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Up in the Air—Without Leaving the Ground

Engineering’s New Immersive Flight Simulator Will Test the Rigors of Flight for Safer Skies

By Maggie Haslam

Two people view monitor while another sits in flight simulator chair

Writer Maggie Haslam (right) unsuccessfully flies a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter through trees, powerlines and fast food establishments at the new Extended Reality Simulation and Control Lab, while Assistant Professor Umberto Saetti and graduate student Michael Morcos assess the damage. The lab reproduces different flying conditions through motion-based VR simulation and haptics for flight research and training.

Photos by John T. Consoli

Last week, I made an unexpected stop at the McDonald’s drive-thru in the most literal sense. As I barreled toward the parking lot, the rotors of the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter I was flying sheared the golden arches clean off the building’s façade.

No one was hurt, and I didn’t scrap a $20 million chopper in the process. The removal of my virtual reality (VR) headset transported me instantly (and with relief) to a spacious lab on the fourth floor of the IDEA Factory at the University of Maryland. But my churning stomach and frayed nerves reflected an all-too-realistic seven minutes in the cockpit, and a grim realization: Flying is hard.

This crash-and-burn scenario was enabled by the new Extended Reality Flight Simulation and Control Lab, launched by the Department of Aerospace Engineering this spring. It’s the first university-based facility in the United States to reproduce different flying conditions in various types of aircraft through motion-based VR simulation and haptics, which provide information through tactile feedback like rumbling and vibrations.

“Our objective is to increase immersion and recreate scenarios that are difficult to simulate otherwise,” said Assistant Professor Umberto Saetti, who founded and directs the lab—“and ultimately, increase flight safety.”

Saetti’s setup is about as immersive as you can get without leaving terra firma: What looks like an upscale gaming chair bolted to an elevated platform seems to magically transform once you buckle in and gear up. VR goggles conjure an empty cockpit and a full instrument panel at your virtual fingertips, with a sun-drenched tarmac just beyond. Headphones flood your ears with the roar of the engine—and in my case, the thump of the rotor blades—with the platform oscillating in response to the controls: a gentle nudge of the cyclic (or control) stick forward and my chopper comes to life, pitching me up and out over the small town beyond the airport.

Woman wearing glasses looks at computer monitor
A full-body haptic suit uses electrical muscle stimulation to nudge a pilot to maneuver right or left in a low-visibility flight scenario.

He developed his lab after seeing the limitations of conventional flight simulators, which use big-screen projectors built on top of gigantic motion bases, with a price tag of several millions of dollars (compared to Saetti’s set up, which runs around $400,000). And while they excel at training pilots to operate just one type of aircraft, at UMD’s lab, the sky’s the limit: With just a few keystrokes, a variety of aircraft can be flown through the simulator, from a Black Hawk helicopter to an F-18 fighter jet. Within a few months, a lunar lander will join the rotation.

The team is also testing a full-body haptic feedback suit, traditionally used for gaming, to explore new methods for providing sensory cues to help navigate low-visibility situations, hostile flight scenarios or visually impaired pilots. Made by Teslasuit, the snug, Catwoman-like getup I wriggled into in the IDEA Factory ladies’ room is outfitted with over 100 transcutaneous electrical muscle stimulation patches, similar to what is used in physical therapy, to replicate everything from the feeling of rain on your skin to the jolt of a bullet puncturing body armor. Gentle tingling on my shoulders during a separate, blindfolded simulation nudged me to maneuver left or right to keep my plane level.

“If you only feel the motion of the aircraft and can still fly without vision, that could be useful in a number of scenarios,” said Michael Morcos, a graduate student working in Saetti’s lab. “We’re trying to prove that’s actually possible.”

Certain weather-related flight conditions, such as the fog encountered by John F. Kennedy Jr. off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard during his fatal flight in 1999, can put the cues a pilot gets from their instruments (which are correct) in direct opposition with what they are feeling; haptics, said Saetti, could help eliminate confusion about what’s up and what’s down. The suit—which monitors biometrics like heart rate, pulse and cardiorespiratory activity—could also help pilots track external activity like approaching aircraft.

Saetti’s team is currently conducting research for the U.S. Army and Navy, as well as NASA, which together have provided the lab with $1.78 million in funding so far this year. In the future, the researchers plan to work with kinesiology Professor Bradley Hatfield to monitor brain activity and track stress and other human responses to flight.

Someday, the lab’s haptic innovations could take flight on actual aircraft to reduce a pilot workload and enable more difficult missions without compromising safety. “Our job is to come up with and demonstrate new ideas, then the companies can do the rest,” said Saetti.

Although precision flying runs in my blood—my grandfather piloted B-24 bombers during WWII—it’s clear I have a lot to learn. That’s the beauty of the simulators, said Saetti: Whether you’re a seasoned military or commercial flier or a land-loving writer, you can undergo incredibly realistic, often tricky flight experiences without leaving the ground.

Or imperiling someone’s Big Mac.



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