Flight training devices and full flight simulators give pilots a simulated aircraft experience to replicate their own environments, mission scenarios and potential emergencies. Advancements in simulation capabilities like computing power, algorithms, visual enhancements, sub-systems, avionics integrations and extended reality technologies are vastly improving helicopter and fixed-wing simulation training.
Simulation technology is helping aviators to learn, train and perform at the top of their game. They also get the maximum benefits that simulation can offer such as full mission training and scenario-based training (SBT). The objectives of full mission training and scenario-based training are to create as much of a real-world setting possible including environment, type-specific simulator, related mission equipment like a hoist, EO/IR operations, NVG, with everything being replicated as close to the real-world as possible. This is mission rehearsal and gaining operational familiarity and knowledge so that when the real operation occurs, you’ve already practiced it many times before.
SBT again replicates as much of the real-world as faithfully as possible, but the emphasis is more about experiencing problem areas, such as where crashes have occurred previously and presenting the pilot with a similar situation and problem to see if the pilot can use their judgment and aeronautical decision-making effectively. In some cases, SBT in the sim may end with the proverbial red screen of death, and that’s ok. The point of SBT is learning, not evaluating.
Computing Power & Capability
The first and most obvious improvement in terms of simulation technology is just the continuous improvement in computing power and capability. Not only does this benefit help the core simulation capability itself, it also helps enable and facilitate improvements in a simulator’s subsystem as well. When we look at the core processing power and memory size/storage, there are several elements that gain benefits either by the speed of processing (running more iterations faster) or size (being able to create more complex and complete algorithms and equations) that can be accessed rapidly.
For pilots, that means we see improvements in things like:
- The flight model, as we can better replicate nuances and subtle characteristics in the specific aircraft’s behavior and performance.
- 6 Degree of Freedom (6 DoF) and Equations of Motion (EOM); improvement again in the flight model as well as how motion systems process the equations that translate into the mechanical movements that make the sim “fly”.
- Systems models; better fidelity in creating hydraulic, electrical and mechanical aircraft sub-systems, and system failures and emergencies engine loss, hydraulic failure, tail rotor failure that improve the training value of both normal and emergency procedures.
- Control Loading; the control loading system translates the flight control inputs in the sim into the variables that the computer uses to ‘move’ the simulator. Here again running faster iterations result in achieving proper control pressures and being able to model control inputs that mimic the aircraft’s.
- Edge-of-envelope flight modeling; areas where it may be too dangerous to pull flight test data from an aircraft to have reference points. This could be in areas like stalls with ice on the airframe, or loss of tail-rotor effectiveness (LTE). Areas where loss of the flight-test aircraft could or are likely to occur. But the improvements in computing technology allow us to make better predictive models for these areas and then supplement with other data.
The next big area of advancement in simulation technology is in the visual realm. Improved computing performance in graphics cards and image generators create the “world” that you see outside the simulator through HDTV/LCD/LED displays and projectors. The visual system (as the simulation does as a whole) needs to be optimized and synchronized to work seamlessly among these components (IG, graphics, and visual display). Visual systems that aren’t will show these problems by stuttering, aliasing and random artifacts that occur in the visual scene that quickly break the immersive goal of the simulator.
Avionics Simulation & Integration
The ability to accurately integrate advanced avionics into simulation is a clear and obvious advantage to training outcomes. Since the avionics explosion in aviation of the mid-90s, many of these advanced systems have found themselves adapted into smaller helicopter and fixed-wing
platforms too. Today, fully integrated avionics with GPS, moving maps, 3 and 4 axis AFCS, and terrain and collision warning systems are commonplace in both airplanes and helicopters. Not that long ago, you would be hard pressed to find any of those systems in light aircraft, but now a Cessna 182 and a Bell 407 share a very common Garmin G1000 NXi system.
Another big technology improvement that computer capability has driven is the ability to design and create sub-systems that are optimized for the rest of aviation that isn’t flying around in a B737 or A320. One of those is called the Frasca Motion Cueing System (FMCS). Since Frasca has delivered over 3,000 simulators to over 70 countries worldwide over 60+ years, the company gets a lot of feedback and crucial information from our customers. One of the company’s internal values is continuous improvement, and since simulation is very tech-dependent, we think that is a smart approach.
Another burgeoning area of technological advancement is Extended Reality (XR) that includes Virtual (VR), Mixed (MR), and Augmented (AR) realities. Early implementations of extended reality technology in aviation training have shown some promise. There are certainly areas that have benefitted with improved training options via something that is more deployable and less costly so that practicing specific tasks (with positive transfer) can be done more frequently.
However, there are still some technical limitations of this technology, and there are two critical items to keep in mind with regards to training. First, you have to exercise due diligence when and where you decide to implement XR in your training, and be very specific in what tasks you want to use an XR application. Secondly, you need to be well versed in the pros and cons of each of the applications of XR, so you do not select the wrong tool or wrong “type” of the XR spectrum of possibilities. Knowing if you need to see your hands on the controls and those input movements, what type of instruments and avionics you need to see if any, running checklists and emergency procedures, etc. should steer you towards selecting an XR application that is best suited to those tasks. The formal process for this is called a Training Needs Analysis. If we want to keep it colloquial, then the phrase “use the right tool for the job” is something to keep ever-present in your thoughts and decisions about what application form and how you implement XR technology.
Like most new technology there are some things it does well, and some things it does not do well. It’s not a panacea or magic pill for all your training needs, so be selective and also understand that this emergent technology changes rapidly. So what is available today continues to evolve and is quite fluid, particularly with XR headsets. We certainly see benefits and are already employing this technology in a selective and well thought-out fashion, but it is not to the point where this can be used to replace more traditional and better-vetted methods of training.
In training expert circles, the general consensus is to use XR technology as supplementary equipment and pieces of an overall training system. But it is not mature enough, and not free of enough limitations that can affect perception and cognition, or that it is a plug-and-play replacement. I always tend to think of past instances in aviation history where we have introduced new technology in the aircraft, and I like to use airborne weather radar as an example. While it was very helpful to have weather radar in the aircraft, employing that technology in the wrong fashion (not understanding antenna tilt for instance), or not understanding the limitations of the technology (like attenuation or “shadows”) was also cause for several notable aviation accidents and fatalities. Many of those old commercial airline safety paradigms like the “Hot Stove Rule” and automation/redundancy confusion and complacency very much apply in today’s helicopter cockpit too. It is no different with assessing technology: know its strengths AND limitations.
Cohesive technical integration of all the sub-systems makes the ultimate goals of mission training and SBT possible. The amalgamation, or cumulative effect of cohesive use of technological advancements, for realistic mission training is the final point. Many of these technologies discussed cannot stand on its own without incurring some detriment at the loss of the others. If any of these elements doesn’t perform at very high levels, in a cohesive fashion with the other elements of the simulation, then chances are you are going to miss out on the training value that could be achieved otherwise.
Aviation simulation training allows aircrews to acquire not only the knowledge and procedures needed to safely fly the aircraft in mission profiles, but also to provide an atmosphere to strengthen aeronautical decision-making, crew resource management, threat and risk assessments, and to realize (more fully) the outcome of our strengths and weaknesses as a pilot. Those outcomes may be good or may not, but when quality simulation employs good SBT and mission training, we can learn and get better, save the asset, and maybe save our own lives when we are so intent on saving others.