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Radar May Let Helo Pilots 'See' Through Brownouts

The Pentagon's research arm and aerospace industry partners have developed promising technology to enable rotorcraft pilots to see through brownouts caused by their own downwash, such as the fatal crash of an MV-22B Marine Osprey last spring.

“That’s exactly what this is for -- a self-generated brownout. It truly sees through the dust” and debris thrown up by the rotors of a helicopter or the “proprotors” of the Osprey in landings and takeoffs, said David C. Baughman, a program manager with Honeywell Aerospace.

Honeywell has worked on the “synthetic vision” cockpit displays, or Synthetic Vision Avionics Backbone, while Northrop Grumman Corp. has developed the millimeter wave radar to punch through the dustclouds and show obstacles and inclinations of the landing zones.

The SVAB was meant to “provide full terrain awareness of ingress and egress routes” in the cockpit while the millimeter wave radar had the capability of “turning sensor data into pilot awareness,” according to the industry literature.

With the combination of the two, “You’re not looking for a hole in the cloud, you’re seeing through the cloud,” Baughman said. “You can see features you could not see” with the existing radar and cockpit displays, said H. Bruce Wallace, a program manager with the Strategic Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Successful testing of the systems would “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,” Wallace said.

Rotorcraft are traditionally more prone to accidents than fixed-wing aircraft and an Army report in 2010 concluded that many of the more than 420 military helicopter crashes since 2001 occurred in conditions of poor visibility.

“Severe brownout conditions” caused by an MV-22B Osprey’s own rotor wash were a major factor in what the Marine Corps called the “hard landing” of the aircraft on May 17 last year on a training mission in Hawaii in which two Marines were killed.

The Osprey had hovered twice in its own brownout while attempting landings, resulting in significant dust intake and "turbine blade glassification," or the melting of sand at high temperatures, and the failure of one of the engines, according to the command investigation obtained by Military.com.

The two Marines killed were Lance Cpl. Matthew Determan, 21, an infantry squad leader with st Marines out of Camp Pendleton, California; and Cpl. Joshua Barron, 24, an Osprey crew chief with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161. The other 20 Marines aboard sustained injuries of varying severity.

DARPA’s potential solution to the brownout problem was one of 68 displays in the Pentagon courtyard Wednesday for the annual DARPA “Demo Day,” showing off the agency’s programs involving air systems, biology, counterterrorism, cyber, ground warfare, maritime systems, microsystems, space and the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Today is the day that we bring some of those crazy technologies into the Pentagon to get them in front of our customers and our partners -- people across all the military services and across DoD and the intelligence community,” said DARPA Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar.

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