Like many pilots, I remember that more than once my flight instructors accused me of trying to fly an airplane right through the runway. That error is part of learning just how much to flare, or pull back on the controls to slow, then stop, and descend to land. Pull too much, and the plane tries to float back into the sky; not enough, and—bang!—you’re attempting to dig a trench down the centerline of the concrete.
It’s a frustration and a humiliation, to be sure, until you master the skill of bringing a plane back to Earth. Still, the part about digging through the runway has always been metaphorical. Until now.
Meet Fused Reality, the latest mashup of flying and simulation from a company called Systems Technology. Soon, student pilots may be able to fly a real aircraft into the ground and out the underside of the runway. Or, feel the sickening speed with which an uncoordinated, base-to-final turn flips into a stall and spin. Or fly countless other instructive scenarios—all in a real airborne aircraft—but without the bent metal and carnage.
Ah, but killing yourself, even virtually, isn’t the point of Fused Reality. Instead, it offers a platform for learning how not to die in a plane. If you can practice challenging maneuvers with the safety of simulation visuals but in the real world of an actual flying plane, you can become a proficient and safe pilot much more quickly.
Here’s how the Fused Reality system, currently in U.S. military testing, works: The pilot wears a viewing screen and a head-tracking sensor. Mounted on a military aviation helmet, the system looks like the headgear that Rebel Alliance pilots wear in their Star Wars X-wing fighters. I already want one.
That headgear connects to a laptop-sized inertial measurement unit (IMU), which can determine an aircraft’s GPS position, altitude, airspeed, rate of climb, bank angle and any other information needed to understand the plane’s motion.
If the pieces sound off the shelf, though, the overall experience is magical. Say, you’re flying along at a safe altitude of 5,000 feet above the ground. Everything inside your plane looks normal—the controls, the avionics, your hands. But look outside, and there might be a virtual landing strip and terrain just 500 feet below. Go ahead, flyboys and flygirls: Try your most reckless landing technique!
Systems Technology President and Chief Executive Officer Dave Landon, himself a former Navy pilot, explains how it feels: “Say, I start coming into the approach line and I’m overshooting it. I start yanking and banking and pulling the nose up, and suddenly that wing breaks [into a stall]. As I see the ground rushing up, I have something that’s very visually impactful.”
Impactful. Uh, right. But, thank goodness, only visually.
Fused Reality came about as a result of a military research project. Navy instructors were looking for a realistic way to train the crew that rides in the back of helicopters. What if, they mused, soldiers could sit in a parked chopper and experience a normal cabin inside, but a realistic combat scenario outside.
Landon and his crew put together the headgear and software to do just that. But, he remembers that when NASA researchers saw the result, they asked, “Hey, do you think you could take this technology and make it airborne?”
The first assignment was to help military pilots practice aggressive landing procedures with high rates of descent and steep bank angles. With a Fused Reality system, they could mess up the flare without messing up a fighter plane.
From that success, the simulation scenarios mushroomed. Take, for example, aerial refueling. It’s a difficult, precision maneuver to learn. Expensive, too. Pilots must guide a probe that extends forward from their plane into a small target basket that’s floating along behind a tanker plane. Fly into the basket, and you’re done practicing until repairs can be made. And, with tanker time in high demand, sometimes students show up at their practice area with no tanker to be found.
“With our system, the tanker is in the laptop, so it comes along every time,” says Landon. “If I fly into the basket, there’s no harm. Just back off and redo the scenario.”
In such a fine-control maneuver, he adds, being in a real airplane is a big advantage over a ground-based simulator.
“All the perturbations of flight are there with you, the turbulence, everything,” he says.
The U.S. Air Force recently has been testing another precision scenario: Formation flight. Not only does the need for multiple aircraft aloft ring up the Jet-A bill, flying planes close together creates significant risk. With Fused Reality, a single pilot can maneuver alongside virtual planes—joining up, swapping leads and breaking away without breaking anything or breaking the bank.
Landon also envisions aircraft carrier pilots using Fused Reality for training while on deployment. Imagine sitting inside a parked plane on the hangar deck en route to a combat theater. Pilots could cockpit-fly the mission over and over again in their plane as their ship slowly steams across the water. By the time they arrive in theater, they will have pre-flown the mission to memorized perfection.
It’s all very exciting, provided you’re an F-18 pilot. What the rest of us want to know is, when can we get one of these things? While Fused Reality is not yet ready to stock at Sporty’s, that day may not be as far off as you might think. Systems Technology has been working its way through NASA’s Technology Readiness Level scale, which ranks ideas from basic principles (TRL-1) to flight-proven in mission operations (TRL-9). Fused Reality is currently at TRL-7 status—almost ready for commercialization.
Once the system is scaled for military use, can consumer applications be far behind? The most expensive part of Systems Technology’s solution, Landon says, is the head-mounted display, at about $20,000. That’s owing to super-high-end, organic light-emitting-diode screens (OLEDs) that merge real world with synthetic skies at 240 frames per second.
The price of head-mounted displays is nose-diving, though, with the release of the consumer-grade Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and other products debuting this year.
Don’t expect to be strapping in to your Cirrus and strapping on a $20 Google Cardboard headset, though. Already, there have been reports of consumers made nauseous by headsets that don’t synch well enough with their heads. Image quality, too, is a key concern.
“You have to be able to see the instruments inside the cockpit clearly,” Landon says. “If you can’t do that, it somewhat defeats the purpose.”
As Wired recently reported in its review of the Oculus Rift, “VR is not a problem of making it ‘work.’ VR is a problem of making it perfect, because anything less than perfect equals ‘OK, cool, now get this thing off my head.’”
So, Cardboard, out. But maybe Oculus Rift, in? There’s still quite a performance gap between Rift and the Fused Reality displays. With the right computer driving it, the Rift has been reported to pump out nearly 100 frames per second for gaming. It remains to be seen whether that’s enough.
Landon admits he’s on the list to get his hands on a Rift, “along with about 500,000 other people. We’ll just have to see how that works out,” he says.
In the meantime, watch your flare, people. And if you overshoot, just go-around. Still, it’s cool to know that help is on the way. When that day comes, I can’t wait to practice my Blue Angels routine.
A commercial pilot with instrument privileges, Grant Opperman is a writer and business strategy consultant who flies himself to more than 20 states across the U.S. for business and pleasure.