The RAAF’s history of using flight simulators dates back more than 70 years, when the famous Link Trainer (or Blue Box) was used for basic instrument flight familiarisation
Since then, most of the RAAF’s aircraft have been supported by a flight simulator, each generation of simulator more advanced and more capable than the last. The evolution of technology driving the training and simulation ecosystem has accelerated enormously over the past 25 years. Modern simulators create a high level of immersion that engages the trainee on multiple sensory levels – generating environments and scenarios that are closer than ever to the real world.
Driven largely by the entertainment and gaming industry, the increasing performance of personal computers and graphics processing has led to rapid improvements in the quality of computer-generated imagery to support training by dramatically increasing the complexity and realism that can be displayed. Some simulators are now providing eye-limiting resolution displays – the fidelity is so high that at certain distances the simulation is indistinguishable from a real-world environment.
The use of game engines for training has been a major trend over the last 15 years or so, and while they are yet to fulfil all the requirements of a full flight simulator, they do provide significant capabilities for tactical and procedures training.
As well as becoming more powerful and capable, the computers that power this revolution are shrinking in size at a dramatic rate – what was once a room full of computers now fits into a single rack. Additionally, they’re cheaper to acquire, and require less power to run.
Similarly, virtual reality (VR) headsets are making amazing leaps, and are able to support tactical and procedural training in their current form. While VR headsets are showing rapid growth in the military pilot training area, they are yet to fully take hold in civilian pilot training as the regulatory framework is yet to catch up with the capability they can provide.
The advances in the technology supporting simulations are underpinned by another rapidly evolving technology trend – data science and artificial intelligence. This exciting technological frontier provides training organisations with the ability to analyse data captured from both simulators and live platforms to identify trends and patterns of behaviours that can be fed back into the training program to make improvements. Combined with advanced biometric sensors such as eye tracking and heart rate monitors, and technologies that assess the cognitive state of a trainee using this information, instructors are able to adapt training in real time and provide more objective feedback.
Over 25 years of training and simulation experience
Some of this evolution of technology and capability can be seen in the range of different simulation platforms that Thales has provided to the RAAF over the last 25 years. Of course, the technology revolution can also be seen in simulators provided to the RAAF by other simulator manufacturers.
Going back to the 1990s, Thales delivered a Mission Simulator to enable training for the F-111C Avionics Upgrade Program – a program which delivered an upgrade to the General Dynamics F-111C which had been in service with the RAAF since 1973. At the time it was delivered, the F-111AUP simulator was the most advanced flight simulator for a military fast jet aircraft in Australia, with a significant part of the development work completed in Australia. This simulator featured a complex tactical environment simulation and an Australian developed Image Generator. Thales provided maintenance and capability upgrades for the simulator, and training support, right up until the F-111 was retired from RAAF service in 2010.
The F-111 Mission Simulator was followed by the AP-3C Advanced Flight Simulator, and then the Wedgetail Operational Flight Trainer. The AP-3C and Wedgetail were both based on civil flight simulator technology, the E-7A Wedgetail being a heavily modified Boeing 737, and both simulators were qualified to the standards used to qualify flight simulators for commercial airliners, with additional military aspects accommodated.
The Wedgetail simulator incorporates a highly detailed air-to-air refuelling model, which is widely regarded as a world leading capability. The air-to-air refuelling model and the adaptations to convert the civil flight simulator to a Wedgetail were developed by Thales engineers right here in Australia. In this time, the improvement in imagery and reduction in computing and related infrastructure has become extremely evident across these projects.
The F-111 has been retired, and the AP-3C is transitioning out, but the Wedgetail has a long life ahead. Supporting military flight simulators over an extended period of time poses unique challenges. With an increased level of COTS technology forming the core of modern flight simulator design, obsolescence is a constant challenge. Military aircraft are also constantly evolving, requiring close attention to ensure the training provided in the simulator is valid.
There is also a need to support changes in operational employment of the aircraft by making updates to databases and tactical simulations. The need to maintain qualification standards requires close attention as well – simulation configuration changes need to be done in such a way as to maintain compliance with the qualification standards.
Of course, it’s not just been the RAAF that has benefited from technological advancements made over the last 25 years. Major defence platforms have all benefited from the improved training capabilities offered by advanced simulation technology.
The key to ensuring that simulators remain relevant and viable for training is ensuring a close alignment between technology development and the needs of customers. This not only includes delivery of systems that achieve the initial operational targets of the customer, but also operational through-life support and maintenance for the system, and providing appropriate supply chain support to ensure longevity.
This close collaboration with both the customer and training organisations encourages technical innovation and solutions that deliver better skilled and equipped graduates for both civil and military environments. Ideally, an integrated team with trainers, training development specialists and simulation specialists collaborating to develop and sustain a training system is the best approach.
Thales solutions have always been focused on ensuring the device provides a suitable representation of the aircraft while also providing strong support for the instructor.
In recent years, the focus has shifted to take full advantage of the capabilities provided by advances in data analytics, wearable biometric sensors, AI and cognitive neuroscience to enable optimal training at the individual level while respecting the needs of the training system as a whole. Ensuring problem solving, decision making and communications skills are gained from training as well as technical skills is becoming ever more important, as highlighted by ICAO’s Evidence Based Training initiative. The use of AI-based autonomous systems will have a significant impact of training requirements.
These developments are taking place as simulation continues to expand outside of the training sphere and is applied to other areas of industrial innovation. The concept of a Digital Twin is a good example of this. Representing a link between the digital and real world, a modelling and simulation-based digital twin allows the design, build and test of a system in a simulated virtual environment and then monitor real world assets and design updates in the same virtual environment. Though in relatively early days, the use of highly detailed models and simulation in this way will have major benefits for many industry sectors, potentially saving users millions in maintenance and manufacturing costs.
The ability to understand and react quickly with innovative solutions has been a key driver of the simulator technologies over the last 25 years. With the rapidly changing technology landscape as well as constantly emerging operational needs, this agility and responsiveness is going to be increasingly important. The need for a highly-skilled Australian simulation workforce has never been greater.
By Philip Swadling, technical director, Avionics, Thales Australia