As the flight training industry increasingly leans toward virtual reality (VR) as a way to combat the looming pilot shortage, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University will further expand its VR capabilities this fall. – a decision that will allow 100 additional students to progress through the program this year.
By allowing students to begin their training in the virtual space, they save both time and money, according to Dr Ken Byrnes, flight department President and Vice-Dean of the Aviation College. Embry-Riddle’s new VR training program for all flight students on the Daytona Beach Campusfor example, reduced the time it takes pilots-in-training to complete their first solo flight by 30% in the program’s inaugural year.
“Aeronautical sciences freshmen are fully immersed in virtual reality for their first four weeks on campus,” Byrnes said. “They get to know the plane through these high-fidelity environments, do pre-flight checks, learn the controls. By the time they sit inside a physical plane, they are fully prepared. They want to fly.
Pre-loading the curriculum with virtual reality in this way also builds students’ confidence and reduces their anxiety – which is the biggest barrier to learning, Byrnes is quick to point out – even before they put the feet in a cockpit. That’s why the university is renewing its commitment to virtual reality this fall, adding two additional simulation stations that will increase the lab’s total from eight to 10 units.
“Essentially we increased capacity by increasing efficiency,” Byrnes said. “When students are in these virtual environments, it’s real to them. They sacrifice nothing in terms of the quality of teaching.
Embry-Riddle student Cody Hubbard, a junior aeronautical science student, walks through a virtual reality simulation of an airplane’s pre-flight checklist at the Advanced Flight Simulation Center. (Photo: Embry-Riddle/Bernard Wilchusky)
In support of deeper learning
New award-winning research led by recent Embry-Riddle alumnus Tianxin Zhang (’22) validates the university’s recent push into virtual space.
“Tianxin’s study is groundbreaking,” said Embry-Riddle’s professor Dr. Christina Frederick. Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology, who also served as Zhang’s thesis supervisor. “His findings showed that virtual reality is at least as effective, and potentially more engaging, than other training methods, which can motivate deeper learning and greater perseverance in student pilots.”
Zhang’s research results are in line with the Embry-Riddle VR approach, and his project won the Aerospace Human Factors Association’s Stanley N. Roscoe Award, which recognizes the best doctoral thesis written in this field of research. ‘study.
“The results showed that the participants in the VR group performed better on the post-training test, compared to the other groups,” said Zhang, who graduated in May with his doctorate in human factors. “Additionally, VR flight simulations appear to provide a better user experience and may lead to greater motivation to use.”
Zhang, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in Aircraft maintenance and a master’s degree in Aeronautics of Embry-Riddle, said his work contributes to positive proof that VR simulations can be an effective tool for novice pilots, while reducing training costs and increasing safety. They can also speed the entry of more skilled pilots and maintenance technicians into the job market – a critical goal as airlines and the military continue to face huge labor shortages.
“Training with virtual reality is in its infancy, and Zhang’s study is fundamental to gaining insight into how virtual reality can be used to train pilots,” Frederick said. “His research supports our university’s mission to train today’s best pilots, while using advanced, scientifically sound technologies.
Interest in VR technology for training crosses multiple segments of aviation, from general aviation to vertical lift to air travel, said Dr. Barbara Holder, associate professor and presidential fellow at Embry-Riddle’s Graduate School. Interest also extends to work groups, such as pilots, maintainers, ground crew and air traffic controllers.
New, inventive ways to incorporate virtual reality into training are always being explored, Holder added, noting that the more we understand about the technology, the better equipped we will be to leverage its strengths and mitigate its limitations.
“VR technology has been around for decades, but as the technology continues to rapidly advance, new training opportunities will emerge,” Holder said.
Virtual reality offers many planning and cost saving benefits – virtual planes are never grounded in bad weather, for one thing they don’t need fuel or highly trained crews to maintain them , etc. — but ultimately, the added accessibility afforded by this technology is only in the service of security, Byrnes added. Greater accessibility means more opportunities for repetition, correction and revision. This is the path to competence.
“Here we don’t just teach students how to fly,” he said. “We train world-class security professionals.”
* Mike Cavaliere contributed to this report
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