Deakin flight simulator powered by $10k PCs

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Deakin flight simulator powered by $10k PCs
The UMS in action. Credit: Deakin University

Seeks commercial partners for pilot-training robot.

Deakin University is seeking industry partners to commercialise a flight simulator that suspends pilots-in-training up to seven metres in the air and spins along two axes.

Developed over 3.5 years with $285,000 in Federal funding, the so-called Universal Motion Simulator can be programmed to simulate the motion of helicopters, commercial and fighter planes.

It currently simulates Black Hawk helicopters; researchers say with it will take “months” to develop algorithms to simulate other aircraft.

As well as providing realistic, haptic feedback to pilots, the simulator can be connected to EEG and ECG sensors to monitor pilots’ brain and heart activity to determine their stress levels.

The simulator is a customised, industrial robot that is powered by what Saeid Nahavandi, director of Deakin's Centre for Intelligent Systems Research, describes as a “standard, heavy-grunt desktop”.

He said the 55-person research group replaces the $10,000 “state-of-the-art” desktop every six months to ensure that it has the best hardware to run its algorithms.

Older hardware trickles down to other research projects in the group with less compute-intensive demands. The lab also has access to a supercomputer, he said.

The simulator runs predominantly on Linux software. Nahavandi said the researchers aimed to use open source technology “whenever we can”.

Simulations can involve anything from three to 10 computers, depending on the trainer or trainee’s requirements. Systems are connected with standard Ethernet cables as well as gigabit links.

At the top end of the scale, a flight simulation can involve a mission-control room with ten screens, ground control staff, and systems that model scenarios pre-flight to determine how far a pilot can be pushed.

Pilots experience up to six Gs of force, control the simulator using a joystick and view a high-resolution 3D display mounted inside a headset.

During simulations, researchers store up to 1,000 thermal imaging frames a second, putting “terabytes” of data into Deakin’s on-premise data centre. Other simulation data requires a fraction of that space.

“We have access to a very large amount of data storage; so far, we have not had any problems when we want to dump information on existing data storage,” Nahavandi said.

Nahavandi declined to reveal the cost of the simulator due to ongoing commercial discussions, stating only that it was “a fraction of the cost” of existing, full-scale systems by companies like Boeing.

The simulator was launched this month by Innovation Minister Kim Carr, who described it as the “next big thing” in motion simulators and a “great leap forward for pilot training in Australia”.

Deakin’s Centre for Intelligent Systems Research also won an ARC Linkage grant of $210,000 to develop helicopter pilot training methods through simulation from 2012.

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