FLYING AT NIGHT WITH NIGHT VISION
A SiOnyx Aurora Pro review by Joel Wallace
I have the privilege of flying a Vans RV. After completing an IFR upgrade with AES Avionics, a top overhaul with Classic Airplanes and a prop overhaul with Southern Propellers, the 2005 200hp RV7A was starting to be sorted out. It is a great cross country machine with a potential range of over 1,200nm if you’re silly enough to try it.
Due to the kind of flying I was doing, I decided it was important to be able to safely and legally arrive after dark, when appropriate. So I bit the bullet in 2020 and did the fantastic Multi-Engine Command IFR Course, which includes the NVFR component, at Fast Aviation, Lismore. You only live once.
Initially, I was wary of flying very far from an aerodrome when flying single engine. However, with a predictable GAMI spread, modern engine monitor with four cylinder EGT trend monitoring, and an inflight LOP ignition test, there should be plenty of notice before anything goes catastrophically wrong with the engine. Still, if anything did happen, in a single engine airplane, it struck me that options and the chance of survival rapidly reduce close to zero or 0%. I started to think about flying with some form of night vision as emergency equipment.
Flying with NVIS and Australian Legislation
Casa Instrument 288/07 defines a Night Vision Device in paragraph 4 (3): night vision device, or NVD, means night vision enhancement equipment, fitted to, or mounted in or on, an aircraft, or worn by a person in the aircraft, and that can:
- detect and amplify light in both the visual and near infra-red bands of the electromagnetic spectrum; or
- provide an artificial image representing topographical
Commercial Operators, who wish to fly with NVIS (usually helicopter operations with NVGs), must apply to CASA for approval and those details are covered by CAO-82.6 (2007) and supported by CAAP 174-01 v2.1.
Further to this, Instrument 288/07, 4 (2) says that a Night Vision Device (NVD), in the form of NVGs, may be used in a private operation, “if the private operation is NVG training, other than NVG initial training, by an approved NVG operator, for a permitted NVG operation, in accordance with CAO 82.6”.
Otherwise, the use of Night Vision Devices is prohibited in private operations. However, the foundational presumption and definition attached to this is that the Night Vision Device is used “as the primary means of terrain avoidance for safe air navigation by means of visual surface reference”:
a night vision device (NVD) must not be used in the operation as the primary means of terrain avoidance for safe air navigation by means of visual surface reference external to an aircraft.
The CASA philosophy is described in the CAAP:
The CASA philosophy on the civil use of NVIS is that the proper use of NVIS has the potential to enhance the safety of visual flight at night by assisting the crew’s ability to see the horizon and terrain, observe much of the in-flight meteorological conditions, and to identify objects that may cause a hazard to flight.4
By definition drawn from the CAAP 174-01, this article is written about the use of Night Vision in “unaided flight”.5 That is, It is not being used to provide terrain avoidance or for safe air navigation. It is not being used below LSALT for the route being flown either under the NVFR or the IFR, or below MSA, except in the case of an emergency, with particular reference to an engine failure in single engined aircraft, in which case it is indubitably survival equipment. Nor is it “installed” in the aircraft, potentially requiring only a suction mount and an ipad/iphone. In fact, it is less “installed” than a GoPro Hero Camera, which might be mounted under the wing with fasteners, and therefore does not require certification. Temporarily mounted, not fixed, it has no need of paperwork. From this aspect, it would be irrelevant whether the aircraft category was experimental or certified and the operation private or commercial. If you can mount a camera or an ipad in your aircraft, you can now have night vision as a backup for an inflight emergency. This is a new situation and I am in the process of seeking an authoritative approval of my interpretation by CASA.
Night Flying in VMC
Pilots who fly at night know that, despite the different flight rules, both IFR or NVFR require instrument flying equipment, skills and currency.
Apart from the city and town lights, the odd farmhouse or car, it is blackness without. Even with cockpit lighting dimmed and with lots of moonlight, you frequently cannot read the terrain over which you are flying in any meaningful way, hence the LSALT requirements. But what if you could?
Military pilots have used NVGs for decades. CASA has developed legislation covering the use of NVGs in limited commercial operations, mostly helicopter firefighting and emergency services. There are risks involved in using NVGs and a number of associated accidents. NVGs of the monocular or binocular type are, in any case, quite impracticable in most small cockpits and may conflict with cockpit lighting. The Infra-Red and Thermal Camera technology continues to progress, still at considerable expense. Some solutions have started to be made for General Aviation. For example, for around US$20,000, the Max-Viz EVS600 IR and Thermal camera can be retrofitted into certain certified aircraft with compatible interior cockpit display options.6 Experimental and certified options continue to appear but can be quite limited for what they cost. Not many private or commercial operators can afford it. Until now.
Colour Night Vision Sensors
The emergence of the colour low light sensor technology has begun to change the market. Mostly this has been in the hunting and boating arenas. Some solutions have emerged for vehicles, such as the Landmodo and Vantrue cameras, which offer 120-170 degrees of vision, offering increased peripheral awareness of animals or persons on the side of the dark road ahead, or during reversing at night.
After investigating the available technology, I came across a small group who had developed, in a university setting, a low light sensor that made maximum use of available light and used colour differentiation to increase and highlight contrast. Originally creating a boating solution, which was quickly adopted by hunters, there are a number of reviews available which compare the SiOnyx Aurora Pro with the GEN 1-3 PVS-14 range.
The latest in the range, following the original Aurora Sport for Coastal Environments, the Aurora black was rifle mountable, then the Aurora Green added extra software. The SiOnyx Aurora Pro, described as ultra low light with further software advances, arguably sits between GEN 2 and 3 for some purposes, once you get beyond the camera lag. Whilst the milliseconds lag make it unsuitable for military use, the Aurora Pro was designed in any case as a fully optioned camera, that allows still shots, Video Recording, time lapse and quite a range of settings options arranged throughout the multiple menus. The SD card is easily removed for downloading footage. It has a battery which is good for 2.4hrs of recording. Plug in a USB cable and you bypass the battery for unlimited use. All of the SiOnyx Aurora Pro reviews showed its strengths and limits for boating and hunting. I decided to take it flying.
So I took it flying
Since nobody had used it over the long slant range/distances required for aviation, I was expecting the Low Light Camera to be a poor option for night flying where you are looking ahead potentially 30nm+ on a clear night. At first, I tried to test it as a hand-held emergency device but this proved unsuccessful for two reasons: The reflection of the cockpit lighting, whether directly or via the windows, and for the fact that in an actual emergency, it would easily interfere with and distract from your emergency procedures and actually flying the airplane/glider. The sole exception was if you wanted to look back over your left shoulder. Now you can potentially set up the Aurora Pro as a monocular (not used as a primary flight instrument, for terrain clearance or safe navigation) but this is not suitable in the cockpit due to the sensitivity of the low light sensor and the reflected light.
Cockpit Mounting the SiOnyx Aurora Pro
Unique among the night vision monoculars, in that the SiOnyx Aurora pro were developed with a video camera-like viewfinder and an internal WiFi transmitter, the camera can easily be connected to an IOS or Android device. For this, SiOnyx provides an app, which allows you to access most of the settings without touching the camera. So I mounted the camera, using RAM Mounts, above the panel, with the lens just slightly forward of the panel. Note that although the menu has an option for inverting the camera, this is only for inverting the menu. If you invert the camera, the projected image will appear upside down on the Ipad. I used two methods for mounting: the suction cup with 1” ball attached, short extension, another double ball joint and another extension. This connected to the camera via a ball and with a ¼” universal fastener, which screws into the base of the camera; the second, and better method, was to use a RAM yoke mount U-bracket to the vertical structural tubing and use an extension to the camera. There are three modes, daylight, twilight and night. Set it to night. Make sure the lens is adjusted to infinity. Prior to mounting, which henceforth takes all of 20 seconds to install and remove each time, set it to HDI, 720dpi, 30fps and 1.7x brightness for best results. Then once you wish to start up, just turn the dial to Wifi mode, open the app on the Ipad and connect. All of these settings can be adjusted in flight on the App. There are three filter modes also, also adjustable through the app. Forget the Green filter. Greyscale IR is fine but colour is best. It provides a little more differentiation and allows you to easily identify red beacon lights on hilltops, and to distinguish between red tail lights and headlights – quite handy if you have to forced-land on a highway! The image and recording function is also easily controlled through the App. You don’t need it but it is an option. Inflight, the image is slightly more crisp than the recorded and downloaded data appears. As mentioned already, battery power alone gives you at least 2.3 hours recording time and more if you are just streaming. Permanently leave it connected to a USB cable if available and forget about battery life. If you do this, note that unlike most devices, it won’t indicate that you are charging the battery because you’re not (the camera has to be turned off to charge the battery). Nor will it indicate that you have external power connected. When connected by USB, it is simply bypassing the battery. Battery life is displayed on the Ipad app screen. The screen device should be mounted in portrait mode.
Field of View
It is important to note that the Aurora Pro only gives you a 42 degrees field of view, similar to what you get when looking forward through the windscreen. In the RV7, by mounting it forward and as high as possible, it does allow you to see quite a lot below what the pilot could actually see if he/she could see anything. It should be set up on the ground, using the camera’s internal “AHRS”, to be level along the X and Y axis. Set it to show at least 15 degrees above the horizon, allowing for its functionality in glide configuration, if mounting in a single engine aircraft. Practice in day VMC to work out your glide range (nil wind) in the field of view. For me, in glide configuration, just below the top of the image is conservatively my glide range at 5000ft. In an engine-out emergency, a gliding 360 turn is the way to find the best paddock or road, beyond the situational awareness provided by your navigation. With good airmanship, you will always know the best options. With the Aurora Pro, you can see them, and know when you have just passed beyond an area of flat paddocks, or a road. While an EFIS with synthetic vision helps to see the mountains and general features, it is ultimately the night vision camera that would enable you to find and set up for a paddock landing, offering increasing terrain and slope awareness as you descend, avoiding the tree lines and even fences and certainly the hills. My images, except for those within 3nm of the aerodrome, are taken above LSALT, at either 4,500ft or 5,500ft. You can clearly distinguish the ranges and hills, various paddocks, tree lines, water, and the roads. As you descend, the clarity and detail continues to increase. At Altitude, neither the camera’s IR illuminator nor the landing lights do anything noticeable to the streamed image. However, as you descend, the illuminator and the landing lights have an enormous impact on the black silicon proprietary CMOS sensor, and start to have a big effect, long before and many times greater than any benefit to the naked eye.
Where is that airport?
I experimented to see if I could find an airport on a dark night without turning on the lights. Using the map to locate the Corowa airport from 4,500ft on a dark night, knowing roughly “where it should be”, sure enough I could make out the two runways on the Ipad, once I was within 6nm. I tried the same thing at Holbrook from 5,500ft without success. The difference was the gravel surface at Holbrook. Asphalt is visible from a greater altitude. I think that you would have to be lower to see a gravel runway. Of course, for this to ever be needed you would be having a really bad night! VHF failure, can’t turn on the runway lights, no responsible person and no engine or fuel to get to an alternate!
How much light does the camera need?
The images here were all taken on a night with a solid cloud layer at 10,000ft. The Aurora Pro will interpret “light noise” without sufficient light. It is not a GEN 3 white phosphor tube, which is a slightly different technology, vulnerable to bursts of light. You would pay perhaps many times more for that setup. However, the atmosphere at night, though it appears dark to the naked eye, frequently contains reflected and refracted light that is unusable to us but can be harnessed by the right photo sensors. The Aurora Pro only needs some starlight to work. The images here did not even have that. I did record some videos on a moonlit night and, once I got the focus right, the crispness and clarity was excellent. Keep in mind that, for the sensor to harness the required light, it has to sacrifice resolution. The viewfinder’s small image is quite crisp. Although some of this is noticeably lost by sending that image to an Ipad, it still does the job of enabling you to choose your landing place in an emergency landing scenario, avoid slamming into a hill or mountain, trees or fenceline, and actually put your wheels on the ground. The chance of survival, in the case of a single engine emergency, goes from almost zero to maybe 90%!
Other benefits were immediately evident: the first is an increase in safety and situational awareness whilst taxiing and during ground navigation. Foreign debris on the taxiway or to the side of it would be clearly evident. Kangaroos on or near the edge of the runway become clearly identifiable. After takeoff, as the runway disappears from the field of view, when transferring eyes to the AH, a glance at the Ipad helps avoid the sense of distraction caused by city lights behind reflecting off the windshield and shows the actual horizon and the terrain you are or soon will be climbing over.
In the vicinity of the aerodrome, you can actually see the terrain in the non-circling area and, on final approach, the black hole illusion disappears with a glance at the Ipad, which reveals the buildings and fence between you and the runway threshold.
The SiOnyx Aurora Pro surpassed my expectations. By no means does it turn darkness into day or detract from the high standards of airmanship that night flying requires. Nor would its benefits be limited to single engined aircraft. For me, however, it has solved the conundrum of the incalculable risk of flying a single engined aircraft at night. For less than AU$2,000, it is cheap life insurance. In all aircraft flying at night, it has the potential to overcome illusions, make visible the terrain ahead and below and to enhance decision making in a multi-engine aircraft reduced to flying with one engine inoperative.
All of the images on this page were taken whilst flying on a dark night. It only gets better, except in IMC. If you would like to see some video footage, look for me on Youtube. Contact me for more advice or help with purchasing and setup. We are in the process of making providing an aircraft accessory kit to accompany the SiOnyx Aurora Pro.
Joel Wallace (JMW Contract Services) email@example.com