In a virtual environment, students at the Royal Air Force’s Tornado Maintenance School are learning how to trouble-shoot, problem-solve and make repairs aboard a Tornado F3 with the click of a mouse. But this is no ordinary computer-simulated training program. Students are working on a computer generated, three-dimensional aircraft model, one that allows virtual interaction between the student and the aircraft, and the results are impressive.
The program, the first of its kind in the area of aircraft maintenance training, was developed by MUSE Virtual Presence in the UK. Taking on such an endeavor was no easy task. From start to finish, it took two years to create the program. The program is upgradable and Virtual Presence has guaranteed that during the next 10 years, as systems in the aircraft change, the virtual program can be updated, as well.
Precision is Crucial
A team of five people from Virtual Presence spent two weeks painstakingly photographing and measuring each component of the Tornado, bit by bit. There was very little electronic data, explains Bob Stone, scientific director of MUSE Technologies, which owns MUSE Virtual Presence. "We used really antiquated techniques, such as measuring with a ruler...I’ve never come across a project that requires so much detail."
The challenges, he points out, were related to the fact that there was so much work involved, and this was a reflection of the complexity of the aircraft. "We must have the best photographic records of a Tornado aircraft that have ever been made," says Stone.
"There were people who believed this wouldn’t work. ... It involves more than putting on a headset." In creating the program, Virtual Presence worked closely with the RAF’s Tornado Maintenance School.
The program was finally put to the test early this year as the first round of students took part in the course.
Applying the Knowledge
In this virtual world, the RAF found that students were able to absorb the material much faster than in a traditional classroom setting. "The other [traditional classroom] training course really doesn’t compare," says Tom Carter, RAF junior technician, who spoke to Avionics Magazine in October, four weeks into the course. "We’re taught the theory, and you actually get to apply the theory." He notes how the program allows the instructor to put faults on the simulated aircraft. "This is a really good aspect of the program, it helps to reinforce what you’ve learned."
So far, four courses, each with eight students, have been completed this year and the fifth is under way. After the first couple of courses, the length of time required for the course was reduced to about nine weeks, from 11 to 13 weeks. Because the amount of required learning time was reduced, course material time could be increased.
The class runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. "It’s Pretty intensive, but it’s the best way to learn," Carter adds.
When the course begins, there is usually just one instructor present, but towards the end of the course there are two to three. "We did see that we needed more than one instructor for the integration [hands-on] phase," says Sam Southwell, course mentor and coordinator for the RAF’s Tornado F3 training program.
The ages of students participating in the class generally range from 20 to 45 years old, so skill levels are different, Southwell explains. He observed that the older students took a little longer to adjust, while the younger ones were always using the mouse. But the course has been sculpted to provide plenty of opportunity for individual instruction for those who need it.
Once a student is finished with the virtual course, he can use the program to brush up on skills and review material prior to an exam. In a more traditional classroom training environment, there was generally a three-week downtime, so for three weeks, students were unable to practice (unless an instructor was present).
At the Tornado Maintenance School, an older Tornado F2 is used to supplement the virtual training. "We felt we had to get them out there. ...They still need some hands-on experience with the real thing," Southwell says.
After completing the course, Stone is confident that "students are 99% ready to take on the real thing."
In the virtual training program, if a student detects a problem with a line replaceable unit (LRU), he can simply "pull" the virtual unit out for inspection or testing, using his mouse. The program assumes that the student knows how to use screwdrivers and other necessary tools.
One thing that cannot be accurately simulated, however, is the actual time necessary to complete a task. The time required to execute an operation in the virtual environment is much less than it would be in the real world, Stone notes. A clock is running during the simulation. Clicking on the "replace" option sends the LRU to the spares office, and a new LRU is available as a replacement. The instructor moves between the eight workstations to monitor progress and make sure no one is having unusual difficulties.
A Matter of Time
"With a mouse click, a task may take just a couple of seconds," says Southwell, as opposed to real life, where it may take four or five hours. "One of the problems with this type of training is that students don’t get a feel for the time required to execute a task in the real environment."
"The hazards of working on the real aircraft can’t be simulated in a classroom," says Carter, who worked previously on Nimrods. "Like anything else, it’s got its little quirks," he says, but stresses that he prefers this type of instruction to the traditional classroom setting.
The Tornado course allows the instructor to have complete control over the environment. He conducts the examinations (virtual, hands-on, and paper tests); he can create faults, and has the option of increasing or decreasing the difficulty level at each workstation. Instructors can implement their own styles of teaching and have complete control over what each student is learning.
Stone says the RAF offered a number of suggestions for future fine-tuning of the interface. For one, they would like to be able to jump more quickly between the various sections of the aircraft. Budgetary guidelines, however, prevented too much change here, since this would involve modifying the cards, he says. Another recommendation: The virtual Tornado should be tidied up once work has been performed, but the program currently doesn’t require this. Just requiring that switches and knobs be returned to their appropriate positions would make the program a little more sensitive to real-life, he notes. And if the program included a feature that would consider short-cuts that are not performance critical, but would speed the process, this too would be very beneficial.
"To be honest, for a number of reasons, time was against us on this project," Stone adds, explaining that the RAF needed to expedite this program. "If we’d had two months at the beginning of the course, we could have removed all those tiny criticisms" regarding human factors..."making sure you have users on your side from day one."
Stone admits that there are going to be some areas that virtual reality will never replace, but the virtual environment reduces the time required in the classroom and more effectively utilizes the instructor’s time.
"The Tornado program was a tremendous opportunity for us," says Stone. The project resulted in the addition of two more staff members, and since its completion, Virtual Presence has taken on another three software developers and two business managers, growing the business from 12 to approximately 20. The company is now investigating opportunities with other firms and militaries for fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, although Stone could not elaborate at this time.
"I can see virtual environment training actually growing," Stone says, adding that there’s much more potential here, compared to two-dimensional computer training. There is no strange clothing or headset to wear and this particular virtual reality program costs about the same as a two-dimensional computer training program, he says.
It’s a Bargain
"There’s no reason why virtual reality can’t be used for other aircraft applications," he continues. Among the benefits: only minor modifications are required, and it has seamless applications, plug-and-play capabilities, and sees the "virtual" aircraft.
The RAF intends to continue to hold the virtual training course for the avionics training on the Tornado for "as long as the aircraft is in service" Southwell says. "Everyone is impressed with it," and although he can’t reveal any figures, he adds, "we did get a bargain."
AVS Joins MUSE Family
Albuquerque, N.M.-based MUSE Technologies Inc., the parent company of MUSE Virtual Presence, says it has agreed to acquire Advanced Visual Systems Inc. (AVS). The companies had hoped to finalize the transaction on Oct. 17, but procedures were delayed due to incomplete closing conditions.
Terms call for MUSE to issue a maximum of 2.1 million shares of common stock (19% of outstanding shares) in exchange for all of the outstanding common and preferred shares of AVS and a maximum of 1.3 million shares, subject to employee stock options. In addition, MUSE will assume approximately $2 million of AVS’s convertible debt from Kubota Corp. The sale will be completed through the merger of AVS into a wholly-owned subsidiary of MUSE and is expected to be considered a "pooling of interests" transaction, MUSE says.
Upon completion of the sale, AVS will be renamed MUSE Advanced Visual Systems. MUSE says it plans to relocate AVS’s headquarters to Boston, while sales, marketing, and technical operations will be conducted out of Albuquerque, Washington, D.C., London, Manchester (UK), Frankfurt, Milan, Paris and Denmark.
With this latest acquisition, the MUSE group will include the Perceptual Computing group of MUSE Technologies, MUSE Advanced Visual Systems, MUSE Virtual Presence, MUSE SimTeam, MUSE Simulation Solutions, MUSEvrSource.com and MUSE Federal Systems Group. Visit www.musetech.com or www.avs.com for more information.