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Keith Henry NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA (Phone: 757/864-6120)
May 27, 1997
Sally Koris TRW Space & Electronics Group, Redondo Beach, CA (Phone: 310/812-4721) RELEASE: 97-111
WEATHER-PIERCING CAMERA MAY REDUCE AIR TRAFFIC DELAYS Air traffic delays due to poor visibility caused by weather can be virtually eliminated if technology being developed by U.S. industry and government looks as good in the air as it does on the ground. NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA, is working with a consortium led by TRW Space & Electronics Group, Redondo Beach, CA, that is preparing to demonstrate in flight a weather-piercing camera that has allowed researchers to see through fog, smoke and clouds. System checkout will begin later this month, followed by 60 hours of test and demonstration flights in September. The camera "sees" in the millimeter wave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, a portion that is invisible to the human eye. It produces video images that enable a pilot to discern features like runways, obstacles and the horizon. These features are sufficient to safely land, take off, roll out and taxi at any airline terminal in the country -- not just the three dozen or so major airports that have costly systems to aid in low visibility approach and landings. The camera is a passive sensor that does not emit signals in an airport environment, allowing multiple equipped aircraft to operate simultaneously on the ground without risk of interference. "This sensor program directly supports NASA's new goal to safely triple capacity at our nation's commercial airports within the next ten years -- regardless of fog, clouds, smoke and dust, or other conditions that normally limit pilot visibility," said Tom Campbell, head of Langley's Electromagnetic Research Branch. In 1994, the TRW-led Passive Millimeter Wave Camera Consortium was awarded a multi-year, $15 million cost-sharing contract under the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Defense Dual-Use Technology Initiative to adapt this technology to an airborne camera for military and civilian users. Langley has served as the government's principal
representative and is funding the flight test element of the program. In addition, Langley is performing lab tests to determine which materials are most "invisible" to millimeter waves and, therefore, good candidates for the protective nose radome that will house the camera on the flight test aircraft. The tests also will provide the consortium's radome design team with data about optimum material thicknesses, protection from rain erosion and protection from static build-up. The aircraft is a one-of-a-kind Air Force C-135-C aircraft nicknamed the "Speckled Trout," to be fitted with the millimeter-wave camera and its new radome this summer. Once installed, the camera will generate video images of the forward scene in low-visibility conditions. These images will be displayed on a see-through heads-up display suspended between the pilot and the windscreen. The sensor uses a focal plane array of about 1,000 receivers made up of monolithic millimeter wave integrated circuits developed by TRW. Each of these complex circuits, formed on a sliver of gallium arsenide, replaces bulky, heavy and costly components, resulting in a compact device. "We're very excited about what we have produced under this program," said Dr. Steven Fornaca of TRW, the consortium's program manager. "Based on the images we have acquired under low-visibility conditions, and the quality of the receivers we've developed, we are confident that we are bringing to the aviation market a needed product that can be manufactured efficiently and at low cost." Other consortium members are McDonnell Douglas, Long Beach, CA.; Honeywell, Minneapolis, MN; Composite Optics Inc., San Diego, CA; NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA; U.S. Air Force Wright Labs, Dayton, OH; U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, CA; and the U.S. Army Research Lab, Adelphi, MD. -endNOTE TO EDITORS: A photograph is available to news media to illustrate this story by calling the NASA Headquarters Imaging Branch at 202/358-1900. The photo number is: 97-HC-352