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Virtual Reality Brings New Dimensions to Flight Training

The proliferation of VR can be seen as a natural extension of other advances in visual-rendering technology over the past 25 years.

“Whether it’s daytime [lighting], visual acuity or 3D animation, we’ve seen a consistent evolution in how accurately we can replicate the real world,” said Doug May, executive vice president for operations and FlightSafety Textron Aviation Training. “We’ve all experienced the visuals in IMAX theaters that, when combined with even small motion inputs, can provide extremely powerful sensory experiences.”

While VR can add to the perceived realism of the simulator environment, its capabilities remain limited. That’s particularly true when replicating outside-the-envelope maneuvers such as UPRT.

“You don’t feel it in the seat of your pants because you aren’t pulling Gs, but you still experience what it looks like, and it gives you a chance to respond,” Wofford said, quickly noting that even full-motion sims are similarly limited. “You can get the startle effect and even some of the kinesthetics, but you still know in the back of your mind you’re in a simulator and that you’ll live to fight another day if you botch it up.”

“Virtual reality allows us to put pilots right in their very own airplane to actually see the application of their skills in their airplane.”

Paul "BJ" Ransbury CEO, Aviation Performance Solutions

Aviation Performance Solutions CEO Paul “BJ” Ransbury noted several pros and cons in his company’s evaluation of VR training applications.

“Virtual reality allows us to put pilots right in their very own airplane to actually see the application of their skills in their airplane,” he said. “Knowing where the controls are, where to look, what the instrumentation is going to look like – it all gives them a confidence and experience to truly fully populate that ‘been there, seen that’ value of effective upset training, resulting in a fuller circle of experience.”

Conversely, “VR has a long way to go on the fidelity envelope of airplanes performance,” Ransbury continued. “What you see in the airplane, what the controls are doing and what it looks like, is scarily accurate, but the resulting performance of the airplane in virtual reality does not yet match the fidelity of advanced simulation.”

Potential aviation applications for VR must also be reconciled with FAA regulations, which has also stymied use of existing flight simulators for UPRT and other emergency scenarios.

“Although well intentioned, the FAA has limited what people can do with simulator training,” Wofford said. “UPRT in our Challenger 300 simulator is simply not available; conversely, some people are reticent to jump in an Extra 300 to experience an aircraft upset for real.”

A Promising Future

Nevertheless, the potential benefits of VR have led traditional flight-training providers to explore the possibilities. The technology was an integral part of FlightSafety’s recent acquisition of AATD provider Frasca International, May noted, “particularly as a path to provide cost-effective training solutions at the university level.”

FSI Senior Vice President for Simulation Systems Michael Vercio agreed that VR-based simulators offer many advantages to college programs and smaller flight training providers, not only in reducing costs, but also regarding equipment footprint and power consumption.

“Full-motion sims require a lot of power for the electric actuation drives and anywhere from three to seven or even more projection systems,” he said. “Those also generate a lot of heat, which requires a lot of cooling. Those power consumption and air-conditioning requirements largely disappear with a VR [headset]-based flight training device.”

Harnagel noted that Redbird’s mixed-reality sim would currently cost around $75,000. “I’d love to sell an FAA-approved BATD simulating a small GA airplane with mixed reality for half that,” Harnagel said. “I do think we’re close. There are definitely places where that cost can come out dramatically.”

The potential economic advantages also make VR, “valuable as an addition to on-wing and motion simulator training, but not a replacement for it,” Wofford said. “It provides an economical option to complement training in UPRT and other unusual circumstances that you wouldn’t dare try to do in your airplane.”

Ransbury echoed the role of VR as another tool in flight training. “Every training platform has unique advantages, but every single one also has serious limitations,” he concluded. “We’ve learned over three decades of doing this that there is no single solution; an integrated approach has to be taken. All of it matters, yet none of it stands alone.”

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