Saying I was excited about it is an under-statement. The platform seemed cool and concept even cooler: VR and a full-motion platform to fly helicopters? Sold!
When I arrived at the location (the HSR - Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil, a university some 40 minutes away from Zurich) I found a team of no less than 6 persons waiting for me (plus Adi, the guy that picked me up at the airport – thanks, Adi!).
On the platform, I recognized Mr. Claude Vuichard, which I already knew to be involved in the process – that made me even more interested and curious about the project. I later found out Mr. Vuichard was testing some of the latest tweaks done on the R22: some negative-G maneuvers. Stuff that you should not do on the real R22. And now, not on the virtual one as well.
That was a bit team but I learned there were 4 entities present there: VRMotion, IPACS (the developers of Aerofly), Mr. Vuichard (of Vuichard Recovery) and Dr. Prof. Guido Schuster of the Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil university. VRMotions' partner, Brunner, the company that produces the unit was absent, which is a shame. I would like to have met them as well and congratulate them on a job well done.
Lots of handshakes later, Fabi Riesen of VRMotion started to show me around the motion platform; how it was built, the history, the challenges behind the technology, and how they solved a lot of different problems with such platforms.
He started by telling me that they were using regular 220-230V power instead of the industrial three-phase 400V a lot of other systems require. So, you could put it in your living room if you wanted (and afforded) to. That’s actually where the project started: in Fabi’s living room (his r wife must be a saint).
The actuators are also not pneumatic or hydraulic, which means there are no leaks. They are pure engineering heaven, with some very well-designed parts that allow for 6 electrical engines to move the lightweight platform around rapidly. This means the response is within the milliseconds bracket. No kidding. It’s that fast -- as I was about to find out.
The software of the platform is also a big part of the secret sauce. I won’t get into any details, but I’ll just say that it’s a very smart and amazing approach to solve the motion sickness problem that could become serious. It also give you the true feeling of what the aircraft is doing. As a developer myself, I could appreciate the fine coding craftmanship behind it.
The first contact
Climbing onto the platform I was greeted by a very nice seat, my good friend Pro Flight Trainer Puma and the HTC VIVE.
Because I already know Aerofly 2 (even if I had never flown the R22 before), a lot of variables were removed: the same control and VR system I use daily and a sim that was no stranger to me. The biggest difference was the platform – that was the only new thing to me.
I strapped in and took the R22 for a spin without VR and without any motion, just to get a feeling of helicopters in Aerofly as this was my first contact with them. I then took off, flew for a few seconds and landed. It felt solid. The R22 was twitchy but I expected that. It was time to try it all out: full-blown VR and motion.
Aerofly and there I was again but, this time, inside a beautifully rendered R22 all around me. I centered the view and started raising the collective.
Holy cow. The thing moved! Pedal was, of course, necessary and I took her off the floor – but I felt that need for pedal, more than saw it. I hovered for a couple of seconds just to get the overall feeling and immediately pushed the cyclic to get some forward movement. I had to get used to all these new sensations and I wasn’t to crash in front of so many people, was I? Of course not!
I did a 180º turn and saw a square painted on the floor further down the airfield. I decided to see if and how I could land there.
Meanwhile, I felt everything the helicopter was doing. Again, I noticed I was feeling more than actually looking at what the helicopter was doing. I focused on the square and prepared to land. Perhaps NOW I would crash and show what a lousy pilot I am. The R22 is being tweaked as per Mr. Vuichard’s instructions so I wasn’t expecting it to be easy – especially because I am not a real pilot.
I approached the landing area I chose, and I immediately noticed something that put a smile on my face (for real – I could feel my cheeks coming up).
You see, I have a problem with landing, even in VR. I usually “hover-short” my landing zone. What I mean is that I tend to hover before the area I want to land on, instead of over it. So, I always have to correct it and put the helicopter in motion again.
Not this time, though. I felt the helicopter stopping so I corrected before stopping and hovered on top of the square, bringing it down gently. And then, I felt it touching the floor as well.
I was impressed.
Let’s see what this can do
I was getting familiar with the helicopter and the sim, so it was time to push it a bit harder.
I took off, gained some speed and started buzzing some trees and some houses, pushing the pedals hard to see how fast the VRMotion platform would react to what I was doing.
Fabi told me it was fast to react, and fast she was indeed. The platform immediately provided the necessary physical feedback. I felt all the maneuvers and I didn’t get sick at all until the very last part. In VRMotion’s defense, I pushed it harder and harder and did a lot of crazy maneuvers. I would probably get sick in a real helicopter as well.
Every little detail, every little cyclic push, every little pedal input, everything I did was immediately reciprocated by the platform and passed on to me in the form of a physical sensation.
Everything I have been told by pilots was true: having the physical feedback makes the difference. I was feeling the aircraft more than I was using my eyes and that allowed me to do the best flight I have ever done in a sim.
I’m not kidding. It made THAT much of a difference and I am 100% sure it was because of the accuracy of the platform that was providing me all the correct feedback, making my brain realize what was happening as it put all the pieces together – visual, haptic and feeling.
I would say the platform makes as much or a bigger difference than going from no-VR to VR. VR is a game-changer. Adding the platform makes it all insanely better.
Another test I did was to practice some vertical reference. I didn’t do anything too fancy. I just tried to hover a spot at a higher altitude while looking down and keep myself in that general area.
This is usually hard because the helicopter may start to move without you noticing using just your eyes. You’ll only manage to understand what’s happening when the helicopter is already moving at a speed that requires you to perform larger corrections.
With the platform, I was feeling what was happening, so I could correct it before my eyes caught it. I was acting, instead of reacting now and that makes a world of difference. Yes, I did stray away a bit, but I believe that, with a bit more of practice – and perhaps an instructor –, I would eventually nail it.
The future of pilot training
It’s cool, right? This platform, with VR, is such a nice toy. A novelty in these times of VR and crazy stuff.
It’s way, way more than that, folks. This is a simmer’s dream, but this is being developed to be used as a serious training tool.
If you didn’t guess it yet, Mr. Claude Vuichard is not really in the entertaining business. He is someone very serious about helicopter safety. Knowing someone like him is involved in such a project speaks very loudly about the quality and the seriousness of said project. I expected nothing less than quality and excellence. But it surpassed my expectations.
I had the chance to talk with Mr. Vuichard and he was extremely enthusiast about it. I was impressed to see how committed he is into the project and how much he believes in it. He told me that a lot has already been done to try and reduce accidents with helicopters but that things have not changed a lot and that he believes that “using this solution could result in a reduction of 60 to 80% of accidents”.
With the “solution” (the VRMotion platform in use with IPACS’ Aerofly) pilots can be trained to act to situations by performing procedures under the conditions they may occur. As he put it, “if you practice a maneuver and you fail only 3 out of 100, you still die 3 times – and we only have 1 life”. Using this solution, we can have pilots practice until they manage to get out of those deadly situations 100% of the time.
Mr. Vuichard’s beliefs are not just because of the performance of the platform and the simulation. Yes, we are talking about a lightweight platform; lighter (and much cheaper) than the 20 million sims out there, that responds faster to everything you do and, on top of that, allows you to use VR and look around – even down. I liked the quote from Mr. Vuichard: “If you look down on a 20 million sim, you’ll see the cleaning lady moping the floor under the simulator. Here, you will see your helicopter and the ground, inside the simulation”. So, you can do more – a lot more –, using this solution.
This platform is also a lot cheaper to operate than one of those huge sims, allowing for more training time, which will, in turn, allow for pilots to be trained out bad habits. Or, like Mr. Vuichard calls it, “negative learning”, where you have learned some procedures wrongly. You really don’t want to die 3 out of 100 times, right?
I started this article by mentioning professional and hobby sims. This has been a market that has been separated for quite some time and hobby sims are usually looked upon as something "for kids". VRMotion and IPACS are turning the tide here and presenting something that looks a lot like coming out of the hobby market (and eventually does) but with a quality and features that place it right into the professional market.
These teams are doing something remarkable that will allow pilots to train harder, better, faster and cheaper than before. Now they just need to put it on the market and get agencies and companies to use it.
Now, please do keep in mind that I am no real pilot. My only experience is with sims and I do know a lot of theory. My experience with VRMotion’s platform fit on every piece of information I got from books and talking to real pilots. I am trusting Mr. Vuichard’s and Christoph’s experience in real live when they say it’s just like the real thing.
As for myself, I trust this is a high quality, well-built, impressive product that makes a world of difference in flight simulation. And, on top of everything, it’s being used with a sim that we have available to all of us (both hobbyist and professionals): Aerofly 2.
This, folks, is the future of pilot training. And I am very honored that I was invited to see it with my own eyes.