May - June 2005
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Airborne Use of Force
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Seeing What Can’t be Seen
Seeing What Can’t be Seen
NASA’s Visual Immersion technology
may in the future be an effective tool
for airborne law enforcement officers
By Dan Schwarbach
and Shea W. Gibbs
Sometimes, looking out of a window can be about as useful as staring at a piece of wood, depending on weather conditions. But in the race to return to the moon and send a manned mission to Mars, NASA has been working on technology that can economically simulate good visibility in any cockpit - from spacecraft to law enforcement aircraft.
In what is known as the Advanced Cockpit Evaluation System (ACES), new visual immersion technology uses a combination of video produced and digital images to replicate the natural environment.
"The example I like to use is the yellow line on the football field when you’re watching an NFL game," says Jeff Fox, a flight operations engineer at NASA.
Say you’re flying an approach with almost no visual references available through the cockpit windows. With ACES technology, you would have a monitor in front of you that shows the surrounding environment with a digital model providing the obscured details. ACES can also provide a series of digitally produced rings descending toward the runway. All you have to do is pilot the aircraft through this overgrown, extended Slinky, and you’ll touch down safely.
ACES uses a number of video cameras, mounted in a horizontal circle, to collect video images from the surrounding environment. The number of cameras is determined by just how much of the visual field you want to represent. The images from the cameras are then sent to a computer, which produces a digital model of the environment, as well as any digital overlays that may be of use (such as the yellow line or the "Slinky").
Once the video is collected and the digital model is constructed, the images are synchronized and displayed as a virtual cockpit - a series of flat panel displays arranged in a semicircle around a pilot, or around an observer on the ground. The view from the virtual cockpit is composed of part video, part digital model. It can range from 100 percent real video to 100 percent digital model - and anywhere in between - depending on the visual conditions around the aircraft.
Recently, several members of the Houston Police Department Helicopter Patrol evaluated ACES technology for possible applications to aerial law enforcement. NASA has developed a simulator for such an evaluation, the ACES van, by mounting a circular, eight-camera arrangement on top of a Ford E350 15-passenger van and building a virtual cockpit in the rear of the automobile.
The officers who got a chance to try out the ACES van all agreed that there would be practical applications of the technology to airborne law enforcement. One of the most apparent would be to have real-time video from either a video or infrared camera superimposed over a digital map of an area where a suspect might be. As the suspect moves about, the tactical flight officer can follow his whereabouts and relay accurate street names and hundred blocks by using just the screen, eliminating the need to switch back and forth from a map to the screen or from a map and the actual scene. Effectively, ACES technology could be merged with moving map technology to provide a map on which one could view real-time movement of a suspect, therefore never having to lose visual contact with the suspect to look up his exact location on a separate map.
ACES might also have applications when officers have to contend with restricted air space during their patrols. A digitally-produced, three-dimensional model of restricted airspace can be overlain on real time video, providing a pilot with not only the location of the restricted zone, but also a visual representation of its height, width and depth.
Fox says that if ACES were used in conjunction with a tracking system, such as LoJack, flight officers could easily track the location of any ground units that may be in the area.
"A lot of this stuff is already out there, we’re just trying to think of ways to integrate it economically," he says.
Visual immersion technology is still in the development stage, but it is moving along rapidly and may some day be utilized in law enforcement aircraft. And when the view from the cockpit looks about as descriptive as a two-by-four, it could be an invaluable ace up any pilot’s sleeve. Seeing What Can’t be Seen