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Virtual Reality and Aerospace

The biggest advantage of VR is that it has countless applications. Almost all the major industries in the world have implemented this technology one way or the other. Aerospace is not an exception, and there are a number of ways it is being used. This article briefly talks about the history and current applications. 

History of VR in Aerospace

With all the news that we hear about applications of virtual reality in our life it is safe to say that the Aerospace industry will not top most people’s list. However looking back at the history of Virtual Reality in the 20th century, Aerospace has been an important part of this technology. 

In fact one of the first ever uses of Virtual Reality was made by the Aerospace Industry back in 1929. Of course it was a very rudimental technology and there were no cool graphics popping out of the screen. However a Virtual Reality is a simulated environment and that is exactly what the “Link trainer” did.  Created by Edward Link, it was a flight simulator. The rudders and steering column were controlled by motors which simulated the pitch and roll. Furthermore it even simulated the turbulence during the flight. Here is a video of how such simulator was used: 

Thomas Furness, another important name in Virtual Reality also known as the grandfather of Virtual Reality. He got his fame in 1982 when he delivered the US Air force the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator, or VCASS. He worked with companies like Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, Kaiser Aerospace and McDonnell-Douglas for nearly two decades in order to complete this project. This was a continuation of the same idea as link trainer. Now, not only could the pilots train how to fly an aircraft but also practice combat situations hence adding a new dimension to the simulator. 

It wasn’t long before NASA wanted some Virtual Reality action as well. So in 1990 they came up with Virtual Interface Environment Workstation or simply called Project VIEW. It had a head mounted stereoscopic display system and DataGlove with sensors to detect the users movement. Hence using this technology it was possible to interact with the environment. It could also be used by wearing a DataSuit which allowed for the whole body to interact with the environment. 

Source: https://www.nasa.gov/ames/spinoff/new_continent_of_ideas/

Another major development in the final years of the 20th century was VR Mars Rover in 1991 by NASA. Antonio Medina, an MIT graduate and NASA scientist, designed a VR system that allowed pilots to control the Mars Rover. It took into account the time delay of the signal reaching Mars and the pilots could control the rover in “real time”. Since this VR system has come a long way, its current version can be seen in the video posted by NASA. 

VR and AR applications in Aerospace

With a recent boom in VR and AR and the processing power our computers possess there are a lot more possibilities. It is no longer just used as a flight simulator to train pilots. With smartphones and tablets the technology has become quite portable. This has allowed implementation in areas where it was not possible before. 

VR and AR in simulation

The most widely used AR and VR in Aerospace is the flight simulation. In April 2021, EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) approved its first VR based flight simulation device. They partnered with VRM Switzerland (VRMotion Ltd.) to develop a software that helps rotorcraft pilots. This has allowed the pilots to practice risky maneuvers without any safety concerns. According to statistics 20% of accidents occur during the training, hence this will help mitigate it. Furthermore its suitability was measured through a training evaluation program which confirmed that the VR method is suitable. 

NASA, which has been investing in AR and VR for many decades, is still actively using it. In fact it is being used in the International Space Station for multiple applications. One such application includes controlling robots and space vehicles using VR. The investigation by ESA (European Space Agency) and France’s National Center for Space studies (CNES) has tested this technology which uses simulated touch and motion, This can potentially help in future missions to Moons and Mars,

VR and AR in Aerospace Design

The first application that is not specific to the Aerospace industry is design and manufacturing. Building prototypes is very costly and hence CAD softwares is normally used in order to build a computer generated model. However with Augment Related these softwares are able to render these objects and create a Virtual Environment. Being able to see and interact with these prototypes in Virtual Reality. This allows for better design and also helps in planning the assembly line. Pratt and Whitney uses this technology which allows their engineers to ‘’walk inside the engine’’ and study its parts. 

VR and AR in Aerospace training and Maintenance

Moreover, for the maintenance of the aircraft this technology can be used. Japan airline uses Microsoft HoloLens for training their maintenance staff of the aircraft. This has helped them from using instruction manuals or videos to using Augmented Reality. The Engine mechanics using the AR technology are trained by actually working on the AR engine rather than having to rely on manuals. Another development in this area is by Airbus. They have also developed a technology that works for technicians and mechanics personnel. This will help to train on checklist procedures related to engines and IT systems.  The video below by Airbus, gives a brief of introduction of how it works:

Furthermore NASA also uses AR for maintenance on the International Space Station. Since the crew members need to perform maintenance, asking for assistance from ground control causes time delay. So AR guidance can be used to repair and maintain the equipment. It runs on tablets or headsets and using the camera suggests the next steps that need to be performed.

VR and AR in flight entertainment

Air travel is one of the few times when we can not stream movies or videos on the internet. Therefore the airlines are always trying to make that time in the air as fun and comforting as possible. Many airlines such as Qatar have run pilot programs to check the technical feasibility and popularity of inflight VR. Wide scale adoption by the airlines is yet to be seen. 

Sources:

 Bardi, J. (2020, September 21). What is Virtual Reality? [Definition and Examples]. Marxent. https://www.marxentlabs.com/what-is-virtual-reality/

Link Trainer | flight simulator. (2021). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/Link-Trainer

Grandfather of VR: The Virtual Can Show The Beauty Of The Real. (2015, December 17). https://choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/12/17/459839163/grandfather-of-vr-the-virtual-can-show-the-beauty-of-the-real?t=1637236966783

Aitoro, J. (2017, August 8). 30 Years: A Norm Augustine Retrospective. Defense News. https://www.defensenews.com/30th-annivesary/2016/10/25/30-years-virtual-reality-training-transformation/

The Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW), 1990. (1990). NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/ames/spinoff/new_continent_of_ideas/

Take a Walk on Mars — in Your Own Living Room. (2017). NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/take-a-walk-on-mars-in-your-own-living-room/

EASA approves the first Virtual Reality (VR) based Flight Simulation Training Device. (2021, April 26). EASA. https://www.easa.europa.eu/newsroom-and-events/press-releases/easa-approves-first-virtual-reality-vr-based-flight-simulation

VRM Switzerland – Professional Flight Training Solutions. (2021). VRM Switzerland. https://vrm-switzerland.ch/

Guzman, A. (2021, September 23). Nine Ways We Use AR and VR on the ISS. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/nine-ways-we-use-ar-vr-on-iss/

Pratt & Whitney Investing in Virtual Reality Training Tools to Enhance Customer Training Technologies. (2017, April 25). MediaRoom. https://newsroom.prattwhitney.com/2017-04-25-Pratt-Whitney-Investing-in-Virtual-Reality-Training-Tools-to-Enhance-Customer-Training-Technologies

Patrizio, A. (2016, July 22). Japan Airlines employs Microsoft HoloLens for inspections and training. Network World. https://www.networkworld.com/article/3098505/japan-airlines-employs-microsoft-hololens-for-inspections-and-training.html

Guzman, A. (2021b, September 23). Nine Ways We Use AR and VR on the ISS. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/nine-ways-we-use-ar-vr-on-iss/

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