Modern advancements in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) may hold the key to training the next generation of pilots needed to fulfil demands within the global helicopter industry. With reports projecting that some 61,000 new pilots and 44,000 technicians will be required over the next 20 years[i], the Vertical Flight Expo (VFE) team take a deep dive into the latest developments in training, and the technology on track to disrupt the industry.
Flight simulators, used to train pilots for more than 80 years, are a useful tool for those looking to gain their commercial pilot license (CPL). Countless benefits are heralded – cost and safety are just two – but can the realities of flight be replicated accurately? The industry certainly seems to think so, with the global flight simulator market revenue expected to grow from $5.7 billion in 2019 to $7.7 billion by 2024[ii]. Here, full-flight simulators take the largest share and it is no surprise given the industry’s growing use of such technology.
Traditional full-flight simulators (FFS) allow pilots in-training to interact with a real cockpit of a helicopter, often found to be mounted on a platform that replicates the movements of flight. Video displays are then installed, allowing pilots to look out at the runway or chosen landscape. Today’s VR alternatives use a combination of multi-axis actuators, high-definition graphics and advanced computer programming to offer greater fidelity – replicating a wide range of in-flight conditions but at a fraction of the cost. But how do they compare?
Modern VR-based simulators use a haptic system or ‘kinesthetic communication’, regularly seen in video gaming and military training applications, to simulate vibrations, motion or other sensations. This means that pilots can accurately experience a change in weather conditions, as well as the pressure of every switch and instrument adjustment.
And, developments using mechanical actuators – sensors placed in contact with different areas of the user’s body such as the fingertips – not only add to the sensation of touch but enhance the virtual experience, significantly expanding training opportunities and uses. For example, French company Go Touch VR partnered with simulation developer FlyInside to adapt its fingertip-mounted technology for aviation use. It gives pilots, touch-based confirmations with every switch and dial found in the cockpit – mirroring the experience of a full-sized cockpit mock-up.
FlightSafety International is another company demonstrating opportunities for VR by designing, manufacturing and integrating its own powerful suite of innovative products. This includes state-of-the-art full flight simulators (FFS) for the Airbus AS350, Airbus EC130 and Bell 407, as well as more than 30 Airbus UH-72A Lakota simulators that include 10 cockpit procedure trainers and 10 instrument and operational flight trainers based on the FS1000 FFS. The Australian-based Becker Helicopter Pilot Academy also offers its own VR, NVG and FTD simulations, including a VR simulator for crew training in a Leonardo AW139 cabin.
Benefits of going virtual
Another benefit of VR training, pilots are presented with a chance to experience hazardous conditions and system failures, without any real-life crew or passengers being put at risk. In addition, when adapting to new types of helicopters, pilots and other crew can learn the technical aspects or unique features of each model through a simulation before preparing for a real flight.
VR training can also speed up on-the-ground processes, such as pre-flight checks. The technology enables ground crew to virtually assess a helicopter, detect existing issues and check whether all necessary safety equipment is correctly installed. This provides the ground crew with real examples and opportunities to detect possible issues and eliminate them accurately.
In addition to pre-flight checks and safety assessments, VR and AR offer maintenance crews the opportunity to visualise engine parts in a way that cannot be achieved with the naked eye.
Merging the virtual and physical words at Vertical Flight Expo
Demonstrating the growing popularity of simulated training, VFE exhibitor Starspeed offers synthetic training on an Elite S623T FNPT II simulator, based on the AS355 Twin Squirrel, which is recognised and approved by the CAA in accordance with JAR-FSTD (H). The simulator features dynamic control loading which includes a trim system with fully coupled autopilot functions. It can also stimulate the loss of hydraulic pressure and offers weather modelling including rain, ice and snow simulations. In addition, three oil rigs in Morecombe Bay and ships for deck landings have been modelled for added realism.
Demonstrating how the industry is recognising virtual training as a like-for-like for real flight, the simulated training offered by Starspeed is approved for 40 out of the 50 hours training required on a full EASA 50 hour IR(H) course and 10 out of the 15 hours required on the FAA/ICAO to EASA IR(H) or QMP (non-procedural) IR(H) conversion course. For the IRI(H) a maximum of 80% of the course flight requirements can be completed on the simulator and it is approved for MCC training and the complete PBN course.
Elsewhere on the show floor, CAE (formerly Canadian Aviation Electronics) will demonstrate why it is recognised as a leading manufacturer of simulation technologies, backed by a 70-year record of industry firsts that have defined global training standards. This includes its CAE 300 series helicopter flight and mission simulator, which offers an immersive training experience including search and rescue, hoisting operations, confined area and rooftop landings, night-vision goggle missions and other missions. It is recognised for providing unprecedented realism, that can accurately simulate offshore, emergency medical services, law enforcement, high-altitude, corporate, and other operations.
The future of flight
With numerous benefits and a wave of innovative training opportunities coming to market, it is clear that the use of VR in collaboration with real flight instruction can not only speed up the training process, but usher in a whole new era of professional pilot training opportunities, with far-reaching consequences for the aviation industry.
[i] 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook – https://www.boeing.com/commercial/market/pilot-technician-outlook/