Virtalis HCR Transforms Helicopter Training
The Defence Helicopter Flying School and its training service partner FB Heliservices recently installed three all new Helicopter Crew Reality (HCR) systems from Virtalis at RAF Shawbury and RAF Valley. Taking advantage of advances in computer graphics cards, tracking technologies and Head Mounted Displays (HMDs), the new HCR delivers greatly improved functionality.
Group Captain Jock Brown, Commandant of The Defence Helicopter Flying School, commented: “We’ve now fully integrated HCR into the structure of the courses we deliver to helicopter pilots of all three services, rear crew from the Royal Navy and RAF, helicopter instructors from all three services and operational aircrew who come to us for enhancement. Time spent on HCR has proved to be very valuable to our students because they are able to operate in a virtual environment just the way they would in a real helicopter. HCR’s realism is such that by the time they fly training missions, they are already much more advanced than they used to be, so are able to develop more quickly during their time in the air.”
Conceived as a VR training environment for helicopter rear crew, HCR now provides a realistic, virtual environment in which the whole crew can develop skills in team-wide communication during complex training missions.
Chief Flying Instructor, Commander Mike Greenland, explained: “HCR is just amazing. We can see at once whether the crew are scanning correctly and using the right techniques. There is a microphone system built into the HMD, so we can talk to the students; though to make communication harder, Virtalis has built in engine noise, just like the real thing.”
Virtalis has created highly realistic, computer-generated, 3D models of both the landscapes around RAF Valley and RAF Shawbury. These allow students and instructors to rehearse actual planned sorties. The instructors add markers to objects and features to create a mission path. Each target has an ideal approach height, but these can be manually changed by the instructors when emergency procedures are being practiced. As visual cues are so vital to the rear crew when they communicate with the pilot, HCR boasts accurate shadows, a realistic sea and even the movement of wind over grass. Scenario controls allow instructors to alter the weather conditions and the light levels associated with different times of the day and night. HCR also has a unique winch function, allowing crew to practice winch drills, verbal pre-load checks and load jettisoning. Although initially, HCR is always used with an instructor to both guide the students and debrief them on their performance, more advanced students regularly use HCR on their own, something that is only possible in a virtual environment.
Crewman Training Officer, Dave Evans, said: “HCR isn’t as good as the real thing, but it is as near as damn it!”
HCR is built around a Virtalis ActiveSpace immersive display system. It has two Dell computers controlling in real time what both the students in their NVIS HMDs, and the instructors looking at their monitors, can see. The students’ movements are tracked by a Polhemus Liberty motion tracker with the range extending to the helicopter cabin, including both doors. Virtalis has built a physical mock-up of the cabin interior, so that when the students interact with handles and levers in the virtual world displayed in the HMD, they can move naturally and touch the real physical objects at the same time as they reach for them virtually, further enhancing the sense of presence.
Group Captain Brown concluded: “We could train our pilots separately from our rear crew, but conjoint training is more cost effective even though it does takes longer. This is because it fosters the skills of Crew Resource Management (CRM) which can only be achieved when helicopter crews train together. They must be able to communicate as a team, learn the set procedures within the cockpit and cabin, judge distances and be consistently safe. We’ve had only positive feedback for HCR from our students. There is no doubt it has saved flying hours while enhancing training quality, thereby reducing costs.”