Anyone attending an aerospace conference of late is sure to have seen humans wearing 3-D goggles and acting strangely. The virtual reality devices—which fully immerse the wearer, at least visually, in a computer-generated world —cause exaggerated head-panning and tilting motions that come across to the external observer as unnatural and silly.
Inside some of those goggles, however, there can be real work going on, particularly in the areas of efficient training. Rockwell Collins is rapidly advancing the technology to remove distance and asset availability from the cost of doing business in maintenance, repair and overhal (MRO) training or familiarization programs. The company envisions a time 4-5 years from now when maintenance technicians will report to a “holodeck” room for training with an instructor located anywhere in the world and a virtual aircraft in a computer-generated hangar with simulated tools and test equipment.
Aviation Week tried out an early prototype of the holodeck and 3-D goggles at a simulation conference in Orlando in early December. The task—debugging an avionics problem using diagnostics in the Pro Line Fusion cockpit displays and virtually changing out a faulty electronics box from a Beechcraft King Air—is part of a broader virtual reality training movement that could help operators keep their aircraft flying, rather than just being used for a training session, allowing instructors to stay in one place while overseeing students anywhere in the world.
Rockwell Collins is partnered with Santa Barbara, California-based virtual reality software company WorldViz for the virtual maintenance trainer project. WorldViz provides the virtual reality “toolset” that Rockwell Collins has been using in its advanced manufacturing facilities for eight years. “When we build a box, we take all the [computer-aided design] drawings and build a prototype in the virtual world, then bring in maintenance and factory operators so they can check it for fit and clearance as well as how to build it,” says Steve Kennell, director of publications and training solutions for Rockwell Collins. “We’re saving millions of dollars on that process, and now we’re extending it into scenarios for distance learning.”
Along with eliminating the revenue loss of parking an aircraft for a training session, the virtual trainer is also meant to address a shortage of avionics instructors—today they have to physically fly to an increasing number of customer locations around the globe to conduct the training. With the holodeck, Kennell says instructors can stay in one place and interact with a dozen or more students in a day.
“Training today is done by moving a student and an instructor and taking an asset offline and creating a scenario where they’re all together along with the test equipment,” says Kennell. “It’s very expensive and the logistics are very complex, and no one likes taking an aircraft out of service for maintenance training.” Further complicating the logistics is the test equipment, which Kennell says “gets bounced around” on the journey and “half the time doesn’t work” once it arrives. “In the virtual world, once [the test equipment] is working, it will always work,” he adds.
The prototype holodeck in Orlando used an Oculus Rift DK2 3-D headset and WorldViz wand input device, both equipped with infrared LEDs that are tracked by four cameras placed at the upper corners of the holodeck, a square area roughly 12 X 12 ft. wide and 8 ft. high. The DK2 was surprisingly comfortable, even fitting over my prescription glasses, and motion was evenly synchronized between the visual scene and my perceived head motion, except during accelerated motion such as when nodding my head to acknowledge commands.
In the scenario, I was placed in the pilot’s seat of the King Air parked in a hangar, noting that I could turn around and see the seats in the back, the wings on the side, and could move my head through the sidewall and see the outside of the cabin. With the instructor guiding me orally through headphones, I used the wand to power up the displays and find a problem with an avionics box mounted in an external compartment in the nose. Next, the scenario jumped me to the outside of the aircraft, where I used the wand to open an access door and remove an avionics box, placing it on a tray.
While the wand does not allow the student to use fingers, as would be the case in an actual procedure, the “point and click” process becomes natural after a few tries. Although the technology may later include some type of gloves with dexterous fingers, the concern is that if the student grabs for a knob or button that is not physically there, “it will destroy the illusion,” says Ida Derra, a WorldViz sales representative.
Kennel says the next step is to increase the number of scenarios, improve the “human interface” and integrate a total learning management system. The management system would track the student’s training, noting when new or recurrency training is needed, and crediting for courses completed. “I’ve got a badge and I get a notice that I need concurrency training on a topic,” says Kennell. “I go up to a room configured with this system. I plug my badge in, it configures the environment for the training I need to do and keeps track of my progress in the learning management system.”
This story was originally published on 5 January 2016.