In context: As the VR industry continues to blossom, developers and entrepreneurs are finding new and creative ways to apply the technology. One startup in Texas is looking to use VR in the cockpit of planes to train pilots how to fly in various conditions.
A Texas-based firm called Thrust Vector has been using an Oculus Go to develop an aircraft training solution for pilots while they are actually in the air. Trainees would wear the wireless VR headset while flying to simulate different flight scenarios. The company has already performed several successful in-flight tests.
“[We have flown] probably two dozen full approaches in full VR, all the way down to about 50 feet above the runway,” Thrust Vector co-founder John Nagle told UploadVR.
The system uses the Oculus Go because it is cheap and wireless. The software combines data from Mapbox with the Unity world engine to render maps that are accurate to the aircraft’s current location. The Oculus is not only capable of representing the position of the airplane in relation to the ground, but also can very accurately portray the craft’s altitude.
“[Visual rendering is based on] an open source ADS-B sensor called Stratux, which also has an AHRS capability (Attitude and Heading Reference System),” said Nagle. “It uses a WAAS-enhanced GPS for position.”
The system is not intended to be used solo. There is always a “safety pilot” in the co-pilot’s chair in case of trouble. When Nagle is using the headset for a test, his partner and co-founder of the company John Paul Sommer flies shotgun. They constantly convey and verify information throughout the flight as can be seen in the demo video above, where Nagle all but lands a plane while in VR.
“It is still 3DOF, but it is airplane-referenced,” explained Nagle. “In an airplane, the headset rotates in 2 ways; the airplane can turn, and your head can turn also. We do the math to keep head motion airplane-relative. We do plan to use more powerful headsets in future tests, of course.”
The concept is to create a safe way to train pilots in the air how to handle various situations like low visibility, bad weather, equipment failure, and even combat scenarios by simulating these things in a relatively safe VR environment.
So how does the FAA view this radical concept? We don’t know yet. If you’ll pardon the pun, Thrust Vector until now has flown under the radar.
“FAA approval is usually relegated to things which are permanently mounted in the cockpit,” said Nagle. “Nonetheless, we look forward to working with the FAA as we refine the technology to make sure we stay within the boundaries of common sense and the regulations. After all, ultimately the goal is to improve safety, not compromise it.”