Are VR flight simulators the future of pilot training?
For years, VR flying games have been used to prep for private pilot training. Now VR is impacting commercial pilot training as well as military pilot training schools. Here’s why virtual reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and aviation-centered automations are coming to a pilot school near you.
Flight simulators have been used to train pilots for more than 80 years. In that time, there have been many breakthroughs in aviation technology. Now virtual reality (VR) is about to usher in a whole new era of professional pilot training, with far-reaching consequences for the aviation industry.
All pilots, from Air Force to commercial to private jet pilots, have been trained in flight simulators for close to a century. But virtual reality is about to change the way students are taught at pilot training schools, in what is set to be more than just a breakthrough for technology. A VR pilot training system has the potential to significantly lower flight training costs while decreasing Air Force budgets. They can even be used to train mechanics.
In April 2019, the U.S. Air Force launched a Pilot Training Next class with 30 students. Using VR headsets and advanced AI biometrics instead of traditional multi-million-dollar flight simulators, 13 pilots were certified in just four months. The usual pilot training system takes about a year. The VR flight training cost came in at $1,000 per unit, instead of the usual cost of $4.5 million for a legacy simulator. Students were able to fully immerse themselves in a cockpit using an HTC Vive virtual reality headset while biometrics monitored heart rate and pupil measurement – giving flight instructors an accurate reading of just how immersed students were in the learning experience – something not possible with traditional flight simulators. Another groundbreaking part of VR flying was the ability to change up one cockpit for another – taking just 10 seconds for a student to go from flying a T-6 trainer to an F-22. The learning experience was further enhanced by allowing students to analyze a flight that had been captured and uploaded into the VR simulator.
What is virtual reality pilot training?
Typically, a flight simulator is created by chopping off the front (cockpit) of an airplane, which is then mounted on a hexapod platform that allows the part of the airplane on top to move six degrees. Video displays are then installed, allowing pilots to look out over a landscape or runway.
During pilot training, flight simulators allow students to interact with a real airplane cockpit. They save fuel as well as wear-and-tear on aircraft and engines, and can replicate hazardous conditions and system failures without putting any real-life passengers at risk.
A full flight simulator (FFS) is a more technologically advanced simulator, which uses advanced technology in areas of motion, visuals, communication and air traffic. For instance, an FFS can simulate the friction of the air along the fuselage and expose pilots to spatial orientation exercises. This gives more than a 180-degree view in satellite quality of all important objects at a particular airport. Pilots can then precisely work out their approach procedures for the airport in the simulator.
In the past, there were four levels of FFS graded A through D, with D being the highest standard. In recent years, these levels have been changed to seven international levels and Level D is now Type 7. The Level D/Type 7 standard is used for both initial pilot training (conversion to a new type of aircraft), and recurrent commercial pilot training for commercial air transport (all commercial pilots must train regularly, usually every six months, to retain their qualification to fly passengers in CAT aircraft).
Flight simulators are huge, weigh tons and cost a lot. For example, a Type 7 full flight simulator sells for upwards of $12 million, excluding the cost of operating the simulator. It gets even more expensive with the launch of a newer model of airplane, which means the old one must be dumped. The result is that the pilot training cost is extremely high and beyond the reach of many aspiring pilots.
Is VR pilot training still a speck on the horizon?
The aviation industry is divided about the effectiveness of using a virtual reality pilot training system in pilot training schools. Some argue that nothing on the market can replace the tried-and-tested flight simulator, believing that it’s vital for pilots to train in a real cockpit where they can reach for their oxygen mask even if the cockpit begins to fill with smoke, and feel the subtle vibrations of the plane through a real cockpit seat. Right now there is no evidence that virtual reality is a better alternative to physical simulators, but this is set to change. There are good reasons why VR is already being used as an alternative to video tutorials by the Air Force and in private pilot training schools.
The US Army recently announced a deal with Microsoft to use its HoloLens technology in military training. This allows soldiers to get real-time readings on their environment, but research objectives aim to develop technology that enables pathfinding, target acquisition and mission planning. Based on the huge savings on flight training cost and the reduced risk associated with VR flying, it’s likely that virtual reality will be rapidly adopted at military pilot school as well as in commercial and private pilot training.
The future of VR pilot training
In the last decade, virtual reality has gone from the stuff of fantasy to a mainstay of the video gaming industry. More than 230 companies were developing VR-related products by 2016, including big-name brands like Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Samsung. By 2018, Facebook had showcased Half Dome, a prototype with a varifocal display. This allowed for an infinite number of focusing distances for near, intermediate and far vision, with a 140-degree field of view without forfeiting the current form or weight of VR consumer devices.
Current technology uses a VR headset or multi-projected environment that simulates a user’s physical presence in a virtual environment. But the device that’s advancing VR pilot training most significantly is known as a haptic system (also called ‘force feedback’ in video gaming and military training applications), which has the ability to transmit vibrations and other sensations to the user.
Advancements in the virtual world have seen the Air Force using the technology as part of their pilot training systems, and it’s had particularly positive results for sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The technology is also being used as an alternative to video tutorials at private pilot schools. Recently, the chief pilot instructor of an Australian aviation company worked with a production studio to create a VR flying experience that teaches students the basics of flying using a smartphone and mobile virtual reality headset. A VR pilot certification course is already being offered, with others due to be added if the first course is successful.
A quick guide to the best VR headsets and platforms on the market
At present, the VR headset is either mobile or tethered. Mobile headsets allow a user to attach a cellphone, turning their smartphone into a VR device. This means no wires are required. The Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View is an inexpensive mobile virtual reality headset. Tethered headsets offer six degrees of freedom (6DOF) to accurately track a user’s position for a more immersive virtual reality experience. Due to the limited processing power of smartphones compared to desktop or laptop computers, tethered VR headsets typically provide a much more immersive and realistic cockpit experience.
There are several pieces of equipment a user needs to get started:
- A VR flight computer
- A quality virtual reality headset
- VR flight software
- A yoke or joystick to control your airplane
- Rudder pedals, which are important for users who want to really fly someday
Although not yet available to the common user, some of the latest work being done with haptic (force feedback) technology involves mechanical actuators – devices placed in contact with different areas of the body, most often the hands and fingertips, which allow the user to experience sensations in virtual reality. This has an exciting benefit when adapted for pilot training: they give VR trained pilots realistic touch-based confirmation of every switch and dial they use while in flight.
There are some exciting VR headset developments due for launch in 2019. Stand-alone headsets that use advanced, dedicated computer technology are expected from both Vive and Oculus. In addition to being mobile, the next-generation headsets will include eyeball-tracking and increased field-of-view aspects, allowing developers to create more realistic and accurate simulations which will enhance private pilot training online, and the virtual simulation experience.
Immersive flight software
The popularity of this software is due mainly to its realism. The latest upgrade features a new high-definition user interface, and the quality and realistic detail from “the gear trucks to the rivets” are a close simulation of those on the real aircraft. Some aircraft feature a simulated Garmin 1000 while every plane comes with a 3D cockpit which can be used for instrument flight.
Considered one of the best flight simulators available on PC and effective for private pilot training online, this software delivers on realism. Far more than a video game, the real challenge is learning how to fly the virtual aircraft from a highly-detailed cockpit and instrument panel. DCS World now has a number of YouTube learning tools and tutorials for users who need a bit of extra help getting to grips with the software.
Aerofly2 features crisp, detailed cockpits, wonderful aerobatic physics and now the whole of southwestern USA laid out for the user. Aerofly offers advanced 3D graphics and the flight dynamics model gives aspiring pilots a high level of realism.
The award-winning Microsoft Flight Simulator X is now available on Steam. The Microsoft Flight Simulator X Steam Edition, with updated multiplayer function and Windows 8.1 support, gives users a VR flying experience to any one of 24,000 destinations onboard some of the world’s most iconic aircraft. The FSX Steam Edition’s VR flying games racing mode, gives players the opportunity to compete in four types of racing, including Red Bull Air Race courses, sailplane courses, and fictional courses like the Hoop and Jet Canyon in different weather conditions.
How pilots and the aviation industry can make VR work for them
One thing’s for sure: the use of VR in aviation can no longer be ignored, whether a pilot or flight instructor feels more at home in an old-school sawn-off cockpit or strapped to the latest Type 7 full flight simulator. The number of virtual reality headsets in use at every major aviation and aerospace trade show are proof of this, along with the military case study for the affordability, effectiveness and ease-of-use of VR pilot training systems.
VR flight simulations might not be able to take the place of actual experience in the air, but they can open up the possibilities of a career in aviation for a whole new generation by significantly reducing pilot training costs.
Recently, Lufthansa Aviation Training launched its first VR Training for cabin crew in Frankfurt and Munich. In future, flight attendants’ recurrent training will take place in modern virtual reality hubs. Around 18,500 flight attendants each year will practice safety-related training in state-of-the-art virtual training courses, and there are plans to expand the VR training to other areas of cabin crew training.
Despite the exciting possibilities of VR pilot training, the technology has some way to go and many people to convince before it becomes part of mainstream pilot training. Many aviation experts are still of the opinion that VR flying, no matter how realistic, can never be the same as being in a Type 7 full flight simulator or even a basic cargo plane simulator. There is the issue to overcome of convincing the brain that it is in a real-life flight situation when the student knows he or she can hit the reset button and do it over again. The future of VR flight training will depend on technology’s ability to achieve what is being called ‘fused reality’ – being able to convince the brain that it is in a real-life or critical situation even when it knows it’s in a world of virtual reality.
This is something NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center along with Systems Technology Inc. is working on. The project is called Fused Reality, and involves a head-mounted virtual reality tool that allows pilots to train for various situations in the air. Latest findings are that the VR flying experience is better able to convince the brain that a flight situation is real when the body is in flight as opposed to being in a simulator seat. Since the maneuvers are carried out at 5,000 feet, recovery errors are not expected to be catastrophic.
Although VR technology still has a long way to go, it is developing in leaps and bounds. For now, the pilots of tomorrow can put on a VR headset and get to grips with a Cessna 172, fly the Airbus A320 and master a Boeing 747. After all, every pilot will tell you they dreamed long before they flew.
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