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New virtual reality flight simulators propel aerospace engineering research at Auburn

By Joe McAdory

Published: Mar 23, 2022 6:55:00 AM

Assistant professor Umberto Saetti, seated, has the opportunity to study immersive human-machine interactions via two motion-based virtual reality rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft simulators. Assistant professor Umberto Saetti, seated, has the opportunity to study immersive human-machine interactions via two motion-based virtual reality rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft simulators.

Auburn University is home to possibly the world’s first set of motion-based virtual reality flight simulators to be used for research in an academic institution.

Recently installed in aerospace engineering’s Extended Reality Flight Simulation and Control Lab under the direction of Assistant Professor Umberto Saetti, two motion-base VR simulators – which replicate multiple forms of rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft — will be used for immersive simulations that make use of extended reality to study human-machine interaction, advanced flight control laws, and innovative pilot cueing methods.

“To my best knowledge, very few academic institutions have the capability of one single motion-base simulator that can be used for rotorcraft, general aviation, and fighter jet simulations. At the same time, probably even less, if any, institutions have two of them,” said Saetti, a recent Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award recipient whose research focuses on modeling, simulation, order reduction and control of high-order models of the coupled flight dynamics, aerodynamics, and aerocoustics of aircraft, rotorcraft and biologically inspired flying vehicles.

“With two simulators, we can simulate multi-pilot and multi-aircraft scenarios, such as refueling in mid-air, or even air-to-air combat.”

The units, purchased from Brunner Elektronik, a leader in virtual-reality flight simulation, allow Saetti and other aerospace engineering professors the opportunity to take research further than before, and future aerospace engineering students in rotorcraft flight dynamics and controls classes the opportunity to develop and test their own flight control systems. The simulators can be flown by use of virtual reality goggles.

“The department is excited about the unique and innovative flight simulators that sit at the heart of Dr. Saetti’s Extended Reality Flight Simulation and Control Lab,” said Brian Thurow, department chair for aerospace engineering. “Dr. Saetti is fully embracing technological advances and tools that will only grow in their capability, relevance and impact over the coming decades.

“I am pleased to see Dr. Saetti and Auburn University taking a leadership role in the adaptation and utilization of these unique tools to advance the state-of-the-art in modeling and simulation and flight dynamics and control. I also expect these simulators will have a significant impact on education as our students will be able to work and learn in environments that previously would only have been accessible via much more expensive and cumbersome full motion flight simulators that are generally beyond the capacity of an academic institution to design and run.”

Not only did Saetti acquire the VR simulators, they are made complete with haptic feedback suits (TESLASUITs), which will be used to provide pilots with important information – including peer aircraft location, landing zone locations, and rotorcraft noise – by feel on the body.

“The suits have an array of electro-muscular stimulation channels,” Saetti said. “We can use them in many ways. Some of the applications that we’re looking at, for example, is to cue the noise produced by the aircraft on the body of the pilot so that the pilot is aware and reduce the noise on a certain area of the ground. Another use is to cue a sensation on the body when the aircraft is being chased so the pilot knows the relative position, velocity, and acceleration of the other aircraft. This doesn’t increase the workload on the pilot, and he or she can keep his or her eyes on the gauges or skies, using the stimulation on the body to locate or escape from other aircraft. It’s skewing information through another sensory channel, which is haptics rather than vision.”

Saetti added the suits and simulators will be used to study flight control systems in helicopters when landing on ships, referring to his current, award-winning study, “Linearized High-Fidelity Aeromechanics for Extended Reality Simulation and Control of Shipboard Interactions.”

“This equipment gives us the opportunity to provide potential partners like the U.S. Army or U.S. Navy with an unprecedented way of conducting simulations, but it also provides us with an opportunity to investigate new means of conducting flight simulation itself. We look forward to this new world of flight simulation and the endless research opportunities it brings.”

Media Contact: Joe McAdory, jem0040@auburn.edu, 334.844.3447

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