New LED-based projectors for the C-130 Aircrew Training System will improve the sim's out-the-window views. (Lockheed Martin)
It takes a lot to make a simulator run. The databases of information, the instrumentation panels, even the seats are all engineered to match reality as closely as possible. But in the end, the projected image is what the trainees stare at.
Projectors have kept pace with the progression of technology and processing power, which is often borrowed from the commercial gaming sphere. The best can now display images of 10 million pixels — 4,096 across and 2,400 high — nearing the limit of human eyes’ ability to tell the difference between image and reality.
“We’re not at the point of diminishing returns yet, but we’re probably getting somewhere close,” said Jim Weitzel, vice president for training solutions at Lockheed Martin.
Some training companies are using the latest technological strides to reduce the number of “channels” — projectors — in their simulators, which can simplify the systems and reduce the distracting seams between screens, said Anders Lokke, the marketing director for projectiondesign, a major supplier of projectors for the training and simulation industry.
Others, like Lockheed Martin, are using them to make systems that give viewers with 20/20 vision a picture with pixels too small to distinguish, Weitzel said. That’s up from the 20/40 standard of recent years, and it allows more realistic shadowing and out-the-window views.
Either way, training company officials say, such advances will likely lead the military to take even more training out of aircraft and transfer it to simulators.
The Lockheed Case
Reducing wear and tear on planes could save the Air Force money, and that’s a key goal of Gen. Edward Rice, head of Air Education Training Command. One candidate is the C-130 Hercules, the venerable airlifter/aerial refueler.
Lockheed Martin is upgrading the service’s C-130 Aircrew Training System (ATS) weapons trainers, which accommodate two pilots, a flight engineer and a navigator. Begun in October, the upgrade work will go through 2014, paid for with a $24 million contract.
The upgrade will swap out the 8-year-old projection system for a new LED-based one. The five old projectors and their lamps will be replaced with Barco one-bulb projectors, improving cockpit illumination and night-vision training.
“This upgraded visual scene, the higher fidelity, the better models — there is a likelihood that we will be able to bring some more of the flightline training into the simulator,” said Woody Ganis, deputy program manager for the C-130 ATS.
Eleven weapon systems trainers will get the upgraded projectors, including the ones at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., which will also get an enhanced field of view to match the other systems: 225 degrees of vision rather than their current 200 degrees. This will allow pilots to look back at the exterior of the plane and conduct maneuvers that they couldn’t before.
“We’re very excited about getting this mod put on,” Ganis said. “The instructors are excited to have a more realistic field of view to train with the students. The maintenance guys are excited, because it is going to be simpler than it is now.”
Even if pixel density is reaching a limit, other aspects of graphics and projection technology will continue to advance — much borrowed from the gaming industry and, unsurprisingly, from the commercial movie sector.
“It’s all about higher resolution,” Lokke said. “It’s all about solid-state imaging and illumination. It could be lasers; it could be LEDs.”
One such area is the types of light that can be used for projection. Lamps are rapidly fading to a thing of the past, with LEDs lasting longer and burning more consistently. Yet electronic diodes might someday be replaced by lasers. Developed for digital cinemas, laser projectors yield very bright and high-resolution images that might, for example, allow flight simulators to better depict far-off aircraft that today look pixelated.
Today, however, laser projectors remain costly to install and maintain, making them less practical for systems under the high stress of training.
“It’s a powerful light source that may or may not trickle down to this industry,” Lokke said.
Another area of promise is three-dimensional imagery. 3-D projections rely on two slightly different sets of images, one from each eye point, that combine to give the perception of depth. Currently, 3-D requires the user to wear glasses or remain still. For large immersive domes that allow users to walk around inside the environment, glasses are the only way to go. For flight sims, 3-D has limited application, since a plane from a mile or two looks about the same. However, there are applications in aerial refueling. And even if the projection technology improves, data sets will also need a boost if 3-D is to become realistic as well as practical.
A final area for development is size — not larger, but smaller. Projectors are also changing to meet new demands for personal training. While large domes have been shown off at I/ITSEC and other shows, the trend in sizing may also be reversing as more desktop screens come on the market.
“The desktop dome that you see is something that we see a lot more of because it’s a personal-type trainer,” Lokke said. “That’s something that we see a very large interest in.”
No matter how big the sim, mating projection technology to the task will remain a demanding science.
“The question is, what’s the appropriate tradeoff for the mission and type of simulator?” said Gene Colabatistto, president of CAE’s training and simulation division. “In addition to investing in components of the technology, part of the investment is to come up with a systems design so that when you have a certain mission, we know which is the best match.”