NASA Developing Tablet-Based App for Alaska Pilots

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It takes a bit of nerve to fly in Alaska, where pilots deal with the continent's tallest peaks, coldest weather and many sheer unknowns.

Take, for example, the radio silence. Small planes lose contact minutes after leaving cities or villages, and pilots usually don't have accurate maps when they take off because Alaska is the only state that hasn't digitally collected elevation data.

"Mars is better mapped than Alaska," said Nick Mastrodicasa, of the state Transportation Department.

A partnership linking Juneau with Silicon Valley, however, seeks to change that as part of an early-stage effort to reduce Alaska's pilot fatality rate, which is five times higher than the rest of the nation.

Engineers and scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, the Northern California facility that plays a large role in aeronautics study, are developing a system to reduce crashes by bringing accurate, real-time information on terrain, weather, air traffic - even volcanic ash - into the cockpit of small planes that don't have the sophisticated instrument panels common in larger aircraft.

"Our approach is to create a tablet, mobile-based app on the iPad - or some other tablet of your choice - and present all the information in a consolidated format to the pilot," said NASA project manager Parimal Kopardekar.

But don't call it just an app since "it's actually more of a complete system," said Joseph Rios, NASA's technical lead on the project.

"There's going to be a bunch of stuff in the background in order to make it work," he added.

The NASA team is developing ways to compress the data so that it can be wirelessly transmitted to the cockpit. And they're still considering what method will be used to send updates - but satellite, cell and radio are the most likely candidates.

The software will include data collected by the Alaska Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative, a state Department of Transportation project.

"We're talking about mapping here and putting terrain into the cockpit. It's one use of the topographical data that we're producing," said Mastrodicasa, the initiative director.

"Alaska has never been mapped in a digital context - ever," he added.

The technology is aimed at helping pilots of small planes that aren't certified to fly at altitudes high enough to evade the state's tall mountain ranges and unforgiving conditions. Pilots must often fly between peaks, contending with harsh winds, severe cold and poor visibility.

"If you're going through a pass, you need to make sure that you're going to see both sides of that pass. Otherwise, you end up in the side of a mountain," says Mike Pannone, a retired air traffic controller.

"The more information you can get readily available to the pilot - particularly in Alaska - the better off you're going to be," added Pannone, owner of AeroForensics Alaska.

The state's vast size and lack of mapping data pose challenges that wouldn't exist if the software was being developed in the Lower 48.

But Kopardekar and his team believe that the state's unique challenges make the software all the more useful in the state.

Pannone, who attended a round-table this year during which NASA floated the idea for the software to some of Alaska's general aviation enthusiasts and experts, thinks the software will fill an important need.

Kopardekar said the feedback he received from Pannone and the rest of the group was very positive.

NASA expects to have a prototype ready by 2015, though the process of compiling much of the data is expected to take longer. The terrain mapping, for example, will be halfway done by the end of this summer, and complete in approximately three years.

Rios and Kopardekar say that the time it takes to complete the terrain mapping project won't delay their effort. The system is being built in a way that can incorporate new data sources as they become available, so the software could incorporate topographical information piece by piece as its collected and digitized.

With the project "we have a real opportunity here to increase the situational awareness for Alaska pilots," Kopardekar said.

"It's a really unique opportunity," he added. "And this will result in reduced accident rates or incident rates."