Testing, testing 1 2 3
Some of the coolest kit in the defence industry can be found in the simulation and training sector. Surely you don’t have to be an aviation geek to want a go in a 360-degree fully immersive flight dome? Or try your hand fighting in a mock-up village with all the bystanders, smoke and sound effects, vehicles and the latest imitation guns and sensors to track your skills as you go?
Of course, what you really require to get involved in all this is membership of an elite army unit, but that doesn’t stop the majority of the systems used being accessible at the very top end of the civilian gaming and commercial world. For example, the hydraulics used to simulate aircraft and armoured vehicle motions are also found on the Formula One games used to train drivers and entertain fans at events.
Whereby a home-made simulator comprising of three computer screens, some pedals and a steering wheel or joystick might be the staple of the flight gaming enthusiast, the same basic set-up is used for training future pilots, ship captains and ground vehicle drivers from all armed forces – albeit with much more complex controls and graphics capabilities. Belgian firm Barco build the RP-360 Dome which fuses projected images together on the sphere’s reverse so that the user inside has a seamless visual experience in every direction they choose to ‘fly’.
There are a whole host of companies specialising in creating the software (3D worlds and mission planning) and hardware (dashboards, interiors and interfaces) needed in order to make the experience as realistic as possible. At Farnborough we sampled the latest Selex ES helicopter simulator, and promptly crashed it, but the sensation was impressive until then.
Even parachutists can train without leaving the indoors, with huge vertical wind tunnels being available for practicing in-flight manoeuvres, and virtual reality goggles paired with a suspended harnesses simulate landing procedures. Civilians can head to Milton Keynes for a similar flight experience and have their own indoor skydiving lessons.
When it comes to safety drills, aircraft crew members are required to attend ‘sea ditch survival’ sessions in which a helicopter hull is dropped into an ocean wave pool and a swift exit is practiced.
The issue here is that although this uses life size mock ups, such training has been criticised for lacking realism – the escape windows too large to be challenging, the water too mild to represent the North Sea. However, improvements in offshore safety are in the pipeline within the industry.
The real news at Farnborough regarding simulation involved merging simulation technologies and reality. Head up displays (HUDs) or helmet mounted displays (HMDs) have been produced by companies such as BAE Systems and Rockwell Collins which project camera images from around an aircraft and superimpose them onto a helmet visor, allowing pilots to access more information than ever right in front of their eyes and to basically look through the floor in order to sniff out a target.
The chief test pilot of the F-35 Lightning II assured us that the helmet had been very popular with the 100+ pilots who’d tried it so far. And we didn’t hear of any of them crashing whilst wearing it.