Despite its potential, virtual reality (VR) training in the aircraft maintenance domain is still maturing technology. The main barrier is the time it takes to create each task that has to be accomplished for training purposes. Mario Pierobon reports.

“We have to understand that this is an extremely delicate process. Every maintenance task, no matter how small, has to be precise to the smallest detail. And it is important not just because of the visual part. The mechanic that will train on the VR modules has to understand exactly what s/he is doing, not just the process itself but also the tools and the spare parts that would be used,” commented Ramunas Paskevicius, Head of IT and Innovations at FL Technics. “Everything is of the highest precision, and this provides a lot of benefits. One of them is that mechanics can train to do some specific tasks without the actual aircraft standing in the hangar.”

According to Pete Boeskov, Chief Technologist for training and professional services at Boeing Global Services, VR is continuing to develop and expand. “We see this as more than just the introduction of a new piece of technology into a training curriculum. It is a catalyst for change in terms of how we think about training and learning overall,” he said. “Coupling extended-reality (XR) technologies with mobility initiatives and data analytics will transform how, when and where students learn and how they grow through more personalised learning. VR becomes part of a continuum of learning delivery modes. It augments existing training techniques without adding significant cost, and many of the training assets can be reused across multiple delivery modes, e.g. tablet, desktop, VR applications. As VR is deployed, there will be a significant evolution of the training needs analysis to best match the learning objectives with the methods of delivery.”

“Training technology is trying to catch up to integrate the latest technology in its own platforms. However, there are already virtual reality applications available that offer viable training solutions. For example, we are able to offer virtual reality training solutions to support component identification and familiarisation and we are integrating virtual reality within our virtual maintenance trainers,” said Mitesh Patel, Vice President of Training Systems at L3Harris Commercial Training Solutions. “The biggest benefit of VR is that it is engaging and brings about a level of immersion to its users that challenges both their cognitive and perceptual abilities in ways that cannot be achieved in regular applications. It exposes users to realistic and in some cases dangerous scenarios and allows them to make critical decisions within a controlled and safe environment. The same training in non-virtual reality applications does not offer the same level of awareness and immersion required to properly benefit users.”

Rapid HMD Progress

The rapid progress of the technology, especially in head-mounted displays, is making VR a trend-setting and ground-breaking training medium.

“As a training provider we have gained experience in the development of 360-degree panorama viewers and virtual reality applications for training purposes. Our goal is to further improve our existing training media and applications by further integrating VR solutions into our training set-up,” said Panagiotis Poligenis, Head of Business Development, Innovation, Strategy & Product Management at Lufthansa Technical Training.

He added: “The advantages of VR training include supplementing and improving theoretical technical training by integrating practical elements of the engine or aircraft and the fact that VR brings the lessons to life and makes them more tangible and interactive. There is also independence from the availability of the actual engine or aircraft, as VR – unlike the real-life asset – is always available. VR provides an active role for the user, higher intrinsic motivation, a deeper understanding of topics or contents for the user, tangible/practical training.”

Airbus forecasts a demand for 640,000 new technicians over the next 20 years and is leveraging the latest technologies to deliver on new training capabilities. “Today in cooperation with Air France Industries KLM Engineering and Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M) we developed a solution that applies to engine run up (ERU) courses using virtual reality and offers the advantage to reduce significantly the need for full-flight simulator sessions for ERU qualification,” said Christian Delmas, Head of Maintenance Training at Airbus. “ERU VR offers an interesting solution to increase the number of training slots while reducing training costs and being more flexible, and this is training in any location and not only in flight training centres.”

Beyond the increased capacity, this solution also offers opportunities for training efficiency and knowledge retention. “As compared to a concept whereby theory is followed by four hours of FFS sessions, the ERU VR offers the opportunity for better sequencing theoretical and practical sessions,” said Delmas. “This solution can be used for ERU recurrent training as a free access to mechanics who want to refresh on standard or abnormal procedures; this is something an FFS cannot offer. For sure, there will be a ramp up in the use of this technology with the evolution of the solutions and the familiarisation of instructors and trainees. The transition phase will have to be managed step by step and carefully at the beginning as it is often the case when changes are introduced in processes or tools.”

As part its “MRO Lab Adaptive Innovations”, AFI KLM E&M started to use VR in 2016. It is now an established technology although not yet developed on all aircraft platforms.

“We prioritise the new aircraft platform such as the B787 or the A320 NEO, as it is difficult to have access to these new aircraft. The VR and 3D training reduce training duration and the cost to have access to the hangars and aircraft. We can also simulate events and incidents we cannot do on real aircraft,” said Denis Clement, Head of Training Development Innovation Digitalisation at AFI KLM E&M. “The limitations are the duration of using VR which last not more than 15-20 minutes compared to four hours in a flight simulator. The courses had to be adapted to this new technology with a mix of theoretical, VR and practical courses.”

Indeed, there are also still aspects of VR that limit the scope of training tasks to which it can be applied. “The current visual acuity of the headsets makes small text very hard to read. The limited field of view may impact spatial awareness,” said Boeskov.

As part its “MRO Lab Adaptive Innovations”, AFI KLM E&M started to use VR in 2016. It is now an established technology although not yet developed on all aircraft platforms. Image credit: AFI KLM E&M.

There are also limitations with regard to haptic feedback – i.e. advanced vibration patterns and waveforms to convey information about touch to a user.

“For example, users cannot feel the pressure of the nuts that they are tightening. However, new technology is being developed to help address this. Virtual reality is also importantly not a one-size-fits-all solution. It needs to be a part of a blended learning course which relies on the instructor’s experience and the users still need to be trained to a certain level before they can fully utilise and make the most of the technology,” said Patel.

According to Poligenis, the limitations of VR are that the modifications to the sessions are demanding and the availability of OEM data and the costs must be in proportion to the profit. Moreover, VR applications must meet regulatory requirements and be accepted by the competent authorities as a complementary training media.

Theory, Familiarisation, Practical

Different types of training can be delivered through VR applications. “At the moment, we build the VR modules for basic training and we are planning to develop the programme even further. VR is applicable to any type of maintenance training, including familiarisation training, as all the maintenance personnel can learn how everything looks and works at the aircraft. In general, we are developing VR in accordance to the needs of practical maintenance training,” said Paskevicius.

So far Airbus has implemented VR to ERU courses where trainees remain seated. During an ERU course the instructor has to manage a small number of trainees (two to four). “This is not the case for other general familiarisation or type-training courses where the instructor may manage a much higher number of trainees (up to 28 for approved courses),” said Delmas.

“Although our standard for approved courses combining theory and practical in classroom is 12 trainees, we consider that managing 12 trainees wearing VR devices is not realistic at this stage. However, the evolution of the VR technology and performance combined with its larger deployment in everyday life will facilitate the utilisation of VR devices in the near future. Our driver is always to select the best teaching method according to the teaching objectives.”

VR training can be used in several ways as long as the right didactic concept is pursued, explained Eike Nowiszewski, Head of Training Development at Lufthansa Technical Training “VR can be used as an introduction to a new maintenance topic with an explorative part. It can also be used for practical training up to a certain level. The VR application can never replace the practical training on real engines or aircraft, but improves the training and prepares the trainees for the expectations of the practical training.”

VR is particularly helpful when there is a procedure or scenario that is difficult or impractical to practice using the real aircraft and equipment. “It is also helpful when there is a complex system that is challenging to convey using traditional methods, especially when spatial awareness of the environment is important. In the virtual world there is much more opportunity to learn by doing. XR also enables us to bring remote team members together to collaborate and troubleshoot or simply provide the additional expertise needed to perform a particular task,” said Boeskov.

Clement highlighted that VR works with practice of certain maintenance tasks. “But we also have many 3D courses where students can learn on a tablet or PC how a system is working using the documentation from the aircraft manufacturer. We also use mixed reality using Microsoft HoloLens training which allows us to bring the aircraft to the classroom and show our trainees systems they cannot even see on a real aircraft, such as fuel or equipment cooling.”

An important benefit of virtual reality is that it offers the user an additional form of engagement and interaction that can help build perceptual awareness and spatial recognition. “This is otherwise missing from other solutions that do not offer the same level of immersion. These benefits are particularly useful for familiarisation and the practice of maintenance tasks as they require the student to be at the correct distance to each component to interact with it,” said Patel. “The dangers of being in a wheel becomes very real if someone makes a mistake and closes the landing gear doors. The reality of these threats and the consequences of not following the correct safety procedures are most apparent when tested in an immersive virtual reality environment. It allows users to become more familiar and comfortable with the aircrafts that they will be working with later in their careers.”

Risk of Alienation

Virtual reality can be alienating, and precautions should be implemented to avoid trainees and trainers experiencing it. “A large portion of the issue with alienation is the lack of familiarity with the environment and the technology. Good preparation for the training, such as explaining what the student will see and do can be beneficial. Also, ensuring through the process that they understand who is around them, and having good communication with those people in place can be helpful,” said Boeskov.

According to Patel there are undeniable nuances between training in virtual reality and training in real life that can cause alienation. “The point of using virtual reality as a training application is to increase the value of training each person receives weighted against the training they would get in a classroom or remote application. However, it still cannot fully replace them; it should complement these formats as part of a mix,” he said. “There are situations in real life that can be dangerous or extremely expensive with regard to training where virtual reality alleviates the potential risk. To avoid the experience of alienation in training, the virtual reality application needs to offer the right level of visual cues or realism so that the user can differentiate virtual reality from real life and still receive the perceptual awareness and immersion that virtual reality offers.”

At Airbus, efforts are committed to ensure that the risk for alienation is minimum. “As long as the training is managed by an instructor (at least the initial phase) and because there is sequencing of theory phases and practical ones with VR, trainees will not feel isolated. In addition, in the Airbus Maintenance Training concept, trainees often learn by pairs, to promote and reinforce communication skills,” said Delmas.

AFI KLM E&M is involved in the VR Ethics Committee, an independent group of psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, researchers, immersion experts, producers of immersive content and large companies. The committee was set up at the initiative of the French industry involved in immersive solutions.

AFI KLM E&M is involved in the VR Ethics Committee, an independent group of psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, researchers, immersion experts, producers of immersive content and large companies. Image credit: AFI KLM E&M.

“The committee’s mission is to define the rules to be respected and issue recommendations to the principals (sponsors, specifiers, pedagogical engineers, validators, trainers, students and users) and content producers in order to limit the undesirable effects of immersive experiences business uses,” said Clement. “The committee also aims to create a kind of PEGI VR in order to classify the immersive content produced by the studios with a goal of information of the mainstream user on the intensity of the impact generated by the experience.”

At FL Technics, before the specialists even started the VR project, research was conducted on what did not succeed in other companies that tried VR and failed at some point. “The bad experiences, like headaches, nausea and others came into target. Our engineers did the VR module and tried it on themselves, looking for ways on how to fix all the issues related to alienation in training. After many hours of testing, it seems that these problems are mostly solved and can occur on only rare occasions”, said Paskevicius.

Role of the VR Trainer

While under VR, the role of the trainer remains the same, i.e. s/he has to make sure that the required knowledge, skills and attitudes are acquired by the trainees, what is actually expected of him/her evolves in parallel with the embracing of VR technology.

“It has already been demonstrated that the ERU VR solution provides additional advantages compared to FFS, in particular for the assessment, as the instructor can really visualise the parameters the trainees are actually monitoring. In addition, in case of failed exercise, the instructor can repeat the required sequence of the procedure, whereas in an FFS the complete procedure has often to be reinitiated,” said Delmas.

As VR applications can record not just what actions a student took during training, but also where they were looking and how their body was positioned, VR provides more tools for a trainer to use during debrief sessions.

“The VR system also allows the trainer to direct student attention using 3D arrows or highlighting in the scene in a way that is simply not available when working with real hardware,” said Boeskov. “Also, multiple students in VR can be in the same space, so if there is a constrained environment (such as a maintenance bay), an instructor could provide guidance to a number of students simultaneously with them ‘looking over his virtual shoulder’ in a way that is simply not physically possible in the real world. With personalised, self-directed training, VR helps enable more training without a trainer present, or with one trainer supervising a larger set of students.”

Under VR the trainer has a greater chance of responding individually to the requirements of the trainees. “The trainer plays a leading role together with the development department, which promotes new technology solutions in the creation of the VR training to ensure that the didactic concept meets the learning objectives and contents,” said Nowiszewski.

The new role that emerges for the trainer is that s/he becomes a mediator between the trainee and the experience. “With digital, the trainer is no longer the one who knows, which must encourage learners’ interest and support for training, but one that excites and inspires learners, and promotes exchange. S/he is also the one who participates in the digitalisation of training in the company,” said Clement. “In addition to these functions, the role of the trainer remains unchanged in that s/he has to motivate and support the learners in their learning, and especially to identify the difficulties they may encounter to help them overcome them. In this way, it will not only stimulate interest in this training, but also motivate their progression on their professional skills.”

“The VR and 3D training reduce training duration and the cost to have access to the hangars and aircraft. We can also simulate events and incidents we cannot do on real aircraft.” - Denis Clement, Head of Training Development Innovation Digitalisation at AFI KLM E&M. Image credit: AFI KLM E&M.

According to Patel, the role of the trainer under VR involves both facilitation and actual training. “Facilitation occurs during unguided operations, such as the test phase of the pre-flight walk-around inspection or even building muscle memory during cockpit flow lessons,” he said. “However, by adding the use of avatars and allowing users to remotely interact in the same environment during exercises, the opportunities for training are endless. Trainers as well as other students can then view and analyse other users as they go about their tasks in virtual reality. Ultimately though, the instructor’s role will remain focused on teaching the students. Virtual reality cannot teach students on its own, it is an engaging and immersive platform to allow them to test and practice what they are learning.”

Originally published in Issue 5, 2019 of CAT Magazine.