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NASA's AR headset lets pilots see through fog


March 16, 2012

NASA Langley researcher Kevin Shelton wearing an early prototype (Credit: NASA Langley Research Center/Sean Smith)

NASA Langley researcher Kevin Shelton wearing an early prototype (Credit: NASA Langley Research Center/Sean Smith)

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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.

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 Center

About the Author
Jonathan Fincher Jonathan grew up in Norway, China, and Trinidad before graduating film school and becoming an online writer covering green technology, history and design, as well as contributing to video game news sites like Filefront and 1Up. He currently resides in Texas, where his passions include video games, comics, and boring people who don't want to talk about either of those things. All articles by Jonathan Fincher

Too much dependance on technology has caused crashes.


amazing technology !!! these sort of glasses should be worn by each pilot during take-off and landing ....

Siddharth Bhatla

The impediment to using these is not the technology, or pilots, it's the FAA. Augmented reality flat screen technology is already being used in high-end biz jets, but commercial aircraft have still not been OK'd to have them installed. This is a step further, so for NASA, it'll be difficult to get manufacturers on board until the Feds give some indication of when this will be approved.


What do we do when autonomous aircraft log more flight hours than we humans?

Flipider Comm

I am still amazed how they call multi-billion dollar all weather fighter aircraft, "all weather aircraft", and they keep them grounded in rain and overcast conditions.....

"No bombing today guys - overcast conditons around the target area".....


Except for genuinely risky weather etc., and strong cross winds etc., todays modern aircraft ought to be flying 24/7 in all reasonable weather - including fog and low cloud etc.

Perhaps it's the issue of multiple redundancies - or layers of "fall back positions".

But low cloud / fog? - Radar, Instruments, GPS, etc.

Hmmmmmm I am kind of skeptical.... and I am kind of dubious about the whole "operating in fog" on the ground / taking off / landing etc... either with this much less without it.

Mr Stiffy

This will indeed take forever to be certified by the FAA as the certification process is long and arduous, rightly so. ALL low visibility approaches and landings are done via coupled autopilots. The more autopilots one has engaged the lower the visibility requirements for landing, if there's only one of these NASA gizmo glasses being worn and there's a discrepancy between the "glasses" and the 3~4 autopilots which are engaged and commanding the aircraft, which do you believe ?, the one person wearing the glasses or the 3~4 autopilots which have been in agreement throughout the low visibility approach ?.

Take offs are not automated and BOTH (commercial) pilots have to be able to see the centerline of the runway for a certain distance during low visibility take offs, again, how would one go about creating redundancy and reliability ?. Should these "glasses" fail during a zero visibility take off what are the chances of NOT going off the runway during a abort close to or at V1 with a engine failure on these huge two engined jets ?.

Sharon Hamilton

Thank you Sharon Hamilton. Finally an intelligent comment from a pilot.

Peter Durand (retired B767 captain)

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