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How flight simulators make you think you’re flying

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How flight simulators make you think you’re flying

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If you enjoy flight simulators you might be interested in this quick overview of how the advanced flight simulator created by Simona Research  at the Delft University of Technology is capable of the replicating the sensations of flying an actual aircraft by manipulating the pilot’s senses in a number of different ways.

Imagine stepping into a cockpit, strapping yourself in, and feeling the rush of taking off without ever leaving the ground. This is the world of flight simulators, where the line between reality and simulation blurs, providing pilots with an incredibly authentic flying experience. The Simona Research Simulator at the Delft University of Technology is a prime example of this advanced technology in action, used not only for training but also for vital aviation safety research.

Simona flight simulator cockpit

When you’re in a flight simulator, it’s all about the senses. The goal is to trick your mind into believing you’re actually flying. To do this, simulators use virtual reality that wraps around you, giving you a 360-degree view of the sky. This isn’t just for show; it’s crucial for helping you understand where you are in space and preventing a dangerous condition called spatial disorientation. Remember the F-18 crash? That’s the kind of accident this technology aims to avoid.

But seeing the sky isn’t enough to make you feel like you’re flying. That’s where motion simulation comes in. The cockpit you’re sitting in can move in every direction, thanks to six powerful hydraulic actuators. This system is what makes you feel the turns and accelerations of the aircraft, adding to the realism of the experience.

How flight simulators trick your brain

  • Visual Simulation: The simulator employs three projectors to generate immersive visuals on a dome around the cockpit. This creates a virtual view from the cockpit, providing the pilot with realistic visual cues about the aircraft’s orientation and movement, crucial for simulating flight.
  • Hydraulic Actuators and Movement in Six Dimensions: The cabin is supported by six hydraulic actuators, allowing it to move in all six degrees of freedom (three translations: forward/back, up/down, left/right; and three rotations: pitch, roll, yaw). These movements simulate the physical sensations of flying, including takeoff, landing, and maneuvering.
  • Motion Cueing and the Vestibular System: A key aspect of simulation is motion cueing, which involves figuring out how to optimally fool the pilot’s senses. The vestibular system in the human inner ear plays a significant role in our sense of balance and can sense angular acceleration. Simulators use this knowledge to manipulate the sense of orientation and movement.
  • Specific Force and Seat Interaction: The forces between the pilot’s body and the seat provide significant feedback about the aircraft’s movements. For example, the sensation of being pushed back into the seat during acceleration is simulated by tilting the platform backward, aligning with how gravity and acceleration are experienced similarly without visual context.
  • Rotational Movements and the Washout Filter: Addressing the challenge of simulating rotational movements without causing disorientation, simulators use a technique called the washout filter. This algorithm adjusts the simulator’s movements to provide realistic sensations of turning (roll, pitch, and yaw) without maintaining a constant orientation that could lead to unrealistic lateral forces.
  • Acceleration, Gravity, and Tilt: Simulators must also recreate the sensations of acceleration and gravity. This is done by tilting the platform to simulate the forces experienced during climbs, descents, and acceleration, even though the aircraft (in the simulator) isn’t actually moving. This tilting creates the illusion of movement and acceleration through the interaction with gravity.
  • Integration and Illusion: The overall experience in a flight simulator is a carefully orchestrated illusion, combining visual, vestibular, and tactile inputs. The goal is not to replicate the exact movements of an aircraft but to simulate the sensations in a way that the brain interprets as realistic flight.
  • Spatial Orientation and Visual Cues: The importance of visual cues is highlighted by the incident with the F-18. The lack of visual orientation cues (due to darkness and low clouds) led the pilot to misinterpret the acceleration from the aircraft carrier’s catapult as a steep climb, causing a fatal error in judgment.
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In the interesting video below created by FlyByMax explains more about how flight simulators use technology and physics to trick your brain into thinking it is flying when in fact you are still firmly on the ground.

Here are some other articles you may find of interest on the subject of flight simulator software and controls :

The simulator doesn’t just move randomly; it reacts to what you do, just like a real plane would. This is because of behavioral modeling technology, which understands how pilots act and makes sure the simulator responds correctly. It’s a complex dance between your actions and the simulator’s reactions, and it’s what makes the whole thing feel so real.

Motion Perception

Your body has a system for balance and motion perception, and the simulator has to get this just right. If what you see and what you feel don’t match up, it can be disorienting. So, the technology works hard to synchronize the visual, motion, and forces you feel in the seat to make sure your internal sense of position is in harmony with the simulation.

Simulating the dynamics of an aircraft, especially during complicated maneuvers, is a tough job. The simulator has to copy the forces and movements a real plane would go through, which means the people who design these systems need to be experts in how aircraft behave and pay close attention to every detail.

There’s a part of the simulator’s control system called washout filters. These are crucial because they connect what the aircraft is doing to what the simulator does. They make sure the simulator’s movements are realistic and safe, while still giving you the feeling of flight. The forces you feel in the simulator also have to be spot on. This is where force calculation technology comes in. It makes sure that the forces during the simulation are just like the ones you’d experience in an actual aircraft. Getting this right is key to making the simulation believable.

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Gravity

Then there’s gravity. In real life, gravity and acceleration are always acting on you when you’re flying. The simulator has to copy these forces accurately for the experience to be truly authentic. It’s not just about feeling like you’re flying; you also need to know where you are. That’s why visual cues are so important. They’re not just there to look pretty; they help you stay oriented and prevent spatial disorientation. These cues are a big part of making the whole simulation work together.

The Simona Research Simulator is an impressive piece of technology, but it’s more than that. It’s a crucial tool for understanding how flying works, training pilots, and making flying safer. By bringing together the latest technology and design, it provides experiences that are incredibly close to real flying. And when you step out of the simulator, you can’t help but be amazed by the technology and human perception that come together to create such a realistic training environment.

Image Credit : Simona

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