Electronic Weapons: Cures For The Brownout Blues


June 13, 2016: The U.S. Army is again ready to buy a DVE (Degraded Visual Environment) device for its helicopters. DVEs are used to prevent accidents when a pilot has to deal with so much dust, sand or snow that it causes “brownout” (or whiteout if snow) disorientation. This frequently results in accidents or worse. Some 56 percent of helicopter accidents since 2002 involved DVE problems. This was first encountered on a wide scale during 2003 operations in Iraq. During the first few months in Iraq, at least nine American helicopters crashed because brownout was involved. This is a condition that occurs when a helicopter is close to the ground, and there’s a lot of dust around. The air pushed down by the rotors causes a cloud of brown dust, or brownout. No effective electronic fix could be found and the army backed off on its effort to develop a technical fix for the brownout problem. The problem was largely (but not completely) eliminated by the building of landing pads (using concrete, asphalt, or metal matting) for most landings, plus doing fewer assault landings in dusty places, and more pilot experience as well as better training, including flight simulator time. The military waited for new tech to show up that would more effectively deal with the problem.

Brownout incidents were particularly common, and severe, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. It was a new experience for many pilots, and they sometimes became so disoriented that they ran into the ground, or turned the wrong way and had their rotors hit something. Most of the accidents did not destroy the helicopter, or kill anyone. But in all cases, the helicopter was out of action for days, weeks, or even months, as repairs were made. Yet despite the greater pilot experience and better training the problem has persisted and by 2010 there was growing pressure from pilots for a technical solution to at least give them some help in dealing with DVE conditions. It was also pointed out that since 2003 there were still an average of 2-3 DVE related accidents a month. Every month pilots and passengers were being injured in these situations and every month or two someone got killed.

Even SOCOM (Special Operations Command) helicopters had this problem, although to a lesser extent than anyone else. SOCOM pilots, despite their greater experience and special navigation systems (to enable night and bad weather operation) still suffer DVE accidents. SOCOM began looking for a technical solution, independent of what the army was already doing.

Back in 2004 the army began developing a Guided Launch and Recovery System (GLARS) system for all of its helicopters. Costing about $200,000 per helicopter, GLARS gave pilots a better idea of exactly where they are when close to the ground and in a cloud of dust, or snow (whiteout.) But with the problem less common because of improved landing areas, increased pilot experience and better training, efforts to install GLARS in all army helicopters was greatly reduced. The demand, however, never went away, nor did work on a better electronic solution.

Now there are two systems in development. SOCOM has DVEPS and the army has BORES. Both integrate existing sensor information to provide the pilots with a better sense of direction during a DVE crises. DVEPS is due to enter service by 2018 and BORES by 2020. Both systems are considered interim as the Department of Defense wants a better navigation system for all helicopters that will provide pilots with 360 degree (all around) “situational awareness.” If DVEPS and/or BORES works then that will point the way for an improved system that will largely eliminate pilot disorientation problems.


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