A technologically avant-garde industry

Orville Wright changed history on December 17, 1903, by taking the airplane he had designed with his brother Wilbur, the Wright Flyer, into the air in a flight that lasted 12 seconds and covered 36 meters. The distance completed in that feat is almost half the length between the folding wingtips of the new Boeing 777X when extended (71.7 meters). Comparing the aircraft of these and other pioneers with those currently being manufactured in Toulouse, France, or Seattle, USA, provides incontrovertible evidence of the brilliant technological evolution of an industry that, compared to others (e.g., mining, textiles), is still young, with only 120 years of history.

 The success story that aviation has written in these decades has necessarily gone hand in hand with progress in air simulation. The first simulators on record, built by the French company Antoniette around 1910, had a wooden skeleton and an appearance far removed from the powerful flight simulators we know today, similar to the Wright brothers’ airplane. Future pilots had their first contact with a replica of the aircraft controls in that contraption –half a barrel on which a seat was installed. There, they could practice the basic, often counterintuitive movements, later enabling them to carry out a controlled flight.

‘Flight simulation, yesterday and today.’ Illustration by Armando Ríos for Aerovía/Hispaviación.

Just as airplanes have undergone a radical transformation due to technological advances, today’s simulators have little to do with those of the first decades of the past century. Manufactured by large multinational companies, such as the Canadian CAE or the American L3Harris and Lockheed Martin, the flight simulators on which today’s pilots are trained are highly advanced machines of great complexity and millimetric precision, capable of emulating the behavior of real aircraft to unimaginable extremes. With powerful computers, they can read and interpret any movement the pilots make in the cockpit. The results of their actions are displayed in real-time on screens capable of emulating what can be seen from the cockpit when flying, plus other features such as the movement provided by hydraulic systems. The function of the hydraulic systems is to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sensations experienced in the cockpit when the aircraft takes off, lands, or turns. Considering all this, it is perhaps less surprising that the price of one of these simulators can exceed 12 million euros.
The minimum limitations of this type of super commercial simulator are those imposed by gravity itself, which prevents, for example, the aircraft from flying upside down, an unnatural and undesirable position for any commercial aircraft. However, simulators are also helpful in training, specifically Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT). Airlines and flight schools opt for aerobatic aircraft for this training, which allows pilots to improve prevention and recovery from abnormal situations. Others rely on simulators – such as the Desdemona platform – to practice these more complex adrenaline-pumping maneuvers.
Live-saving simulators
If there is one area where flight simulators are of exceptional value, it is in emergencies. “Simulation allows us to train both procedures and decision-making in situations that, although highly unlikely, would pose a serious threat to flight safety, such as engine failure on takeoff run after V1, complex electrical failures or, in the case of helicopter pilots, autorotations,” explained Carlos García Molaguero, spokesperson for Copac, who pointed out the key to all this: “If we had to practice these situations in flight, it would be a threat in itself for pilots.”

Being able to practice responding to risk situations in an environment that is faithful to reality – but at the same time does not involve danger – is undoubtedly one of the keys to explaining the enormous resources aircraft manufacturers, airlines, schools, and professionals devote to simulation. In aviation, where automation has been gaining ground for decades, having well-trained pilots to react appropriately when something goes wrong is crucial to maintain safety. This prevents accidents and saves lives. As if that were not enough, using simulators is also more economical. “Flight simulation plays a key role in reducing cost inefficiencies and time requirements for flight training. The cockpit of an aircraft is an ineffective learning environment: it is costly and distracting,” said Ethan Willinger, marketing director at Redbird Flight Simulations.

The economic aspect is crucial in an industry that, by nature, is highly competitive. It is, therefore, easy to find simulators in the sector that, among other things, offer cost savings for their operators and users. Another highly valued feature is the versatility of the equipment, which can be used to the maximum to meet the growing demand that this industry has been facing for years. A good example is the Airliner, the latest generation simulator by French company Alsim. This cockpit combines the philosophies of the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 in a single device. In this case, it is a simulator certified for two standard training courses, the MCC and its optimized version, the APS MCC, which allow pilots to practice and demonstrate their ability to cooperate when flying multi-crew commercial aircraft.

Innovation is in its DNA
The aircraft simulation industry has been at the forefront of technological innovation for decades. Many of the advances made by significant aircraft manufacturers pass their first test on a simulator before leaping to “real aviation.” This has whetted the appetite of companies in the sector, large and small, to explore what new technologies can offer, especially the most promising ones. One such technology is virtual reality, which rapidly permeates the simulation arena. This technology got a definitive boost in April last year when the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certified the first virtual reality-based training device developed by VRM Switzerland for helicopter pilots.

Photo caption: Using virtual reality for helicopter simulators. Photo: VRM Switzerland

Virtual reality is valuable in itself, but its potential possibilities multiply if it is made to interact with other devices. An example of this is the haptic gloves, “a substantial advance that allows the sense of touch to be incorporated into the sense of sight and hearing, giving extreme realism to virtual simulation,” said Sergio Domínguez, director of communications at Audere Global, a company to which Simloc belongs. In this case, they use the Sensorial XR haptic gloves from the Almeria-based company NeuroDigital: “With them, pilots are provided with tactile perception and the most natural possible handling of the different elements of the aircraft cockpit, so that they learn to perform and memorize gestures as they would in a real aircraft. These gloves make it possible to track each finger of the hand and its position through inertial sensors (two for each finger, hand, and arms), accelerometers, and flexible and optical sensors. This completes the sensory circle of flying in simulators within the virtual reality environment.”

As the above examples demonstrate, virtual reality goggles are gradually becoming a handy tool for pilot training. However, the spectacular nature of this technology can also have other valuable uses for air transport. The United States has been seeking solutions to address the pilot shortage for years, an issue that was put on the back burner by the pandemic but which, in recent months, has once again become topical in that country. Simulators that create virtual reality are being used to attract young people to professions in the sector. “This technology allows complete immersion, so many people who have never tried flying can now experience it fascinatingly,” explained Óscar Mateos, Director of Marketing and Sales at Virtual Fly, a company whose simulation products have reached places like the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach where hundreds of students enjoy the experience of combining virtual reality glasses with the flight components (such as the pedals or yoke) manufactured by this Barcelona-based company.

Photo: VirtualFly

If simulators are an excellent professional training tool, why can they not be for other students? At Tecnópole, the Technological Park of Galicia (in Ourense), a collaboration between the Xunta, Boeing, and First Scandinavia allowed the opening of a new Newton classroom last year with three flight simulators that aim to teach science differently. Virtual Fly manufactured the three pieces of equipment: “The idea is that these students can be educated in science and mathematics through aeronautical applications. Companies like Boeing are investing heavily in creating a new generation that grows with aviation. In this case, many students from all over Galicia will be able to practice and apply their STEM knowledge in flight simulators,” Mateos added.
Beyond virtual reality
Virtual reality is not the only technology showing real promise for the future of this sector. Without going any further, others in the field of air traffic control simulators also point to future development. One of these is augmented reality, which, for example, has begun to be tested in low-visibility scenarios. Another potential game-changer for this sector is artificial intelligence. “When we think of new technologies in this sector, virtual reality is the most obvious. But another one that will be just as important in the future is artificial intelligence, which is going to allow us, for example, to provide good metrics to instructors and make better use of all the information that we can capture in the thousands and thousands of exercises that are done in a simulator. That large database, combined with artificial intelligence, will let us know how a good air traffic controller should act, what good phrasing looks like, or how to respond appropriately in an emergency,” analyzed Jonathan Cooke, product manager for Total Control at Airways. This New Zealand company is a benchmark among professional air traffic control simulator manufacturers.