NASA’s New Ground-Collision Avoidance System Integrated into USAF’s F-16s

NASA has recently released a new software, known as the Automatic Ground-Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS), that the Air Force will be implementing onto their fleet of F-16 fighter jets. Auto-GCAS was developed with the cooperation of a number of private and government agencies, including: the Office of the Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, the Air Force Test Center (AFTC), and Lockheed Martin.

Ground collisions, or controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents, are one of the most common reasons for fatalities (responsible for approximately 100 deaths annually in the United States) for both civil and military flights. CFIT accidents account for 26% of aircraft losses and 75% of fatalities for F-16 aircraft. This new technology will modify the aircraft’s digital flight-controls, data-transfer equipment, and modified mission computer software to relay information about time until impact and trigger an automatic response (typically an abrupt roll-to-upright then a 5g pull) to avoid a crash. The system gauges digital terrain elevation data (DTED) to obtain a profile of the terrain and measurements of the trajectory of the aircraft to execute an automated evasive recovery maneuver unless the pilot overrides the command.

The program dates back to the mid-1980s with AFRL and Armstrong collaborating for three decades in search of solutions to avoid these sort of collisions. The first stage of the program conducted research on the type of emergency situations which commonly result in CFIT accidents including pilot loss of consciousness, loss of situation awareness, spatial disorientation, and gear-up landings. The second phase involved planning for widespread implementation of new technologies across the relevant aviation fields, both civilian and military. In the latter half of the first decade of the new millennium, testing on Auto-GCAS systems began. In 2012, the technology was installed and tested on a Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone (DROID) and operated through smartphone devices, eliminating the need for continuous communication with ground control. In 2013, the Air Force announced that Auto-GCAS would be installed in their F-16s, and eventually in the F-22 and F-35 fleets.

In November of 2014, this technology proved instrumental in saving the life of an F-16C pilot during operations against ISIS in Syria. As a result of these accomplishments, the Auto-GCAS team is a nominee for the prestigious Collier Trophy Awards for 2014, awarding achievement in the fields of aero- and astronautics.


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