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State of the Art Simulation and Virtual Reality

By Lauren Basham
Reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

There's no question that flight simulation in aviation is here to stay. But, how close we are to virtual reality in aviation simulation is anyone's guess. Those of us with a deep working interest in the technological advances in aviation simulation technology keep reading and hearing about the up-coming marvels of exciting simulation technology. But really, how close is it in our future and at what cost?

We have made effective use of various forms of simulation in aviation for almost three quarters of the past century, stretching from Edwin Link's dream in the 1920's to the present. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has developed qualification and approval criteria for limited use low level simulation devices such as the personal computer-based aviation training device (PCATD), for the more advanced use of various levels of flight training devices (FTD) and for more extensive use of flight simulator (FS) levels A through D. Specific certification practical tests may now be accomplished solely in advanced levels of aircraft flight simulators in lieu of in an aircraft.

One unfortunate result of this technological advance in aviation simulation technological development is that in the eyes of much of the public, all of the above simulation devices are 'flight simulators.' In this regard there are those of us who tend to cringe when in answering the telephone, we hear the caller say, 'I've got a simulator and I wonder if you can help me.' Our response is generally to ask the caller, 'What kind of simulation device do you have and where did you get it.' It may take several specific questions for us to be able to determine whether the device in question is a PCATD, an FTD, an FS, or something of undetermined origin for which the FAA has not established creditable use under applicable Federal regulations.

Some may ask, 'What difference does it make what the device is called?' Well, one difference it makes is that the user public can be and is sometimes mislead by a few of the manufacturers of such simulation products who wrongly either advertise or imply FAA approval when it is clear to FAA that no such approval has been or is likely to be granted. It may be unfortunate that there is no recognized copyright of the term 'Flight Simulator.' The user public could make a real difference by being more technically correct in its description of all such simulation devices. The FAA, in order to be as responsive as possible to the user public, has qualified and approved for specific use under existing federal regulations certain simulation devices granted use equivalent to that of certain FTD, but which are not currently approvable as either FTD or FS in terms of either technical description or function. Formal FAA approval guidance for this level of simulation technology in general aviation is currently under development.

FAA is working diligently to resolve all manner of issues brought on by the rapid development of digital simulation and virtual reality is not far in the future. Imagine virtual reality applications that can immerse the user in a computer generated environment that effectively simulates reality through the use of various kinds of interactive devices such as goggles, helmets, et cetera, and which can both send and receive various kinds of information in real time. Imagine, if you will, a generic aircraft cockpit with flight controls, rudder pedals, instrumentation, switches, systems and equipment that will permit one to actually fly established scenarios from beginning to end. All this sitting before a stereoscopic screen, which will permit one to view, animated images of a simulated flight environment. Imagine the illusion of being there'telepresence'which is affected by motion sensors that pick up the user's manipulation of the flight controls, et cetera, and adjusts the scenes displayed on the stereoscopic screen accordingly.

This is a wonderful and mind-boggling scenario. Virtual reality flight simulation could become the ultimate tool in the learning process for an untold number of persons who aspire to become pilots of every category, class, and type of aircraft to be designed in the future without ever entering an increasingly crowded national airspace. Can it or will it happen? Yes, but only if we in FAA continue to work in dedicated partnership with all appropriate elements of the aviation industry who are encouraged to conduct the needed research and developmental efforts. We can't look back or hesitate because we've come too far to stop now with virtual reality in our future.

How quickly the FAA can apply its limited resources to this area will depend on how virtual reality technology is received and perceived by industry. History has indicated that industry will move forward whether or not the FAA is prepared to join them in this venture.

Lauren Basham is an Aviation Safety Inspector in the FAA's General Aviation and Commercial Division's Certification Branch, AFS-840, responsible for regulatory and policy guidance for ground and flight training devices, personal computer-based aviation training devices, and evaluation and approval of new and emerging simulation technology for use by general aviation.