Smart avionics reduces impact of bad weather

Bad weather has hampered engine-powered aviation since the Wright brothers. Meteorological conditions such as fog, thunderstorms and wind affect both flight safety and airline revenues. The European All Condition Operations and Innovative Cockpit Infrastructure (ALICIA) project studied the option of putting paid to adverse weather conditions using innovative avionics for helicopters and commercial aircraft.

ALICIA saw NLR teaming up with international partners like helicopter manufacturer Agusta-Westland and avionics giant Thales. Having kicked off in 2009, the project concluded in 2014 with a closing seminar at which the partners presented their findings and test results.

NLR’s two-part work portfolio included an assessment of the extent to which helicopter pilots can limit the risk of bad weather by automatically receiving information on potential obstacles, such as tall buildings or power lines. This could, for instance, be very useful to trauma helicopters that are required to quickly fly to an unknown destination at any given time. Poor visibility could increase the associated flight risk. However, the chances of collision could be significantly reduced if the location of obstacles could be entered into cockpit navigation systems, with the aid of GPS, for example.

Helicopters engaged in offshore operations – which are particularly hazardous due to weather conditions at sea – could use ALICIA avionics to get to a point close to a drilling rig, after which the pilot could land using visual navigation. Such equipment is currently not available in most cockpits.

Something similar applies to commercial aircraft, which were studied in part two of the work portfolio. Using meteorological data from satellites, a more complete picture can be generated of thunderstorms and other conditions on the envisaged flight path.

NLR studied the potential of such avionics and put forward proposals for relevant topics. Because there is little space for new equipment in the cockpit, an additional option was explored using the existing navigation display. By clicking on the new option, pilots get an attractively designed graphic display allowing them to choose alternative routes proposed by the equipment.

Qualified pilots tested all of NLR’s proposals for smart avionics reducing the risks and challenges of poor weather. These tests were conducted in the Avionics Prototyping Environment for Research and Operations (APERO) simulator. The results indicate that production and installation of such equipment and software seems the next logical step.