NASA has developed a pair of augmented reality glasses designed especially for commercial airline pilots to see during the worst visual conditions. The glasses include a heads-up display showing a virtual overlay of the runway and airport, head tracking technology, and voice controls - features that may help pilots keep their eyes where they're most needed.
NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia first unveiled its new head-worn display system when it put out a call for an interested company to manufacture and market the device. The NASA Aviation Safety Program developed the technology while researching better equipment for use while navigating the runway, since this is when the majority of plane crashes occur. Since the flight crew's awareness of their surroundings is a key factor, the research team focused on the best way to produce a clear image of the outside of an aircraft no matter the weather or time of day.
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While wearing the glasses, a pilot can see a 3D virtual overlay of the runway and airport in one eye, which updates in real-time and includes markers to highlight nearby objects, runway routes, and traffic in the area. A built-in head tracker follows the pilot's head movements as they look around the windshield and adjusts the image to their viewpoint. The added voice controls and displayed info about the aircraft itself - including speed, altitude, and direction - allow the pilot to keep their eyes focused on the runway ahead of them instead of down at a cockpit screen.
Some military aircraft already use similar HUDs, as do newer commercial airlines, but these tend to be built into the cockpit. Early trials have shown that adding head tracking technology gives pilots greater freedom to move around and gain a better awareness of the outside. Pilots testing the glasses have reported they are generally much easier to use.
The whole system is mostly self-contained and would require very little change to an airplane's cockpit to install it. NASA is currently looking for a company to manufacture the device and bring it from the lab to the marketplace. While the headset was designed specifically with commercial airline pilots in mind, NASA is looking into adapting the technology for use with ground and water vehicles, as well as possible applications for it in the military, construction, or mining.
Source: NASA Langley Research CenterView gallery - 5 images