Software helps pilots avoid trouble

Two new commercial software packages developed with help from NASA will help pilots of small planes avoid dangerous terrain and pinpoint their location on a map while in flight.

The PC-based software combines Global Positioning System satellite data with high-resolution topographical maps to give pilots a real-time view of where they are and what terrain they should avoid.

Although designed primarily for the military, the software will be sold later this year to commercial airlines as a low-cost alternative to avionics packages used by the major airlines.

"The goal is to provide general aviation and commercial aviation a system that leverages technology they probably already own, including a commercial GPS receiver and a laptop computer running Windows NT," said Bob Severino, president of start-up company Dubbs & Severino Inc., Irvine, Calif. The company developed the products with the help of scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"We wanted to leverage commercial off-the-shelf components," Severino said. "Once it is developed for the military, then a general-aviation pilot could bring commercial GPS and a laptop into their aircraft and have the same features commercial jets have, for one-twentieth the cost."

Alice Wessen, outreach specialist at JPL's commercial technology program, said a unique program run by JPL supported Dubbs & Severino in developing the software. "The Technology Affiliates Program has been around for about 10 years and was set up for companies to gain access to [NASA] technologies and expertise," she said.

Some small companies contact JPL to tap into the expertise it has gained in working on space programs, but some firms also are looking for technology that can be incorporated into a new product, Wessen said. ~Dubbs & Severino used both approaches. Severino said his idea for developing mapping software for pilots was inspired in part by the death of a friend who was killed five years ago when his F-4 Phantom crashed in Nevada during a military training exercise. "His accident galvanized my motivation in solving this problem inexpensively," Severino said.

A year later, Dubbs & Severino signed a contract with JPL, which had developed a format called GeoTIFF, which converts map data into digital imagery. "We learned about GeoTIFF and embedded that architecture into our software algorithms," Severino said. "It's simpler, smarter, faster and more efficient than other graphic protocols. It turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship." ~The relationship turned out two products.

TerrAvoid is a terrain-avoidance system that graphically shows pilots if they are flying too close to mountains. The software integrates GPS tracking data with maps on CD-ROM. It is designed to replace more expensive ground-proximity warning systems used by the major airlines, Severino said.

The other product, called Position Integrity, also integrates GPS data with local maps. It is a moving map that details the exact location of the pilot, and Severino said most planes today are not equipped with moving maps. The software can operate with any map, chart or photo image. While TerrAvoid is specifically designed for pilots and to improve aviation safety, Position Integrity can be used by others. Examples include soldiers who need improved situational awareness during war as well as search-and-rescue teams at sea who need to know the characteristics of shorelines and the depths of bodies of water.

In addition to working with NASA, Dubbs & Severino plans to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to test the products during the agency's Flight 2000 program in Alaska. The program will test the concept of free flight, a revolutionary air traffic management concept that allows pilots to fly the most efficient route, speed and altitude based on current conditions.

Walt Coleman president of the Regional Airline Association, said the "technology may be attractive, but its application, because of FAA approval and certification requirements, may prove challenging for operators" to use.

To be part of a plane's primary navigation system, the product must be certified by the FAA. But if the system is used as a navigational aid, the FAA does not require it to be approved. Even so, the software must be tested to ensure it does not interfere with the communications and navigation systems already on board, Coleman said. Two new commercial software packages developed with help from NASA will help pilots of small planes avoid dangerous terrain and pinpoint their location on a map while in flight.

The PC-based software combines Global Positioning System satellite data with high-resolution topographical maps to give pilots a real-time view of where they are and what terrain they should avoid.

Although designed primarily for the military, the software will be sold later this year to commercial airlines as a low-cost alternative to avionics packages used by the major airlines.

"The goal is to provide general aviation and commercial aviation a system that leverages technology they probably already own, including a commercial GPS receiver and a laptop computer running Windows NT," said Bob Severino, president of start-up company Dubbs & Severino Inc., Irvine, Calif. The company developed the products with the help of scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"We wanted to leverage commercial off-the-shelf components," Severino said. "Once it is developed for the military, then a general-aviation pilot could bring commercial GPS and a laptop into their aircraft and have the same features commercial jets have, for one-twentieth the cost."

Alice Wessen, outreach specialist at JPL's commercial technology program, said a unique program run by JPL supported Dubbs & Severino in developing the software. "The Technology Affiliates Program has been around for about 10 years and was set up for companies to gain access to [NASA] technologies and expertise," she said.

Some small companies contact JPL to tap into the expertise it has gained in working on space programs, but some firms also are looking for technology that can be incorporated into a new product, Wessen said.

Dubbs & Severino used both approaches. Severino said his idea for developing mapping software for pilots was inspired in part by the death of a friend who was killed five years ago when his F-4 Phantom crashed in Nevada during a military training exercise. "His accident galvanized my motivation in solving this problem inexpensively," Severino said.

A year later, Dubbs & Severino signed a contract with JPL, which had developed a format called GeoTIFF, which converts map data into digital imagery. "We learned about GeoTIFF and embedded that architecture into our software algorithms," Severino said. "It's simpler, smarter, faster and more efficient than other graphic protocols. It turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship."

The relationship turned out two products.

TerrAvoid is a terrain-avoidance system that graphically shows pilots if they are flying too close to mountains. The software integrates GPS tracking data with maps on CD-ROM. It is designed to replace more expensive ground-proximity warning systems used by the major airlines, Severino said.

The other product, called Position Integrity, also integrates GPS data with local maps. It is a moving map that details the exact location of the pilot, and Severino said most planes today are not equipped with moving maps. The software can operate with any map, chart or photo image. While TerrAvoid is specifically designed for pilots and to improve aviation safety, Position Integrity can be used by others. Examples include soldiers who need improved situational awareness during war as well as search-and-rescue teams at sea who need to know the characteristics of shorelines and the depths of bodies of water.

In addition to working with NASA, Dubbs & Severino plans to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to test the products during the agency's Flight 2000 program in Alaska. The program will test the concept of free flight, a revolutionary air traffic management concept that allows pilots to fly the most efficient route, speed and altitude based on current conditions.

Walt Coleman president of the Regional Airline Association, said the "technology may be attractive, but its application, because of FAA approval and certification requirements, may prove challenging for operators" to use.

To be part of a plane's primary navigation system, the product must be certified by the FAA. But if the system is used as a navigational aid, the FAA does not require it to be approved. Even so, the software must be tested to ensure it does not interfere with the communications and navigation systems already on board, Coleman said.

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