News | Dec. 19, 2023

Successful First Test a Big Step for Wing Walker Team

By Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Lakehurst, New Jersey, public affairs

A system designed to reduce the number of collisions on aircraft carriers took a significant step forward in the development process when the Wing Walker team from Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Lakehurst, New Jersey, held its first system test this past summer.

With collisions on deck potentially costing millions of dollars to fix and also decreasing overall readiness, the Wing Walker team spent several years going through various iterations of the system before testing the current model.

Ezra Idy, a robotics engineer in the Robotics and Intelligent Systems Engineering (RISE) lab and leader of the Wing Walker team, said the test was a key milestone in a process that started when he arrived at Lakehurst almost four years ago. Even with the hot summer weather posing its own challenges, Idy said it was a successful day overall.

"Personally, this is my baby," Idy said of the project. "Seeing it from the ground up and actually in action, even with all the issues we had on that day, it was super exciting."
After taking the lead on the team just a few months into the job, Idy said they overcame numerous obstacles over the years before reaching this prototype for the test. Among the issues was how to successfully implement the system without causing problems for the deck crew and tower personnel. Options like lighting, sounds and vibrations as alerts caused their own challenges and were largely addressed in the prototype.

The current Wing Walker system uses sensors mounted on the Shipboard Tow Tractor to identify obstacles on the deck including other aircraft and personnel. Data from the sensors is sent to an augmented reality device used by the aircraft director, while haptic feedback like vibrations alert wing and tail walkers on the deck.
Wing Walker is one of several teams at Lakehurst working to improve safety on the flight deck. Idy noted the PATRIOT team, which is developing a system using cameras on the deck to locate aircraft accurately, works next to them in the RISE lab.

While both projects are relatively early in the development process, Idy said someday they could work in tandem to keep Sailors safe.
The work is funded as a Naval Innovative Science & Engineering (NISE) Basic and Applied Research project, and Idy said he hopes future funding will help move the program forward. Following the first round of testing, Idy said the next steps include devising a system to calculate and display the distance from a towed aircraft to an obstacle, fine-tuning the algorithm and redesigning the hardware.