This is the first in a series of short articles on developments in flight simulation training devices (FSTDs) for military, human-in-the-cockpit, rotary- and fixed wing aircraft. These articles will include “deep dives,” highlighting innovations in the devices themselves and in their underpinning technology foundations. Additionally, the series will identify the collaborative industry teams and acquisition program dynamics enabling the delivery of new FSTDs. The training devices in these articles will be randomly selected from military training enterprises around the globe.
First up: a high-level survey of helicopter FSTD sector developments from the perspective of three randomly selected suppliers.
The prevailing wisdom in defense circles is the future of warfare is robotic. While technology advancements are quickening in the robotics market and orders for UAVs and other platforms pour in from defense departments, the military manned rotary market remains strong.
In Europe alone, this May, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified the US Congress of the possible sale of 60 Boeing CH-47F Block II Cargo Helicopters to the government of Germany. And across the Channel, in May 2022 the UK Ministry of Defence launched its New Medium Helicopter requirement with expectations the department may buy anywhere from 25-44 new airframes.
As helicopter FSTD suppliers build competitive moats around their offerings, they are integrating XR and other technologies into their products with huge outcomes. While these forward-leaning technologies have not yet nudged this training market beyond any tipping point, they are importantly, entering use at the enterprise level – beyond one-off, training command demonstrations and test cases.
Full-flight simulators and increasingly capable flight training devices (FTDs) continue to enter service and are being refurbished. Concurrently companies are gaining attention by unveiling smaller, less-expensive and even reconfigurable devices. At the end of the day, the new devices entering defense training enterprises are envisioned to meet regulatory agency standards, support the end-users’ increasingly rigorous operational training tasks and help deliver qualified, aspiring pilots faster and with reductions in training costs and other resources.
Frasca's portfolio provides an instance of another major trend -- supplying families of FSTDs (one above) --from FFSs down to increasingly capable part-task training devices. Image credit: Frasca
The US Air Force is eyeing the move of its TH-1H training program from the current Weapon System Trainer (WST) FAA Level-D certified simulator into Vertex Solutions’ (Vertex) Multi-place Mixed Reality (MPMR) Advanced Training Device (ATD) (MPMR).
Dennis Wikoff, President and COO at the Niceville, Florida-based company, explained the MPMR combines cutting-edge hardware and software in a compact form factor – one important sector trend – providing an immersive, realistic simulation experience. “MPMR incorporates the latest in mixed reality head-mounted displays (HMD), offering an unmatched level of realism. Complementing this are authentically represented avionics and instrument panels, combined with a purpose-built TH-1H platform and control-loaded flight controls, resulting in unparalleled training flexibility,” he pointed out and added the software, powered by Vertex XR technology, integrates top-tier 3-D visuals and aero models for a seamless and intuitive user experience, allowing for instance, trainees to “now visually perceive and interact with their own and fellow crew members’ hands and bodies, fostering an unparalleled level of tactile engagement with physical flight controls.”
Envisioning use cases beyond TH-1H, the MPMR boasts comprehensive aircraft models, encompassing intricate details such as circuit breakers, radios, and navigation equipment. Wikoff explained this feature enables the training of emergency procedures and other operational conditions, enhancing the overall realism of the simulation.
An intuitive Instructor Operating Station (IOS) rounds out the package. Built on Vertex's proven platform, it supports scenario setup, injects, recording, playback, debrief, and more.
Presenting other components of the business case to invest in MPMR, Wikoff offered traditional simulators, such as OFTs and WSTs, are costly to build and maintain, typically involve outdated visuals and terrain data, are less flexible to upgrade, and have more restricted access than XR trainers. “Combining the tactile feel of physical avionics panels that match what’s in the cockpit with the realism of improved and more cost-effective visuals, MPMR offers end users the most immersive training experience at a fraction of the cost.” He continued, “With this contract, the USAF will prove it’s possible to replace large, expensive, energy-intensive devices like the current OFTs and WSTs with Vertex’s smaller, more economical, and energy-saving MPMR flight simulators with no additional infrastructure costs.”
Roadmap to In-service
Vertex will deliver four MPMR simulators to replace the two WSTs currently employed for Undergraduate Helicopter Training at Fort Novosel, Alabama. These MPMR ATDs must be delivered no later than April 2024 to ensure zero gaps in training capability after retiring the legacy WSTs.
The operational MPMR simulators at Fort Novosel will incorporate D-Box’s motion subsystem to allow for 3-DOF movement and other aircraft vibrations.
More significant, Vertex will also pursue the initial classification of MPMR as an Advanced Aviation Training Devices (AATD) in accordance with FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 61-136B. This classification will increase the likelihood of government acceptance and pave the way for the future pursuit of an elevated FAA classification of FTDs or even FFS as governed by 14 CFR Part 60, to be pursued after initial government acceptance of the AATDs.
Another major, adjacent MPMR developments involves the Pentagon’s expansion of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) into the S&T marketspace – moving beyond the Iraq- and Afghanistan War efforts to skirt the cumbersome DoD acquisition process to deliver vital materiel faster to warfighters. In this case, Vertex is further developing MPMR under an OTA contract vehicle through Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – permitting the company to deliver a prototype within one year from announcement of the solicitation, and a full solution (five devices) within a 19-month period of performance. The initial contract requirement is to deliver a TH-1H rotary-wing simulator for 19th Air Force’s Helicopter Training Next program within Air Education & Training Command.
DIU endeavors to unite small businesses in a collaborative effort to generate innovative solutions for intricate problems, a commitment echoed by Vertex’s recognized industry partners on MPMR, which include Ryan Aerospace, Varjo, and Bugeye Technologies.
An MPMR video can be viewed here.
The Evolution of Phoenix
Elsewhere, the Boeing AH-64 Apache was in service with 17 defense forces when this article was posted. The global presence of the rotary aircraft and the opportunity to support its evolving training programs has Vrgineers’ attention. The Prague-based company’s CEO, Marek Polcak, updated MS&T on the evolution of his company’s conceptual Apache training device since it was exhibited 11 short months ago at 2022 I/ITSEC.
The executive initially pointed out the Apache Trainer stands out and also bolsters another sector trend – using its advanced mixed reality technology, which is seamlessly integrated with the physical cockpit. “This technology is powered by the XTAL 3 Mixed Reality headset and provides a unique training experience for Apache pilots. For every Apache pilot training program, our solution is a great complement that is both affordable and accessible,” Polcak explained and emphasized, “Moreover, our fast delivery and cost-effectiveness make it a convenient choice for both procedural and mission training of every army, compared to the official Boeing Full Flight Simulator.”
The response to the Apache Trainer during I/ITSEC 2022 was reportedly evaluated as “incredible,” so much so, Vrgineers allocated additional internal funding to enhance the simulator and showcase it at various 2023 events.
Vrgineers intends to exhibit its latest version of the simulator, labeled Phoenix, at next month’s I/ITSEC (booth 3018.) Polcak revealed this upgraded version features advanced instrumental panels from Bugeye Technologies and Vrgineers’ XTAL 3 Mixed Reality.
The CEO concluded that Phoenix was also developed as a combined effort of Vrgineers providing the mixed reality technology and cockpit replica, together with yet another industry team member, Digiflight, covering the training syllabus, generated by the subject matter expertise of their Apache Instructor pilots. “We are currently working on second generation design, which will provide combined training capabilities with pilot and gunner and JTAC.”
Other Global Market Devices
Frasca’s portfolio provides instances of other major trends. Most significant, the Urbana, Illinois-based company continues to deliver training devices from high-end FFSs on down to increasingly capable desk-top trainers to defense services around the globe.
Frasca’s expanding defense workload included the on-time delivery to the US Navy of all eight initial TH-73A Flight Training Devices. In a complementary major project, Randy Gawenda, the company’s Business Development Manager, noted Frasca is prepared and ready to “sun-down” the TH-57 FTDs Frasca initially provided with the TH-57 Aircrew Training Services contract. The corporate executive explained the TH-57 FTDs will be re-conditioned by Frasca to convert these devices into TH-73A FTDs. “Much of the hardware (visual domes, motion cueing system, IOS structure, and others) and software (visual databases, IOS, environment, and others) from the TH-57 will be leveraged to support the conversion to TH73A devices and represents a significant savings and re-use of equipment. It will also make the transition easy and straight-forward for the US Navy.”
One part of this Navy-industry training enterprise has Team Frasca working closely with their counterparts at FSI-Defense to ensure that FTD instructors and maintainers are ready to go as well. Other Frasca TH-73A training program industry team members include Varjo and Aechelon.
Elsewhere within the TH-73A training program, Frasca delivered seven MR part-task trainers (PTTs) and 15 desktop avionics trainers (DATs) – “100% accepted by the US Navy with zero discrepancies,” according to the executive. In terms of ROIs, Gawenda reported, in part, the DATs have proven extremely effective in avionics orientation, familiarization, and operational procedures. “Time is money and these DATs have proven a well-designed training ecosystem realizes efficiency and reduces traditional training bottlenecks in less advanced training systems.”
The executive also pointed out the PTTs “have been highly utilized since their acceptance, with student naval aviators (SNAs) lining up since the first period to get in as many reps and sets in these devices as possible. It’s interesting to note that while these devices are not mandated to be used specifically in the curriculum, the training wing reports that the line-up of SNAs is the only testament needed regarding their capability.”
Offering another imperative to not yet turn the page on FFSs, Frasca recently installed a Level D H225M FFS at the Indonesian Air Force customer’s facility with the training device undergoing its final on-site acceptance. Gawenda concluded, “The national aviation authority has qualified the device so the FFS is just working through the final stage to being complete.”
The defense rotary aircraft training enterprise is being populated by an increasing array of products, from FFSs down to ever-more capable part-task trainers. At the same time, X/A/V/MR technologies, reconfigurable options and other innovation are allowing these S&T industry offerings to be offered faster and at lower price points to the military customer. A significant trend and corresponding challenge for the OEMs of these new, forward-leaning devices is to gain regulatory agecy qualification, much as Loft Dynamics achieved with EASA for the commercial market.