Two new software packages enabling pilots to use laptops to avoid hazardous terrain and find their place on maps are the latest success stories of a NASA program bringing together entrepreneurs and space engineers.
Pilots of small planes, for whom such tools have been largely unavailable until now due to cost and the sheer size of bulky hardware, may soon be able to carry onboard the personal computer equivalent of collision-avoidance systems now used by the military and commercial airlines.
"TerrAvoid" and "Position Integrity" combine Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) data with high-resolution maps of the Earth's topography. Dubbs & Severino, Inc., based in Irvine, California, has developed software that allows the system to be run on a battery-powered laptop in the cockpit.
The packages, designed primarily for military sponsors and now positioned to hit the consumer market in coming months, came about as the result of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Technology Affiliates Program. Intended to give American industry assistance from NASA experts and to facilitate business use of intellectual property developed for the space program, the Technology Affiliates Program introduced the start-up company of Dubbs & Severino to JPL's Dr. Nevin Bryant four years ago.
Dubbs & Severino had an idea for mapping software to help private airplane pilots, inspired in part by the fatal crash of a pilot friend of company president Bob Severino. The twist: the package was to be completely software-driven, instead of requiring expensive hardware, as was the norm up to that time.
Bryant's Cartographic Applications Group at JPL had developed GeoTIFF, an architecture standard providing geo- location tools for mapping applications. GeoTIFF proved to be the crucial key that the start-up company needed to bring the idea to fruition, allowing the firm to develop low-cost software packages.
GeoTIFF is now in the public domain, and its use for commercial product development has evolved into an industry standard over the last year. Through the Technology Affiliates Program, Dubbs & Severino obtained JPL's assistance early on and thus gained a jump-start in adapting the architecture for their products' specific needs. "JPL gave us a demonstration and opened up the red carpet. It was a match made in heaven," says Severino.
Merle McKenzie, manager of JPL's Commercial Technology Program, said that Dubbs & Severino's ability to utilize technology originally developed for NASA provides a strong example of the many advantages of technology transfer programs. "This is a win-win partnership through which yet another American business gets a boost from the space program," McKenzie said.
"TerrAvoid" is a terrain avoidance system that graphically shows pilots if they are flying dangerously close to mountains: safe sections can be seen in green, while hazardous sections show up in red, with those proportions changing in real time as the pilot moves through hilly terrain. In a sense, the system "looks" out over a plane's flight path, sweeping 360 degrees, warning the pilot if there are any upcoming hazards. Integrating Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking data with maps on CD-ROM, this software package is approximately 1/20th the cost of its nearest competitor.
"Position Integrity," which also co-registers real-time GPS data with local maps on CD-ROM, is a moving map detailing the exact position of the pilot. Because of the unique features of GeoTIFF, this software can be adapted to operate with any map, chart or photo image in the world, while comparable versions are limited solely to either military, scientific or commercial maps. GeoTIFF also enables the package to feature four windows at once, a useful and unique option for pilots who need to work simultaneously with maps, charts, photo images and sketches at different scales and zoom levels.
As Severino explains, "GeoTIFF enables terrain avoidance and navigation map packages to manipulate the pixels in each image intelligently, making costly hardware unnecessary. Its clever indexing scheme organizes large numbers of pixels efficiently and inexpensively, compressing and capturing huge amounts of data into a seamless image file. It has paved the way for sophisticated mapping software to be made available not just to major commercial airlines but also to small-plane pilots around the world."
Dubbs & Severino was formed in 1994 with a flight test contract for the Army, Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and today the corporation has eight research and development contracts with various military agencies. Just after start-up, it was awarded a U.S. Army Research Office Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program grant that required it to team with a university or research laboratory, a further incentive for the company to work with JPL. Discussions are ongoing with wholesale software firms to bring "TerrAvoid" and "Position Integrity" to the consumer market by the end of the year.
Further details about JPL's technology transfer activities, including the Technology Affiliates Program, are available online at http://techtrans.jpl.nasa.gov/tu.html . JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.
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