Flight simulator industry emphasising lower-cost solutions

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  12/14/2011  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   MFT

Earlier this year, USAF Eglin Air Force Base received the first Full Mission Simulator for the joint-force aircraft shortly anticipated to change the face of air power forever: the F-35 Lightening II. Amid new reports that further delays to the controversial programme have now impacted the timeline for training aircrew with the new jets, it is looking increasingly likely that pilots will be forced to practise operating the CTOL, STOVL and carrier variants from the immobile FMS seat – at least for the time being.

Some will argue that this will not in turn harm the preparedness of those lucky aviators involved. In fact, extended use of simulators before taking to the air could minimise the risk of costly error while in the $150 million a piece asset.

Naturally, it’s not just the big names that are in need of maintaining interest and investment. Thierry Le Gall, director of sales for Presagis Europe, has seen more and more need expressed by international militaries for all types of flight training solutions.

“We’ve especially seen a growing trend for entry-level lower cost solutions, and not necessarily certified for the training and qualifying pilots, but more for mission training. Customers are looking for solutions that would be cheaper than the multi-million dollar full flight simulators.”

Presagis is a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) company, and so provides the software tools to customers who can then build high-end simulators. Le Gall believes that the quest for both the company and the customers is in first properly outlining the final goal of the project in order to keep the technology affordable and within budget, and then to ensure that those customers still receive the right quality in the simulation of the flight model.

Le Gall points us to a Presagis simulator in action and walks us through the components. The content creation involves a database of unique 3D models – trees, lakes, buildings, and so on – which then integrate with the visualisation tools and a head-up-display. These are then incorporated with the actual simulation tools used to create a bespoke scenario involving the pilot and any other simulated unit sharing the theatre. The backbone of it all is a common database (CBD) format that interprets these components into the complete synthetic world we see flashing across the screen in front of us.

Defence IQ is fairly taken by the sharp photo-realism. It’s a long way from the bygone days many of us spent navigating flat pixel cities in Microsoft Flight Simulator ’95.

“Well, if you want to have good simulation, then the quality of the image has to be good, so the pilot feels that he’s in a real environment,” shrugs Le Gall.

“Of course the challenge is to support the quality of the image with a wide database. This database is, for example, 300 kilometres by 300 kilometres, so you need to process that very quickly. Even if you fly fast you will have a very smooth image display, and that must of course run in real time.”

Because we can or because we must?

As many aviation forces across the world are transferring to new platforms, it becomes imperative to shorten the gap between delivery and deployment as much as possible considering major operations currently underway.

This includes the US Marine Corps, who began deploying the V-22 Osprey four years ago, and is priming this tiltrotor aircraft to fully replace the USMC’s traditional fleet of CH-46 Sea Knights.

We asked Lieutenant Colonel Jason Holden, plans officer and instructor at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1), what the biggest change has been in transitioning pilot training from conventional helicopter to tiltrotor.

“This,” he declares, pointing to another nearby monitor on which a virtual rotorcraft navigates the air above a near-perfect depiction of a mountain range. “Simulation. Huge. I don’t have the exact numbers but generically speaking, in the initial piloting training for the V-22 pilots, about 50% of the training is done in the simulator, and for post initial training its up in the 30-40% region. We are capable of doing so much more in today’s simulations than were previously possible, and this is huge.”

Holden had just wrapped up September’s biannual Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course, at which Marine aviators lay the groundwork for campaigns that have included both Afghanistan and Libya.

“[At WTI], we bring every Marine airplane in the inventory to MAWTS-1 and we have, generally speaking, 60 to 70 airplanes on the flight line. We’ll launch big missions with all of these airplanes, maybe 30 or so airplanes on a couple of these larger missions going out together, big deal tactic stuff. Low light level, real rounds going down range. We do that every six months.

“With the V-22, before we do our very first mission, we do a mission that departs from a ship, low light level, goes into a 6,000 foot pressure altitude landing zone in the mountains…and we have the capability of putting other assets in there. We see each other, we are talking to each other, we are talking back to the ship, we can get other airplanes out there – it’s the entire package – but you do it in a simulator in the middle of the day!”

The excitement surrounding this technical evolution is understandable, but with any technology that tries to get a big job done for a lot less coin, there lies a risk that sacrifices are being made, particularly when it comes to military operations.

Could it then be argued that the continued rise of the simulator is inherently linked with falling budgets? Or is it simply a fact that advanced sims are now good enough to justify keeping pilots on the ground for half their schooling?

“I think it’s a combination of both,” says Holden. “We’ve had the simulator before the recent fiscal constraints. I think the V-22 introduction time line just kind of matched the ability of simulation to really do what it can do for us today.

“And I think in the process we are realizing that because simulation is so effective and because flight hours are so expensive in today’s environment, you want to preserve your flight hours, and preserve your assets, but you still want to train.  Which means simulation is certainly one of the large fillers in our approach to training.”

Le Gall refers to the helicopter domain specifically in what he sees as a particularly fast growing demand between the boom years of rotorcraft platforms and the aforementioned economic crisis.

“The thing is, flying a helicopter is cheaper than flying a jet, so people may wonder what the need is in going to a simulator when they can fly the real thing. But we have seen in the past few years more and more helicopter accidents.

“In areas like on oil rigs, in maintenance, in emergency services, all these kinds of markets where helicopters are used, there are regular crashes and it’s often due to the lack of training for the pilots. Not so much in flying the helicopter, but really in flying the mission, and being able to learn how to operate under tough conditions.”

Why use anything else?

Live training has and always will present a number of obstacles to instructors, from dependency on weather and machinery, package readiness, or simply finding the time to have troops focus on specific lessons when they are in them middle of fighting multiple wars.

The concession, at least today, is that sims, no matter how advanced, are still no equal to live training.  They will continue to educate, innovate, and vindicate – but as operators will tell you, they can never fully replicate.

“I’m a pilot,” Holden says, proudly. “There are certain ‘feels’ you can’t get [in a sim].”

“There are some things I’m not yet ready to say can only be done in the simulator, even if it can replicate it perfectly. There are still things you have to have experience in the airplane doing. But there are some, once you have got the experience in the airplane, that you can maintain proficiency in by getting back in the simulator and doing that in a recurring manner.”

Despite the praise, the cost savings, and the safety benefits, Holden does not believe that the percentage balance of simulator, live flight, and classroom instruction will change much down the line.

“We continue to learn about what we can move from the aircraft to the simulator. I think as time goes on, that will evolve a little bit as the graphics and capabilities improve, but we’ve captured so much right now, there are so many incremental improvements, that I think we’re pretty content with what we have.”

Holden’s six V-22 squadrons are rolling ahead quickly, transitioned as they are between the East and West US coasts, and soon to be taking up residence in Okinawa. For all of these teams, simulators will form the most reliable building blocks for honing laser reactions and TTPs.

Le Gall will be just one of the solution providers wondering if that way of thinking will soon change, and if perhaps further enhancement to this existing technology can eventually seduce training schools into leaving the real aircraft on the flight decks for a few hours more.

“With the development and availability of more powerful computers, we can increase the fluidity of the scene, and allow new features. Right now, for example, we are working on more realistic clouds. The environment will become more and more realistic.

“With helicopters, the challenge is that a lot of the activity is close to the ground. The quality of the database, and the quality of what you actually see is higher than when you are flying at higher altitude, where you just want to see the ground. So the challenge is really to add more and more of these layers of information and have a smooth way of reproducing that. 

“The other area that we are working on is of course in creating this database of a realistic environment but keeping the cost of that imagery data as equally realistic for the customer.”

And that’s one scenario that can’t be made any clearer.

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva

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