Lt. Col. Paul Flanigen, Product Manager of the Assured Airspace Access System, a subset of the Aviation Mission Systems and Architecture project office within Program Executive Office Aviation, recently defended his dissertation to earn his PhD in a collaborative project with the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. Flanigen, an Army experimental test pilot, has a history with the aviation research mission at USAARL, so he knew exactly who to reach out to when he identified the need for USAARL’s high fidelity Black Hawk simulator to collect flight data for his research at the University of Michigan. USAARL entered into an educational partnership agreement with the University and provided Flanigen an on-site mentor, Dr. Mike Wilson, to guide him through the government research and development process. Following the establishment of the EPA, the study was collaboratively designed, the USAARL simulator was programmed, and finally, pilot data was collected.
Flanigen’s dissertation is titled Algorithms and Visualizations to Support Airborne Detection of Vertical Obstacles. The project was intended to mitigate one of the leading causes of helicopter accidents during flight at low altitudes: collisions with vertical obstacles. Vertical obstacles include communications towers, power lines, and other tall structures that require visual identification and avoidance by pilots in low-level flight. These obstacles introduce some level of risk in all flights but can be extremely dangerous during low visibility conditions, such as fog and periods of darkness.
Flanigen’s work proposes that Army aviation take a proactive approach to vertical obstacle avoidance in future aircraft systems. His dissertation notes that the number of vertical structures has increased rapidly over the past several years, and that it is likely that increases will continue into the future, resulting in an increase in the threat of collisions with vertical obstacles for current and future flights.
The pilot study investigated two potential visual augmentation techniques to make obstacles more noticeable to pilots in flight. One technique placed yellow circles on the ground around towers. Circle radius was based on the associated horizontal uncertainty in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Digital Obstacle File. The second technique simulated obstacle detection algorithms, also proposed by Dr. Flanigen, to produce more precise vertical bounding boxes. The two techniques were tested in multiple conditions, including daylight, dusk, and night. In total, six combinations of the two obstacle visual augmentation techniques and conditions were tested. Pilots were required to conduct duties of the pilot not on the controls such as communicating with air traffic control on multiple channels and monitoring the coupled flight simulation. Each pilot wore an eye tracker to indicate precisely when their gaze overlapped with an object of interest.
Flanigen recently presented a paper at the Vertical Flight Society’s Annual Forum describing the research and preliminary results. Data showed that pilots detected vertical obstacles that were visually augmented significantly earlier than they noticed obstacles without visual augmentation. The wide detection range between an augmented (24.6 and 30.7 seconds before impact) and unaugmented towers (1.2 seconds before impact) showed potential to increase obstacle awareness.
Flanigen successfully defended his dissertation at the University of Michigan’s Robotics Department on July 18, 2023. Shortly after his graduation, on August 8, 2023, he transitioned into his new role as the Product Manager of Assured Airspace Access Systems where he manages an assortment of critical navigation solutions along with fixed and tactical air traffic management systems to ensure the safety and maneuverability of Army helicopters in contested and crowded airspace.
About the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory.
The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory is a world-class organization of subject matter experts in the fields of operator health and performance in complex systems; the en route care environment; blunt, blast, and accelerative injury and protection; crew survival in rotary-wing aircraft and combat vehicles; and sensory performance, injury, and protection. USAARL engages in innovative research, development, test and evaluation activities to identify research gaps and inform requirements documents that contribute to future vertical lift, medical, aviation, and defense health capabilities. USAARL is a trusted agent for stakeholders, providing evidence-based solutions and operational practices that protect joint force warriors and enhance warfighter performance. USAARL invests in the next generation of scientists and engineers, research technicians, program managers, and administrative professionals by valuing and developing its people, implementing talent management principles, and engaging in educational outreach opportunities.