Laptops Take To The Skies: Portable Mapping System Helps Pilots Plan Flights

August 29, 1997

A laptop mapping system originally developed for flight planning in fighter planes is now useful with different types of aircraft, offers enhanced features previously available only on non-portable computers, and was a finalist in a recent international competition. FalconView, developed by the U.S. Air Force Reserve, the Air National Guard and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) for the U.S. Air Force, allows pilots to do their flight planning anywhere. Thanks to leaps in computer technology and the availability of recently declassified imagery, FalconView now includes overlay tools that mark no-fly zones and other areas, receives updates on obstructions such as buildings or radio towers via modem, and displays detailed threat information -- all on compressed charts and with higher resolution imagery.

"We've also added customized views to FalconView that vary based on the type of aircraft the pilot is planning a route for," said John Pyles, a research scientist in GTRI's Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory.

FalconView a Finalist in Competition In addition, FalconView was one of five finalists in the Sixth Annual Windows World Open Competition. The international contest recognizes developers and their organizations for creating breakthrough custom Microsoft Windows applications that effectively solve business problems. The Air Force entered FalconView in the June 3 competition, which was featured at Comdex/Windows World '97.

The PC notebook computer-based FalconView is part of an overall flight planning system called PFPS -- Portable Flight-Planning Software -- which the Air Force recently adopted as one of its mission planning systems. FalconView provides pilots a Windows 95/NT base for mission planning digital maps and imagery. The 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base adopted FalconView for its moving map capability, using it on executive support missions for the President of the United States, the vice president, cabinet members and other high-ranking government officials.

An estimated 13,000 aircrew members worldwide use FalconView.

New FalconView features include a new form of imagery -- five-meter controlled image base (CIB) -- which offers twice the resolution of the previous imagery. The laptop monitor now details five meters of land and sea per pixel instead of 10 meters. Five-meter CIB was declassified recently, making it available to wider audiences, Pyles noted.

Software is Tailored to a Variety of Aircraft The software is increasingly tailored to the specifications of a variety of planes.

"Previously, we were mostly fighter-aircraft specific," Pyles said. "We've added support for the airlift community, such as the C-130. Now FalconView includes multiple views, depending on the type of aircraft for which you are planning the route."

An overlay tool kit allows pilots to mark no-fly zones, weather or troop movements and other important features on a map using lines, shapes, shading and symbols.

"In the past, a pilot had to sit down with a chart and draw these features out -- and if a new chart came along, he had to transfer all these features to the new chart by hand," Pyles explained. "Now, pilots can set up maps and give different features different symbols. Each symbol can be clicked on for more information, such as a text document, sound file, photograph or even a web page, all related and geo-referenced to sites on the map."

Users Obtain Chart Updates via Modem FalconView users can connect to a chart update system via modem, downloading the latest version of worldwide information on obstructions such as buildings, power lines or radio towers.

"To date, there really hasn't been a way to do this, except to get out a paper chart and draw in new features by hand. Now you enter the information in the computer once, and the data stays on top of the chart or imagery," Pyles noted.

The ability to download the latest locations of different types of towers -- such as rapidly multiplying cell phone stations, for example -- is especially important now that FalconView is used by low-flying aircraft such as helicopters, he said.

"When we moved from the fighter world to tactical airlift and helicopters, suddenly people cared a lot more about the objects down near the ground," Pyles added.

Detailed information about threats is available via FalconView. The system takes into account topography, flight elevation and the range of a threat's radar system to let pilots know whether their planes are detectable.

"This is really important for the F-16, but probably even more so for the tactical airlift craft, such as the C-130," Pyles said. "It's a big plane, it doesn't have any guns, and it's dropping food or medicine -- it's really easy for them to be seen on radar."

Older flight planning systems offer the same type of display. However, those systems are slower -- and they are big and bulky, making them difficult to transport.

"It's a lot easier to revise your plans if you can carry the planner with you," Pyles noted.

System Provides More Information About Threats

FalconView offers yet another advantage over conventional systems, in that it retains the probability of a threat being at a certain location. In the past, such details could be lost as the information was handed off from system to system, and pilots often had to assume that each threat was in the middle of the detection area.

"Due to the nature of threat detection systems, we are able to pinpoint different threat locations to different accuracies," Pyles said. "It is important that we pass this information visually to the pilot so he can gauge the risk of maneuvering past threats. A simple location display could be misleading to the user."

FalconView notes and marks with a variety of symbols any objects that produce electronic emissions within certain bands, including friendly aircraft and ships.

Work remains to be done, Pyles added. Customizing the software for a variety of larger aircraft offers new challenges every day. Among additional future directions Pyles and colleagues are considering for FalconView is installing it in planes, so pilots could load map and flight plan data from cartridges onto the aircraft's computer system. They also are interested in applying FalconView to search and rescue missions and international flight planning.

Georgia Institute of Technology

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