Three years ago, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) granted the first regulatory approval for a Virtual Reality (VR)-based flight training device. Approvals for additional devices have followed. A year ago, EASA published its special conditions for A/M/V/XR-based and eVTOL FSTDs.

But thus far, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not blessed the technology for pilot training credits, even though one Colorado organization, Highland Helicopters, has been using a device from the same EASA-approved company for more than a year.

That will change, hopefully, expectantly, this year, possibly as soon as the next couple of months.

All the approved devices to date are for helicopter models, but the VR visual technology is expected to play a dominant role for training in the new ‘rotary-wing’ domain, electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft. And given that simulating the aerodynamics of a helicopter is considered the most challenging, a fixed-wing VR should not be all that difficult to achieve quickly.

The FAA has a VR flight simulator from Loft Dynamics (formerly VRM Switzerland) – WATS Booth 411 - the sole producer of regulatory-qualified VR sims. Located at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, the Robinson 22 and Airbus H125 model devices are being used for various safety-critical research tasks, in part, because the close-to-ground visuals are three-dimensional and highly realistic.

An FAA working group has been experimenting with the two sims since last Juy. “They were really eager to dive into it,” said Fabi Riesen, CEO and Founder of Loft Dynamics, which now has a US base in Santa Monica, California. “It’s a specific safety thing to improve simulator modeling outside the envelope.”

“It’s very interesting the way we do full dynamic numeric simulation, representing how the physics are working,” he explained. “We can build the simulator, take flight data that has been recorded in the helicopter, and validate what the sim is doing.” This enables simulation of maneuvers which are too risky to do in the helicopter, such as full touch on autorotation: “too dangerous; you can damage the helicopter.” Or rotor blade stall: “it’s a stone; you will not get it back.”

“Flying outside the envelope, we can do that in the simulator with no risk to the aircraft. The visual system is close, but not real. The closer, the more realistic the better, and it can be used for modeling evaluation,” Riesen told us.

Since the FAA has the VR simulators available, “there is also an opportunity to make the inspectors familiar with the new technology. So we have many demos, fly-outs, and assessments going on.”

Riesen told me because there are no regulations for VR flight simulation, Loft had to meet traditional regulations for FSTDs. This is problematic when there is no visual display such as a dome or screen for the regulator to evaluate geometries, brightness and so forth. Loft engineers had to devise methods not only of making the simulation work but to prove to EASA that what was taking place in the headset addresses the specifications originally created for a projection screen.



The rapidly emerging eVTOL space is also putting pressure on the FAA to provide more detail on how the new sector’s pilots and maintenance technicians are going to be trained.

We’re starting to see a proliferation of eVTOL market-driven flight training devices and simulators. Textron’s TRU Simulation, for example, announced its clean-sheet Veris VR-driven device (“designed to meet both FAA flight training device level 7 and EASA flight training device level 3 standards”) in February at the HAI Heli-Expo conference. CAE (WATS Booth 429) is targeting the Advanced Air Mobility market with its 700MXR sim, and has partnerships with OEMs Beta, Jaunt, Joby, Vertical and Volocopter. Switzerland-based Brunner claims its Novasim VR Jet “is the most advanced Virtual Reality on 6 DoF Motion Simulator in the world.”

A German company, FAST (Future Aviation Simulation Technologies), has been demonstrating a modular-design eVTOL pilot trainer, which they claim can be readily adapted for type rating in a specific eVTOL cockpit – once the regulations are revealed.

The company is the brainchild of Captain Walter Drasl, a former flight director and instructor pilot at Lufthansa. “Everybody is talking about building and certifying eVTOLs. Every operator is talking about the problems with the operations and what to expect. Nobody is talking about pilot training,” he lamented. “If there will be thousands of eVTOLs flying around in the next few decades, where shall these pilots come from?”

“We brainstormed the mix of the latest technologies, such as mixed reality or virtual reality, eye-tracking analysis, maybe artificial intelligence,” he told us. “A new kind of simulator for a new kind of market.” 

One tech choice is the Varjo (WATS booth 411) XR-4 helmet-mounted display, the same as used by Loft Dynamics and a handful of other aviation training developers. “It was quite clear from the beginning that we don’t use the Apple Vision Pro,” Drasl said. “There are not so many options for flight simulation. That was clear from the market.”

The FAST eVTOL Series X flight simulator (FAST-Group – future aviation simulation technologies) consists of a base frame, motion system, computer system, and cockpit. “You can change the cockpit, you can change the control system, you can change the flight model. We adapt our simulator to each OEM.”

The proliferation of eVTOLs clamoring for market space (several hundred at last count by the Vertical Flight Society) will make type rating a daunting task, though the inevitable shakeout will reduce the viable market to a few models on which training developers can focus.

FAST’s eVTOL motion system is being designed by Marcus Lankes, Chief Innovation Officer for MOC Simulation, Berlin, who has produced motion prototypes for Indra, Reiser Simulation, and Havelsan. “The chassis is almost the same as a helicopter. But in an eVTOL you're not tilting the propellers itself like in a helicopter. The helicopter, when it goes forward in the beginning, it's doing some pitch and then it's equal. But a Volocopter always has to fly in a pitch of 12 degree. Because without the pitch, it's not sliding forward. The newest models have the push rotors to go forward because they have the wings. I developed a new motion system especially for VTOL.”

FAST’s previous simulator development experience is an Airbus A320 sim located at ProFlight in Berlin, albeit for public entertainment purposes, not for professional flight training. “Without certification, but very good,” said Drasl. The cockpit is from a retired aircraft used in South America



It seems the fundamental formula for success these days in a new technology startup is 1) alignment with a university research partner… in the case of Loft, ETH Zurich, one of the top-10 ranked universities in the world; in the case of FAST, Technical University Munich… and 2) partners or investors with the seed money to take a conceptual vision all the way through prototyping to the cutthroat market.

In a story destined to become legend – a la inventor Edwin A. Link’s flight through the fog to meet regulators in 1934 – a “serial entrepreneur” with the made-for-aviation name of Sky Dayton was at Le Bourget in Paris, getting his 5-week initial training for the Dassault Falcon 2000 at the FlightSafety International Learning Center, when he heard about Loft’s VR sim. “I walked across the street, got in the plane, and flew to Zurich to meet Fabi and the team.”

How long after that did you decide to invest in the company?, I asked him.

“Right then. As soon as I flew the simulator.” Dayton described the introductory experience: “This is incredible. I landed on the runway and had a little bit of forward momentum, and I could feel the asphalt under the skids. Wow! The resolution of the motion is so fine. And that’s something you would never get with the big hydraulic simulators in a traditional situation. No way.”

“What was really exciting to me was $1 million for a turbine helicopter simulator. It’s incredible,” hesaid.

Dayton told me, “I’m a big believer in simulators.” (He’s also rated on the Phenom 100 and 300.) “They work. The problem is they’re too expensive. They’re too big. And they’re so in demand they were trying to get me to take a 2am training slot!”

Dayton, who earned a bit of loose change by starting internet provider Earthlink in 1994 at age 23, led the Series A (first outside round) of investment funding for Loft Dynamics, which infused more than $20 million in the young company.

Another of the investors was good friend Ben Marcus, who leads the UP Partners venture capital firm. “UP Partners is focused on transforming the ‘moving world,” Marcus told me. “We invest in technology companies that are making transportation cleaner, faster, safer, more economical for people around the world.” 

At the most recent “UP Summit,” held at Ross Perot Jr.’s ranch in Texas, “we had some of the world’s leading innovators in transportation technology, as well as investors, policymakers, academics, and so forth. We had CEOs from some of the largest aerospace companies in the world. Also, luminaries like George W. Bush and Boris Johnson,” Marcus noted.

Loft Dynamics presented their VR flight simulator at the Texas gathering. “There was never an open demonstration slot,” said Marcus. “Every time I walked past, the Loft simulator was occupied. It was quite the hit of the show.”

Marcus calls himself “very passionate about aviation training and aviation generally.” He has been a certified flight instructor since he was 18 years old. He has more than 5,000 hours of flight experience in single-pilot jets, seaplanes, helicopters, gliders, and the Boeing 747.

Marcus worked at Eclipse Aviation in the mid-2000s, where they offered an Upset Prevention and Recovery Course in an L-39. One of his fellow Eclipse pilots was Randy Brooks, now Executive Vice President for UPRT provider Advanced Performance Solutions (APS).

“Sky and I have been dear friends for a long time, and have been flying together and making investments together. He came across Loft and called me and said, ‘Would you like to put a little bit of money in?”

“One of the major challenges, I think, facing the aviation industry is the pilot shortage,” said Marcus. “It’s only getting worse, not just because there’s a demand for airline pilots but because we have all kinds of new aviation vehicles that will come on the market – eVTOLs and electric airplanes of various kinds. And they’re all going to need pilots.”

Marcus reminded, “Loft is the only one that has gotten regulatory approval for a VR-based flight training device. It’s been three years since they got their approval. Why is it so difficult for other people to cross that threshold? There’s a lot of unique technology in the Loft system that I think is quite difficult to replicate. The coupling of the virtual reality with the motion, together with the ‘pose’ tracking that creates the real-time avatar of the pilot. Those things in combination are really, really difficult to pull off and then qualify that system to EASA standards, to demonstrate that this method of simulation complies with all the requirements.”

“There certainly are mixed-reality approaches being developed that use more transparent goggles where you can actually see your hands. But these come with all kinds of problems – motion sickness, other things that really reduce the fidelity of the simulation. This pure virtual reality approach (of Loft) is a much better solution.”

“If simulation could become abundant because it’s low cost, and becomes accessible to more people, the possibilities are endless,” Marcus continued. “You could imagine airline pilots don’t really have to leave their homes to train. You could just go to your local airport or warehouse with a simulator. You wouldn’t even have to be in the same cockpit as the other pilot you’re training with. Your flight instructor could be in a third place. I’m really encouraged that we have an opportunity to significantly enhance in-flight safety.”

Another company which UP has invested in is Beta Technologies, one of the leading eVTOL OEMs. They’ve also put money into Skydio, a small drone which Marcus calls “the world’s most advanced autonomous aircraft.” It can be an “adventure sport companion,” following as you ski downhill and filming the event. “It automatically avoids all obstacles. It doesn’t hit trees. It doesn’t hit anything.” (Hopefully the skier doesn’t either.)

Skydio can also be used for industrial enterprises such as inspection of power lines, bridges, and other infrastructure.

“We have a number of investments in enabling technologies for the future of transportation. Voyant Photonics is a solid-state LIDAR sensor, fingertip size. And Point One Navigation, super precise positioning (‘centimeter-accurate’), ie differential GPS.”

Dayton has been on the board of leading eVTOL OEM Joby Aviation since 2016, and led their Series A investment round. Around the time he bought his first Tesla. “I realized we were going to, inevitably, electric air transportation, just as we were doing on the ground. I had to figure out how it was going to happen and who was going to do it. I talked to every company in the space. I met JoeBen Bevirt from Joby and realized he was the most brilliant engineer I’ve ever met, and that Joby had it figured out.”

Dayton is actively involved in about 10 different companies. “I don’t have a lot of spare time. I fly airplanes, I surf, and I play poker. The three things that I love to do, other than spending time with my kids” (two of whom are engineers and pilots).