Although aviation is commonplace these days, it is still thrilling, and often dangerous. People fly so much that it is easy to take air travel for granted, but we should not forget the fact that flying is literally just sitting in a chair in the sky.
Piloting an aircraft is a life-or-death proposition. The crew of a commercial airliner is responsible for hundreds of lives, and the success or failure of a military air mission depends on near-absolute perfection every step of the way. The crash of even a small cargo aircraft could be a disaster not only for the crew, but for the people on the ground below. The high-stakes nature of modern aviation has spurred on technological progress, and the aviation industry has historically welcomed new ways to ensure the safety and success of their craft. Virtual reality owes a great deal to this willingness to try out new technologies. One of the very first head-mounted displays was developed for use by the US Air Force, over 50 years ago.
Today, VR is just barely beginning to achieve mainstream availability and acceptance, and the aviation industry is one of the adoption leaders as usual. Virtual reality, along with related technologies mixed reality and augmented reality, are now used in both the commercial and military aviation sectors. It is changing the way the industry operates from training to navigation, and even in-flight entertainment. Here are a few of the most interesting applications.
The most obvious application of VR to the aviation industry is in training. Flight simulators have been around for years, and are even popular for home use. In the professional space, firms like Boeing have created what are essentially real airplane cockpits, stripped from their vehicles and the windows replaced with movie screens. Although effective as a training tool, these simulators are expensive and bulky.
Today, several companies are leveraging VR technology to bring simulators into the modern age. Most notable is Bohemia Interactive Simulations, which has been a luminary in both the home and professional flight simulation markets for years. Pairing Oculus Rift head-mounted displays and Leap Motion controllers with D-BOX motion seats and a proprietary landscape rendering engine, the new BIS simulator allows for a stunning virtual experience that accurately mimics every aspect of flight, from the controls to the vistas, and even the rumble of the engine and shaking turbulence.
One organization is employing VR to assist in training not just pilots, but flight attendants and ground crew, as well. VR development firm Future Visual participated in an International Air Transport Association (IATA) symposium. Future Visual demonstrated a concept for training airline personnel in performing an external aircraft inspection. Using an Oculus Rift head-mounted display, participants could go through the entire pre-flight process of walking around a plane, checking it for malfunctions or problems, and then locating safety equipment inside.
Southern California technology firm Aero Glass is currently testing a very exciting application of augmented reality. Using a lightweight AR head-mounted display from Epson, Osterhout Design Group, or others, Aero Glass overlays flight path and instrument data over a pilot’s vision. Pilots can access data without taking their eyes off the skies, and without spending valuable time struggling with physical controls or a touch interface.
One of the most exciting byproducts of the mainstreaming of VR and AR is the potential for consumer-level iterations of military technologies. Aero Glass is an excellent example. The product leverages the concepts of the head-mounted displays already in use by fighter pilots, and brings them to the private and commercial pilot market. Although the military has enjoyed the use of these displays for years, the upfront and ongoing maintenance costs of the dedicated hardware put them out of reach of ordinary citizens. The Aero Glass, on the other hand, is well within reach of any small airline or private plane owner. It’s not hard to imagine other applications of the technology, as well. Car and truck drivers, bicyclists, or even hikers and runners could all benefit from the natural integration of navigation data into the real world.
At the furthest reaches of aviation is the work being done by SpaceX, JPL, and NASA. The road to space has been a rocky one at times, but another augmented reality application is helping to ensure the next major mission is a success. Using Microsoft HoloLens AR headsets, JPL engineers are building a new Mars-bound spacecraft in the virtual world. In this way, designers and engineers can see and interact with their creation before it ever hits the factory floor.
In what has been dubbed the Protospace project, scientists are presented with a virtual model of the Mars rover. The craft is presented at full scale, allowing its creators to gain the kind of intuitive understanding of its size and construction that can never be attained on a computer screen. They can walk around the rover, reach inside it, and open up virtual panels to closely inspect the arrangement of interior parts. This isn’t just for flash. By placing physical prototypes or mockups in the room and then using AR to fill in the virtual gaps, engineers can find hidden problems that might never have been spotted using traditional design tools. A part might rub against its neighbor and cause damage years down the road, even if blueprint looks solid on paper. In the construction phase, pieces of the craft might obstruct the assembly crane and slow down progress, potentially costing millions in additional construction time. By using AR to lay out the entire construction process ahead of time, these stumbles can be avoided.
These aren’t the only ways in which virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are finding use in the commercial and military aviation sectors. Although aviation has a long history with VR, the widespread mainstream adoption of the technology that is only now beginning means things are changing fast. Aviation is one of the industries where VR will have the most impact in years to come. Every enthusiast of the technology should keep a close eye on this space.