Simulators on campus: UND Aerospace launches VR flight trainer

Odegard School’s new Virtual Reality lab represents pilot training’s next frontier

Students hone their flying skills in the new Virtual Reality Lab in the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

When he was being recruited as Associate Dean of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, Joshua Wynne made fast friends at the University of North Dakota when he said he was a pilot.

More than 15 years ago, he met with Bruce Smith, then dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, and found himself sitting in a flight simulator.

Recently, Wynne shared this story in front of a small audience of UND Aerospace faculty and staff at the unveiling of the School’s new Virtual Reality Lab in Odegard Hall.

“I managed not to crash,” said Wynne, now interim president of the University, to laughs. “It wasn’t pretty.”

Back then, he was in a version of some of the earliest flight simulation technology. Soon after his remarks, Wynne helped cut the ribbon to what may be the future of flight training.

A private pilot, President Joshua Wynne had little trouble getting into the cockpit and taking the UND’s new Virtual Reality aviation simulators for a spin. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

At the VR Lab’s official opening on Jan. 16, both Wynne and incoming President Andrew Armacost were among the first people to hop in the “cockpit” and fly a UND-specific Piper Archer aircraft in virtual space.

“Congrats to the whole team for all of your great work,” Armacost said. “The spirit of innovation and finding new ways to increase the rate at which we can train pilots is important for the entire aviation industry.”

The VR Lab in Odegard Hall is the result of five years of experimentation and workshopping done by Neil Nowatzki, multimedia specialist, and his colleagues at UND’s Aerospace Network.

Nowatzki’s first VR simulator station was crafted from plywood in his garage, with joysticks and throttles bolted to it. The four stations in the finished lab still have a minimalist look compared to the full cockpit simulators found in Ryan Hall, but that’s where the immersive properties of VR headsets come into play.

“It’s one of those things where you can try to explain it to somebody, but until they actually do it, they don’t really get it,” said Nowatzki, referring to the experience of wearing a VR headset. “It’s like you’re actually there.”

Fully immersed

While wearing a headset such as the HTC Vive units found in the VR Lab, users have a full 360-degree view of their simulated environment. Specifically, in the lab, users can see the full cockpit of a Piper Archer single-engine aircraft exactly as it looks a few miles away at UND’s Aerospace Flight Operations — instrument gauges and all.

Nowatzki said this capability is best applied to students who are just starting out in their flight courses, establishing situational awareness and the basics of stick and rudder skills.

“We’re focusing on teaching the basics of how to fly an airplane,” he said. “It’s ‘eyes outside’ in the lab. Students should be able to look out the window and, just by where the nose is, they should know whether they are level or not — are they climbing or descending.”

Incoming UND President Andy Armacost said the innovation displayed in the Virtual Reality Lab is the type that will effectively address training needs for future pilot demand. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

After the ribbon-cutting, both Wynne and Armacost successfully took off, flew and landed in virtual space. Each station has a yoke, throttle and pedals that fully interface with the computer system operating the simulator software and virtual reality headset. Many physical components for each station were custom-crafted by Nowatzki and his team. The lab features larger television monitors above the stations so observers can see through the operator’s eyes while in flight.

Even though people such as Wynne and Armacost have perhaps minimal exposure to this technology, the immersive nature of VR makes everything intuitive, said Nowatzki. If you had instead put a video game controller in their hands and told them to fly and land a plane, the experience most likely would have ended in (simulated) disaster.

“It’s really fun to introduce people to it,” he remarked. “Everyone takes the headset off after a while and they say, ‘I’m in this room. I forgot where I was.’”

“The only thing I can compare it to is introducing people to flying,” Nowatzki said. “Virtual reality produces that same kind of wonder and seeing things from a whole new perspective.”

Beth Bjerke

Associate Dean of Aerospace Beth Bjerke said the demonstrations featuring both presidents showed the potential for VR to intrigue people of all ages when it comes to aviation. With each station being on wheels, UND Aerospace plans to use Nowatzki’s VR flight rigs at air shows, industry events and in all types of engagement opportunities, including the upcoming UND Aerospace Community Day on Feb. 8.

“It doesn’t matter what your age is or your pilot skill level, anyone can enjoy it,” Bjerke said. So far, word of mouth has brought many into the lab to check it out. It’s free for students to use, and they can sign up for flight time just as they would for time on any other training devices in the aerospace school.

Clunky — for now

As Nowatzki has inferred, virtual reality isn’t by any means the “silver bullet” that’s going to replace all flight simulators — at least not in its current iteration.

He likened the current state of VR technology to the first cell phone: big, clunky and weighing five pounds.

Then Nowatzki pulled his smartphone from his pocket.

“Eventually, we’re going to get to this with VR,” he said, pointing to the sleek surface that’s near-ubiquitous in today’s society. “Everyone will be able to have the VR experience wherever they are, at any time. So what we’re trying to do is build our expertise, so as the platform progresses, we’re able to create content for our students.

“The technology is advancing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.”

Nowatzki noted that it’s students who will drive the use of VR in flight training and truly determine the direction UND takes it in the future. He credited his student employees for getting the lab to its current, operational state, and Kyle Weller, a sophomore helping manage the lab, joined Nowatzki in cutting the ribbon on UND Aerospace’s newest facility.

What Bjerke imagines in the future is a relatively low-cost capability with VR technology that will require less time in the aircraft for pilots-in-training. Such a development, in turn, would reduce the costs of aviation operations overall. She said UND hopes to partner with other institutions to gather data and develop a case for the FAA, regarding the technology’s legitimacy in flight training — a lengthy process at best.

“Meanwhile, this VR Lab will be great for outreach,” Bjerke said.