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Eye in the sky: High-flying software to represent JSC at NASA Software Awards

A software application developed as a collaborative effort between the Engineering Directorate at JSC and Rapid Imaging Software could help JSC fly to its third consecutive NASA Software of the Year award.

More importantly, it helps aircraft fly more safely.

The software, SmartCam3D (SC3D), provides “enhanced situational awareness for operators of a remotely piloted vehicle,” said JSC’s Frank Delgado, the software lead for the task. In other words, it shows a remote pilot where he or she is flying in ways that a standard video feed could never do.

SC3D combines two types of visual data and gives remote pilots the best of both worlds. It uses flight sensor data, such as video, to give the pilot a real-time visual of the flight path. It combines that with data from a computer-generated environment, which can add a wealth of information to help the pilot maneuver safely.

“The computer can generate what’s ahead of and below your aircraft that you might not be able to see,” Delgado said. It also allows pilots to “add information to the visuals: for instance, you can label objects on the ground and create custom heads-up displays,” he said.

One major advantage of the computer-aided aspect of SC3D is that it is not impaired by bad weather or poor visibility conditions.

“Video sensor systems are not very useful when visibility conditions are hampered by rain, snow, sand, fog and smoke,” Delgado said. But relying completely on a computer-generated visual is not ideal, since these systems can encounter "data freshness" problems -- if the computer’s data is outdated, it won’t give a pilot an accurate scene to fly by.

“By incorporating both systems, you gain the advantages of each,” Delgado said. Aviators have used both systems independently for years, but this is the first software application that combines them into one display.

“No other software tool that we know of can do this,” he said. “We’ve gotten positive feedback from everybody who has used it.”

The software was utilized during X-38 flight tests at the Dryden Flight Research center to help pilot the X-38 during the parafoil flight phase. Crewmembers “flew” the aircraft using the visuals provided by the software from a remote cockpit. The software is also used by the U.S. Department of Defense to augment the visuals being provided to Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Pilots. It is also being used at the Langley Research Center in the federal aviation safety program.

While it has mostly been used by remote pilots so far, Delgado said, the technology could prove very useful to pilots inside of aircrafts.

“It has a lot of potential,” Delgado said.

The software is considered to be so outstanding that it garnered JSC’s nomination to NASA’s prestigious Software of the Year awards. Whether it wins the top award or not, SC3D is accomplishing its goal of making flying significantly safer and providing information to operators in ways not possible before.

For more info:
To see a demonstration of the software, visit this link: Click on the link that says "Flight Category - AFVT SmartCam3D" and the movie will download.

Kendra Phipps
Johnson Space Center, Houston
(281) 483-9268

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Updated: 05/19/2004