeywell’s safety-design innovations won’t come a moment too soon.

[Top image by AtomicJeep]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.