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AIAA 2009-5832

AIAA Modeling and Simulation Technologies Conference


10 - 13 August 2009, Chicago, Illinois

A Low Cost Flight Simulator Using Virtual Reality


Tools
Ilkay Yavrucuk
Middle East Technical University, Ankara, 06531, Turkey

Eser Kubali
Aerotim Dynamics LLC., Ankara, 06531, Turkey

Onur Tarimci
Middle East Technical University, Ankara, 06531, Turkey

Deniz Yilmaz
Middle East Technical University, Ankara, 06531, Turkey
A simulator is build using Head-Mount-Displays and Data Gloves with trackers to test
the viability of virtual reality tools in flight simulation. The simulator uses FlightGear as its
simulation environment. Running several clone simulations on different computers allowed
stereo imaging on the HMD and instructor station applications. Data Gloves with trackers
enabled interaction with the virtual cockpit. A Uh-1h helicopter flight dynamics model
is developed, compared with flight test data and used in the simulator. This experience
has shown that a simulator with minimal hardware, but more intensive software and using
virtual reality tools can be a potential simulator configuration in future, being more realistic
and lower in cost than existing ones.

I.

Introduction

The idea of Virtual Reality (VR) has been the corner stone of simulation dating back to 1965 when Ivan
Sutherland laid the vision that the visual interface should not be thought of a screen, but rather a window to
a virtual world, that looks real, sounds real and reacts in real time.1 Several decades later, vehicle simulation
still relies on big, bulky and expensive environments to enable a believable virtual world: Vision is provided
through expensive cameras, almost real life cockpit avionics and pilot controls are mounted on cockpit-like
structures and the whole structure is moved by heavy-mostly hydraulic driven- motion platforms. Yet, many
short comings are present. For instance, a 3-D imagery or a 360deg view is seldom available, even in high-end
vehicle simulators. As the fidelity of the simulators are reduced, so is the cost and size and its feel to reality.
Clearly, a new approach of hardware and software could benefit flight simulators in the sense that it would
reduce cost and hardware size. Virtual reality tools present a promising alternative to traditional simulator
hardware.
In Ref.2 VR is defined as a virtual reality experience as any in which the user is effectively immersed
in a responsive virtual world. Four crucial technology barriers are mentioned: The visual (and aural and
haptic) displays, graphic rendering, tracking system, database construction of the real world -all of which
become increasingly achievable at lower costs. Additionally, synthesized sound, synthesized forces and haptic
sensations, devices such as data gloves to interact with the virtual world, and interaction techniques that
substitute for the real interactions possible in the physical world are mentioned as supporting technologies.
Faculty

member, Department of Aerospace Engineering.


Engineer
Graduate Student, Department of Aerospace Engineering.
Currently, Graduate Student at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands.
Software

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Copyright 2009 by Ilkay Yavrucuk. Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., with permission.

Hardware and software technology has emerged to enable VR in a more compact and affordable form.
Pulled by the LCD-device market Head-Mount-Displays (HMDs), for instance, became more affordable with
higher resolution, improved color saturation, brightness and ergonomic displays. Similarly, trackers on HMDs
and other haptic devices became more accurate. System latency (the latency between user motion and its
representation in the virtual environment) has been a major obstacle on most virtual reality systems. A
latency of greater than 50ms is known to be perceptible in flight simulators. Moreover, the computer graphics
generation during the head motion of an HMD is a demanding visual workload, where angular velocities of
50 deg/s for a typical head motion are probable. In Refs.3, 4 flight simulators using some aspects of virtual
reality are presented. As time went by, the cost of these tools did reduce and became more available.
The Simulation Control and Avionics Lab (SCALAB) of the Department of Aerospace Engineering of
the Middle East Technical University engaged in the development of a low cost flight simulator using off-theshelf virtual reality tools. In particular, an off-the-shelf Head-Up-Display, data-gloves with motion trackers,
and joysticks are integrated with realistic physics based flight dynamics models, through the open source
simulation environment FlightGear.5 Stereo imagery is enabled to obtain a 3-D feel. The simulator targets
the use of minimal hardware, but still preserves the essential elements of a flight simulator. It is set-up
to resemble a Uh-1h utility helicopter with realistic flight dynamics. The flight dynamics is developed and
compared with flight test data. Hence, the resulting simulator is portable, low cost, but software intensive.
The critical balance between low cost, less hardware and realistic simulation feel is achieved by using offthe-shelf virtual reality tools along with state of the art simulation software tools. This paper presents a
description of the simulator and the experience gained when using virtual reality tools in a flight simulator.

II.

SCALAB Virtual Reality Simulator

The simulator consists of a Cybermind hi-Res SVGA Head-Mount-Display Unit with InertiaCube Precision Tracker,6 5DT data Gloves,7 Polhemus Patriot Motion Trackers,8 Saitek pilot control stick and pedal
set9 and three standard desktop PCs (Fig.1). All PCs run on Windows operating systems and Pentium
CPUs with relatively high end graphic cards (NVIDIA 9600 or better). All computers are inter-connected
through TCP/IP connections. The data gloves have motion and angular tracking and are connected to the
PCs via a tracker receiver used to find the glove positions relative to a reference position. The HMD has
two individual LCD screens, one for each eye. A motion tracker on the HMD calculates the angular position
of the display unit and feeds it back to the computers. The pilot controls are relatively simple joystick
controls, with a center joystick representing lateral and longitudinal cyclic controls, a side joystick controller
for collective control and pedals for the tail rotor control. One of the sliders on the side joystick is assigned to
the throttle control. One of the computers (Computer 1) receives data from pilot inputs, while data from the
HMD and data glove receiver are received by Computer 2. Information is propagated between the computers
through the TCP/IP connections. Computer 1 generates the visual image for one of the LCDs on the HMD.
Computer 2 generates the image for the other LCD of the HMD, whereas Computer 3 is connected to an
external LCD to be used by an instructor.(Fig.2)
A.

Visuals

The simulator features synthetic visuals of the environment as seen from a pilots cockpit view. The pilot
has a 360 deg view of the cockpit interior and the outside through the HMD Unit, including pilot controls,
cockpit instruments, main rotor rotation etc. The visual environment is integrated through the FlightGear
open source simulation software (Figure 3). The aircraft visual models complete with avionic displays, pilot
controls, rotors, etc. are custom added. The visuals also feature models of human hands to provide a
synthetic view of the pilot hands position. The synthetic hands are moved in the simulation, based on the
movement of the data gloves. This allows the user to touch and move controls both in the real world and
in the synthetic environment. Moreover, the pilot can reach to the instrumentation panel and interact with
the synthetic world by pressing buttons on the cockpit panel. The visualization of the real world outside
the cockpit is used as is available in FlightGear. Computer 2 is synchronized with Computer 1 and is set
up to also run a dummy FlightGear simulation, i.e. information to move the aircraft model is received from
Computer 1 through the TCP/IP connection. The aircrafts angular and linear positions are calculated
through the flight dynamics model in Computer 1. Therefore Computer 2 acts as a clone of Computer 1 and
is a client to the server computer.

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Figure 1. SCALAB Virtual Reality Simulator

FlightGear allows the user to situate a camera to any desired position in the simulation. The camera
positions of Computer 1 and 2 are set slightly different from each other to create a stereo image on the
HMD. The images generated in each computer are projected onto the LCD screens of the HMD. The camera
positions are set a few inches apart with a few degrees angle allowing the user to focus into the cockpit
instruments. This allows the user to perceive depth in the objects in the simulation. The tracker on the
HMD is fed as a signal to Computer 2 and the camera positions of both Computer 1 and 2 are updated in
the simulation display projected to the HMD. Hence, the user can view a 360 deg view by rotating the HMD.
The TCP/IP connection allows a distributed simulation environment with multi-users and more computers
for other displaying purposes. In this case, a third computer (Computer 3) is set-up serving as an instructor
station, allowing an instructor to guide the user. Usually the view on the instructor station would be the
view of the helicopter through a chasing camera. It is possible to extent this by connecting more computers
through TCP/IP connections, each providing different views of the simulation. A common request would be
the view of the cockpit panel.
B.

Pilot Controls and Data Glove Tracking

The data gloves on each hand are used to allow the user to interact with the cockpit. The data gloves
positions relative to a reference position and their angular positions are calculated in real time and provided to
Computer 2. The positions of the pilot controls are calibrated to match with those in the visual environment.
Therefore the user can see the synthetic image of his/her hands and reach to touch the controls (Figure 4).
The visual controls resemble one of a real helicopter, whereas the actual pilot hardware are simple joysticks.
The movement of the controls along with the synthetic hands are also displayed. The relative movement of
the controls and the synthetic hands match with the actual physical movement of the joysticks. A calibrated
fixed simulator assembly is used to adjust and set the relative movement of the different objects. The pilot
can also reach to the cockpit panel, press a button or touch objects in the virtual environment(Figure 5).

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Figure 2. Block diagram for the SCALAB Virtual Reality Simulator

C.

Flight Dynamics Math Model

A nonlinear helicopter flight dynamics model of the Uh-1h is generated and compared with flight test data.
The model is generated by improving on the fidelity of the minimum complexity helicopter model.10 A major
improvement of the updated model is that it includes the Peters-He inflow distribution model with a blade
element approach for the main rotor force-moment calculations.
The following additional modifications are done on the minimum complexity model to improve the model
fidelity: The Uh-1h has a shaft-mounted stabilizer bar on the main rotor mechanism. A stabilizer bar is a
mechanical augmentation device which increases the damping of the system, hence, affecting the stability
and control characteristics of the helicopter. A stabilizer bar model is added into the simulation. The tail
rotor model calculations consist of iterations for thrust and induced velocity. A robust iterative method is
added for convergence even at high yaw rates.12 Moreover, in the updated tail rotor iterative calculations
the blockage effect of the vertical tail is also included. Both vertical tail and horizontal tail are modeled with
increased accuracy. The mechanical linkage between pilot control and the incidence angle of the horizontal
tail is modeled according to data given in Ref.11. Moreover, lift and drag calculations are based on 2D wind tunnel tests of airfoils.13 These calculations include the effect of Reynolds number and covers
the whole angle of attack spectrum from -180 to +180, thus including the effect of reverse flow on these

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Figure 3. FlightGear integrated virtual environment

Figure 4. Synthetic Pilot Controls

Figure 5. Cockpit Synthetic Instrumentation

aerodynamic surfaces. The updated model also includes aerodynamic derivatives of the Uh-1h fuselage.11
For the treatment of ground effect, an approximate formula based on Cheseeman and Bennetts analysis is
used14 and an additional fit is done to reach a better agreement with flight test data available in literature.15
Although not available in the real helicopter a simple rate feedback Flight Control and Augmentation System
is added to ease flight when desired, but can be switched ON and OFF.
1.

Trim

In Refs. 16 and 17, trim values of main and tail rotor pitch, longitudinal and lateral swash plate angles are
given for the Uh-1h helicopter for various forward flight velocities. The trim values for both the minimum
complexity and the updated model are found and compared against the flight test data. In the following
figures the abridgment Min. Comp. Mod. and Upd. Mod. refer to minimum complexity model and
updated model, respectively, where the updated model refers to the higher fidelity flight dynamics model as
described above.
Figure 6 shows the trim values of the collective control. Both the minimum complexity and the updated
model have similar trim values of root pitch angles of main rotor blades.
Figure 7 shows the trim values of the tail rotor control input. Here, although both models have close root
pitch angles of tail rotor blades for increasing velocities, there is a slight difference between the simulation
model results and test data. Especially, at high velocities the simulation models require higher pedal input

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Figure 6. Root pitch angle of main rotor blades in


trim vs forward velocity

Figure 7. Root pitch angle of tail rotor blades in trim


vs forward velocity

Figure 8. Longitudinal swash plate angle in trim vs


forward velocity

Figure 9. Lateral swash plate angle in trim vs forward


velocity

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Figure 10. A step input of one inch pilot collective.

Figure 11.
input.

Roll rate response to collective step

Figure 12. Pitch rate response to collective step


input.

Figure 13.
input.

Yaw rate response to collective step

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at trim compared to the measured value. The reason for mismatch between the simulation models and test
data could be the interaction of the main and tail rotor.
Figure 8 shows the longitudinal swashplate angles in trim as a function of forward flight velocity. Both
models have similar longitudinal swash plate angles for trimmed flight. An off-set between the simulation
results and measured test data is observed.
It is seen in Fig. 9 that both simulation models have close results for lateral swash plate angles of trimmed
conditions for increasing velocities. For high velocities, the simulation models require higher lateral swash
plate angles to trim the simulation models than lateral swash plate angles of the real helicopter.
Results of trimmed flight conditions for different forward velocities showed that both simulation models
have close swash plate, main and tail rotor blade root pitch angles. Although there are deviations from the
test data results are acceptable and close enough for real-time simulation.
2.

Dynamic Response

For the investigation of the dynamic responses of the helicopter models, step inputs are applied starting at
a trimmed flight condition. Flight test data of Ref.11 is used for comparison.
A 1 inch step input is applied to each control channel. The time domain responses of the models are
compared with the flight test data. Following are sample results for a step collective control input from a
hovering trim condition.
Figure 10 shows the deviation of applied pilot step input on the collective control. The body roll rate
response of the helicopter models and flight test data are shown in Fig. 11. It is seen that the minimum
complexity model has a higher rate response than the updated model. Moreover, a more undamped response
is observed for the minimum complexity model, while the updated model has a closer response characteristic
to the flight test data.
Figures 12 and 13 show the body pitch and yaw rate responses respectively. Body pitch rate response
of the minimum complexity model tends to diverge from flight test data. The updated model has a closer
response to measured data. As for the primary response, the minimum complexity model over predicts the
yaw rate response, almost twice the flight test data. The updated model accomplished a similar response to
the flight test data (Figure 13).
Similar tests were done for all channels and angular position and rates were compared against flight test
data. In all channels results showing similar trends were obtained.12 The updated flight dynamics model
almost always performed closer to flight test data.
D.

Real-Time Simulation

All code is run in real-time. The simulation starts on the ground with throttle set to zero. Most realtime related issues are handled in FlightGear. Latency in general is low enough to be not felt during the
simulation. Slight latency is present in the movement of the hands with the data gloves and trackers. The
simulation can be started, paused, stopped, recorded and replayed. All capabilities of FlightGear are still
available in the set-up. The sound is provided through external speakers.

III.

Conclusion and Future Work

A low cost simulator using Head-Mount-Display (HMD) and Data Gloves is build to test the viability
of a Virtual reality tools in flight simulators. The tools are integrated into FlightGear -an open source
simulation environment along with high fidelity flight dynamics models. All hardware run on standard PCs
with Windows Operating Systems. It is observed that latency was minimal and did not affect the nature
of the simulations. Users reported a much more realistic feel of simulation compared to simulators where
visuals are generated through projectors on a large flat screen. The system provided a 360 deg view through
the HMD, a property seldom available even in high-end simulators. The field-of-view was somewhat limited
to the lenses used in the HMD, and has room to improve. The data gloves with motion trackers improved
the realistic feel of the simulator. It also provided the capability to interact with the simulation. Moreover
the interaction with the virtual controls became more natural, as opposed to touching and moving the pilot
controls with no image. The latency in the gloves were slightly higher than the rest of the visuals. The
flight dynamics model performed well and provided a realistic flight experience. Helicopter pilots used the

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system to check the flight dynamics model and positive feedback was provided. The total hardware cost of
the set-up was around $15K.
A programmable force feedback controller device is going to be installed into the simulation instead of the
joystick controls in near future. The data gloves can also provide motion feedback of each finger movement
-a property to be integrated in future. It is also desired to generate the metric to compare the level of reality
that this simulator provides as opposed to existing types of flight simulators.

References
1 Sutherland,

I. E., Computer Displays, Scientific American, Vol. 222, No. 6, pp. 57-81, June 1970.
P. B., Whats Real About Virtual Reality, IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, Special Report, pp
16-27, November 1999.
3 McCarty, W. D., Sheasby, S., Amburn, P., Stytz M. R., Switzer, C. A Virtual Cockpit for a Distributed Interactive
Simulation, IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, pp 49-54, January 1994.
4 Mendez, R. G.,Bernard, J. E. Flight Simulation in Synthetic Environments, IEEE AESS Systems Magazine, pp 19-23,
September 2001.
5 FlightGear website http://www.flightgear.org/ , as accurate of July 2009.
6 Cybermind website http://www.cybermindnl.com/ , as accurate of July 2009.
7 5DT website http://www.5DT.com/ , as accurate of July 2009.
8 Polhemus website http://www.Polhemus.com/ , as accurate of July 2009.
9 Saitek website http://www.Saitek.com/ , as accurate of July 2009.
10 Hefley, R. K., Mnich, M. A. Minimum-Complexity Helicopter Simulation Math Model, NASA Contractor Report 177476
USAAVSCOM Technical Report 87-A-7 1988
11 Talbot, P. D., Corliss, L. D. A Mathematical Force and Moment of a UH-1H Helicopter For Flight Dynamics Simulations, NASA TM 73-254, June 1977
12 Yilmaz, D., Yavrucuk, I. Development of a Flight Dynamics Model For A UH-1H Helicopter Simulator, 4th Ankara
International Aerospace Conference, METU, Ankara September 2007
13 Sheldahl, R. E., Klimas, P. C. Aerodynamic characteristics of seven airfoil sections through 180 degrees angle of attack
for use in aerodynamic analysis of vertical axis wind turbines, Sand 80-2114, Sandia National Laboratories, 1981.
14 Cheeseman, I. C., Bennett, W. E. The Effect of the Ground on a Helicopter Rotor in Forward Flight , ARC RM 3021,
1955
15 Leishman, J.G. Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics, Cambridge Aerospace Series, 2000
16 Turkish Mod UH-1H Helicopter Training Simulator Acceptance Test Manual, Volume I CH.4-30, SY3466v1, June 1989
17 Turkish Mod UH-1H Helicopter Training Simulator Acceptance Test Manual, Volume II CH.31-71, SY3466v2, June
1989
2 Frederick,

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