Iilot training has come a long way from the wooden Link Trainers of World War II vintage. For many years, full-flight simulators (FFS) such as those made by CAE — with their realistic interactive cockpits, wraparound high-fidelity projection screens, and 6-axis range of motion — have defined the state of the art in immersive flight training, an experience that is as close as possible to the real thing.
The advent of virtual reality (VR) goggles is taking education to a new and more affordable level. Today, a new student can put on a pair of VR goggles, sit down and take hold of realistic, yet simplified aircraft controls, and begin their journey to the skies. This provides a more affordable path to earning wings, because VR-based education can reduce the time in class and makes training in the aircraft more effective.
VR-based training can also help existing pilots maintain or upgrade their skills wherever they may be, rather than having to pack their bags and head to flight school. This saves time and money and allows these pilots to remain available for their regular duties.
Philippe Perey is head of technology, defense and security with CAE Inc. He recently spoke with Aerospace Tech Review magazine about the progress of VR in pilot training.
ATR: Is it true that VR is now becoming an integrated element of modern pilot training at CAE?
Perey: Yes. Although we have been working with VR in our labs going back to 2014, this technology is just now emerging into real training opportunities and programs for CAE and their customers.
The proof is the CAE Trax Academy, which uses VR as a central part of its training approach. Launched by CAE at I/ITSEC 2019, the CAE Trax Academy is the culmination of extensive market assessment and end customer interviews. Students were keen to embrace new training methodologies in a complete training ecosystem centered around the individual learner.
The CAE Trax Academy allows each student to progress through the segments of Learn, Practice and Perform.
During the “Learn” phase, the student gains knowledge through a mobile app that provides computer-based training. When they are ready, the student can visualize the maneuver using embedded immersive courseware seen through a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) VR headset. The courseware includes instructional voice and text callouts to guide the student. The courseware is also interactive, so the student may need to select specific buttons or switches to continue through the training sequence.
During the “Practice” segment, the student moves to the CAE Sprint Virtual Reality training device. Wearing their VR goggles and using simulated physical aircraft controls and seating, they can practice a specific maneuver with the assistance of an AI virtual coach. Progress on skills acquisition is assessed and tracked. In this segment, a very high-end VR headset with eye-limiting acuity in the central area and high refresh rate is used. The student also experiences force-feedback cueing to the stick and rudders, seat vibration and audio/sound cueing.
All of the aircraft controls are functional in the CAE Sprint VR trainer, and the student can select modes and controls via CAE’s cockpit interaction software.
Finally, during the “Perform” segment, the student will typically join the instructor in a traditional high-end flight training device or full-flight simulator to show what they’ve learned and be evaluated. All the student’s performance data is available to the instructor prior to the session to better guide and prioritize the areas for review and instructor assessment.
ATR: CAE is also providing AI-based training to the U. S. Department of Defense.
Perey: That is correct. CAE has been contracted by the U. S. Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), as part of the USAF Pilot Training Transformation (PTT) 2.5., to deliver a knowledge management component. This component uses an AI engine to analyze students’ progress relative to the cohort and recommends detailed micro-learning events the student needs to address specific performance issues.
The objective of CAE’s role in this project is to provide better insight into the progression of student pilots, and to identify students who are underperforming and provide immediate remediation recommendations based on the nature of performance metrics such as knowledge, skill, or ability.
This adaptive learning approach has the potential to personalize the training for each student based on their profile, experience, and proficiency. This reduces costs, accelerates training, and leads to better student engagement.
CAE has also delivered sophisticated Augmented Reality (AR) training suites for rear-crew training and is currently working on the second-generation system to be delivered to customers in Europe and the Middle East in the coming year. This solution provides multi-crew operation, and tasks such as hoisting, gunnery and support for confined area landings.
ATR: How have these advances translated to the personal pilot end of the market? Can training now be done with VR goggles?
Perey: We view the VR-based training as a complement to the overall training program and other training aids (e.g., full-flight simulators). Currently, most aviation authorities do not yet recognize VR-based training. This is changing, and we expect regulatory guidance in the coming year for how and where VR-based training can be used as part of a complete pilot training curriculum.
ATR: Just how far has simulator-based flight training advanced, in terms of its ability to properly train pilots?
Perey: Modern full-flight simulators are now so representative and immersive that 100% of civil aircraft conversion training can be performed in the simulator. The first time a new pilot flies a specific transport aircraft, it is with a full load of passengers. This may seem risky to some readers, but this approach has been in use for many decades and the safety record of airlines using this approach is outstanding.
However, in the early phases of a student pilot’s career, real aircraft flight is essential to feel — and be comfortable with — the subtle flight cues and the sense of flight. New pilots must be able to deal emotionally with the potential risks of flying and ensure they can tolerate sustained turbulence and stressful situations while maintaining focus and adherence to standard operating procedures. We do not expect this to change significantly, regardless of current or future advances in simulator technology. On the military side, pilots will also spend many hours flying their aircraft to ensure they are fully mission-ready.
ATR: Are these lower-cost VR simulators making it easier to train new pilots, and making flight school more affordable?
Perey: Yes. We fully expect that once these new VR-based training devices (and the supporting training performance analytics) are approved by the regulatory authorities that this will help reduce pilot training costs, increase throughput, and shorten the overall training program.
We anticipate this to be an iterative approach where such VR-based training devices are initially used as a complement to traditional ground-based devices, and that over time selective training tasks are “downloaded” from the aircraft and/or higher-end simulators.
Downloading is not new: CAE has many “lower end” training devices such as Desktop Trainers, Cockpit Procedure Trainers, Integrated Procedure Trainers and Part-Task Trainers. Each of these allows specific training to be performed. The advent of VR trainers adds to that suite of possibilities.
ATR: Finally, what are the limits of these advanced systems of pilot training? What still has to be done in an actual aircraft?
Perey: My earlier answer addressed the need for live flight experience as it relates to training new pilots. For conversion training — going from one type of aircraft model to another — this can currently be performed 100% in high-fidelity (Level-D) full-flight simulators.
We don’t see the limits in this educational approach as being tied to the fidelity of simulators, but rather the necessity to validate that the student pilot can operate safely in the real aircraft. Given the need for regulatory authorities to maintain the highest safety standards — for both the student and the general population — we do not expect this to change significantly in the years ahead as it relates to training brand new pilots.
VRM Switzerland Committed to VR Training
VR-based flight training is all that VRM Switzerland does. And they do it well: The company has successfully qualified its first VR flight simulator training device as a Robinson R22 FNPT II VR helicopter trainer under EASA regulations.
VRM Switzerland has since developed an Airbus H125 VR helicopter trainer. Both models are now being used at the Heli Austria Flight Academy, while another H125 VR Trainer has been purchased by Colorado Highland Helicopters, the company’s first U. S. customer. Both trainers combine VR head-mounted displays with a 6DoF full motion chair and helicopter control system that the student interacts with, connected to a computer and three monitors at an adjacent instructor’s table. Thanks to this combination, students can feel their simulated helicopter’s motion while physically operating the controls that they see in VR, resulting in a truly immersive training simulation experience
“Our team’s passion at VRM Switzerland is to build the most realistic and affordable flight simulation training device in the helicopter market today,” said company founder and CEO Fabi Riesen. “Our goal is to provide a true flight experience in virtual reality for demanding pilots.”
According to Riesen, the fact that VRM Switzerland’s simulators are VR-based does not make them less capable than traditional FFS trainers. “In fact, with our VR approach to training, the pilot can see a full 360-degree view of their surroundings by moving their head,” he said. “In a traditional FFS, the visuals are shown on projection screens, so there isn’t the same level of 360-degree situational awareness.”
In this VR training world, the student doesn’t see their own body in the aircraft. Instead, they see an avatar that interacts with the cockpit environment. This avatar is accurately synchronized to the student’s actual body positions and movements, thanks to a “Pose Tracking System” that monitors their body in real time.
“The Pose Tracking System creates a virtual skeleton that it uses to create and animate the avatar,” said Riesen. “As a result, the avatar’s motions are an accurate reflection of what the student is doing in real-time.”
Given VRM Switzerland’s success in gaining EASA approval for its R22 trainer, achieving the same for its H125 model is only a matter of time. Going forward, the company can keep developing other type-specific VR trainers as the market demands them, because the overall VR training approach would be common to them all.