Flight in Degraded Visual Environments

Imagine a bird flying through a cluttered environment; a sparrow hawk is a good example. It is so successful at avoiding bumping into things and eventually catching prey on the wing that we can assume that the bird has very accurate knowledge of

where it is heading, its rates of closure with objects in its path, its orientation and, more generally, its flight trajectory. How does it pick up the required information from the ‘visual flow’ of the world around it, projected onto its visual sensors? We might ask the same question of a fell-runner who successfully tracks over rough terrain without stumbling, or indeed an athlete who somersaults and lands, precisely balanced, on two feet, or a pigeon landing gently on the ledge rather than overshooting and crashing into the window. Motion control is ubiquitous in the natural world, and without completely reliable and precise functioning life would be very vulnerable. When the visual world is obscured, so too are the stimuli to the perception system and again life becomes vulnerable; most life sleeps at night, with the visual sensors, the eyes, shut, although there are some notable exceptions, of course. However, in the world of man-made flying machines, we regularly practice flight at night and in poor visual conditions, and technology even allows us to land fixed-wing aircraft on narrow runways, or bring a helicopter to hover, in zero visibility. Without precise control augmentation however, such manoeuvres would not be possible and such precision approaches are only really possible in tightly controlled airspace. Inadvertent flight into a degraded visual environment (DVE) is extremely hazardous with a high risk of loss of control through a loss of awareness of spatial orientation. Looking to the future, technology is under development that will provide pilots with a sufficiently reliable ‘synthetic’ world in which they have confidence to manoeuvre, to exercise motion control, in a cluttered environment with no natural outside world information. Until then, flight will be risky in poor visibility. We can gain valuable information on motion control by studying flight in good visual environments (GVE). By doing this we can also attempt to build an engineering framework for motion control using visual stimuli, which can inform the development of vision augmentation systems. This is the theme of this section. Through his research into motion control in the natural world, this author has observed that the subject is still in development with different ‘schools of thought’ existing on the key stimuli and mechanisms involved. I have had to be selective in attempting to build the bridge between the engineering and psycho-physics approaches to flight control, and my foundation has, naturally, been the work of James Gibson and the developments of his theory of optical flow. In the quest for solutions to how to design for completely autonomous flight in a cluttered, undulating environment however, I believe strongly that there is much still to be learned and understood, and that much of the contemporary, seemingly contradictory, research will have helped to inform progress.

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