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Cutting-edge sims aren’t just for training. A new Air Force Research Laboratory flight simulator will be used by researchers to measure and evaluate pilot vision.
Why bother when there are standard tests available? Because seeing (and measuring) how pilots respond to their real-world tasks involving vision lets researchers double-check the standard parameters and tests they use, making sure that the qualifications and standards they have in place are the right ones to keep pilots qualified and safe.
In order to create a flight sim that can be used to evaluate vision, researchers need high-fidelity databases, powerful projector systems, and fast computers. The average military training system has a resolution somewhere around 20/40. The AFRL project simulator, called the Operational Based Vision Assessment program, needs 20/10. This is crucial because many young pilots come in with vision better than 20/20.
“Right now, pilots in these sims can see targets in the real world further than they can see in the simulator,” said James Gaska, chief research psychologist at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “Training sims can’t accurately represent the real world at target acquisition ranges that most pilots can see.”
If the resolution of the display isn’t better than the pilot’s vision, the simulation is holding back details that they would otherwise be able to pick up on. For example, a pilot with stellar vision can see a target at four times the distance in a 20/10 sim compared to a 20/40 sim due to the finer gradation of pixels.
One potential benefit of the simulator/evaluator is increased precision in training pilots.
“Once we learn how a pilot performs an operational task, then if somebody does have a defect in their vision, we might be able to learn things about how to better engineer or better train individuals in doing a particular type of operation,” said Col. John Gooch, chief of aerospace opthamology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
The primary goal at this point is to use the system as an evaluator, testing pilots with target identification, color tests, runway obstructions, and potentially in different weather scenarios. This will allow researchers to make sure the standards are useful and predictive, and can adjust the criterion of who can fly and who can’t – even in cases of a determining when an injured pilot can return to duty.
Flight simulators do have the potential to use these detailed images already, but it is, unsurprisingly, expensive. However, sims might introduce more high fidelity training into simulators if the trend for cheaper graphics processing and computers continues.
Strangely enough, it may be a technology that has been around for a while – projectors – that holds the shift to eye-limiting resolution back. Costs for projectors that can produce the millions upon millions of pixels necessary for high resolution often clock in at six digits.
Computing power, on the other hand, is making processing the terabytes of data more affordable. Providers such as Nvidia, who supplied the graphics processing units for the AFRL simulator, continue to supply technology that can chew threw high-definition satellite image data, line up and bend the images to fit the screen, and refresh the scene dozens of times per second to provide an immersive experience.
“The computers and graphics hardware is becoming so efficient now that that’s not the major driver of cost. The major driver of cost is projectors to get that many pixels,” Gaska said.
Whether or not pilots training generally need this higher, eye-limiting resolution is still a subject of debate. Some trainers profess that more realism and higher fidelity make it a more realistic training experience and thus provides more value; others find the tactics and skills learned in training to be the focus rather than the pixel size.
Whichever side you fall on, the higher fidelity does do one thing: it allows pilots to acquire targets at accurate ranges. The technology could also be adapted for immersive dome setups, such as those used for JTAC training or Humvee scenarios.
And while eye-limiting resolution equipment may still be too costly for most sims, the downward trend in costs could lead to more high-fidelity sims down the line.
“It’ll become so low-cost, it’ll be a no-brainer. That’s been the trend for years,” Gaska said.