Whilst Pilot Training using simulators has been the norm for some considerable time, the same is not true for other crew members. Therefore, we looked to exploit recent advances in Virtual Reality technologies, including head mounted displays, software development platforms and input devices, that have opened up numerous opportunities to use immersive simulation in new market areas by offering a lower price solution than traditional simulators.
The project aimed to determine what level of Cabin Crew training could be achieved using Virtual Reality (VR), and if it could be delivered in a useable way in a real training environment, and with real Cabin Crew students.
Traditionally, Cabin Crew Training is delivered using a combination of classroom instruction, visits to real aircraft, and the use of part-task trainers (physical cabin mock-ups). The potential benefits that using VR would bring are:
- Reducing the need for expensive physical assets
- Reducing the amount of time that aircraft have to be on the ground with the associated ground power units and support crews
- Easing scheduling of training assets and access to airside areas by using a classroom resident VR environments
- Training can be undertaken in remote areas of the world, and can be self-paced by trainees
- Allowing different features within the training that are not possible in physical assets, such as emergency situations and different cabin layouts
- The ability to record and repeat training outcomes, and integrate with computer based training records and Learning Management Systems
Potentially these benefits would bring both cost reductions and improvements in the way training can be delivered. It was expected, however, that VR is not suitable, currently, for replacing all training activities, but that benefits can be realised for the most appropriate elements.
To be of cost benefit, and therefore commercially viable, VR must be able to replace some of the traditional training, and therefore has to be suitable for certification.
The project team was led by Invirt Reality who provided the Virtual Reality expertise, having developed a number of VR training systems. Invirt Reality has a background in the aerospace industry developing flight simulators and part-task trainers. The University of Exeter advised on the design of the pedagogical aspects (the way subjects learn), and performing the analysis of the results of the user trials. Flybe, Europe’s largest independent regional airline, is a potential end user of VR Cabin Crew training, and provided access to cabin crew trainees, aircraft, and domain expertise.
The project progressed in three phases:
- Perform a literature review, covering existing research into VR learning systems, and also gamification
- Develop a Proof of Concept learning system that can be trialled with the help of Flybe Cabin Crew staff
- Run trials, analyse results and implement iterative improvements
Following the literature review, a Proof of Concept system was implemented by Invirt Reality consisting of a modelled cabin, and supporting a candidate learning module. The learning module included locating stowage compartments, safety equipment, and procedure for accessing the equipment. The system ran on a PC with the HTC Vive and hand controllers, and implemented integration with a learning management system to monitor and record results, timings and all interaction within the VR environment to enable the trials analysis to be performed.
A number of user trials were performed with the co-operation of Cabin Crew training recruits, and the VR training was compared with training performed on a real aircraft. To ensure a ‘level playing field’, Invirt Reality also produced a VR familiarisation environment, which was used by the trainees to become comfortable with the VR environment prior to being exposed to the VR cabin crew learning environment.
The University of Exeter performed measurement during the trials, using questionnaires to probe the trainees feelings towards the environment, and noted behaviour, progress and timings. All the source information was collated and analysed to determine the performance of the system.
A number of lessons were learned throughout the trials, and modifications were made to the Proof of Concept VR environment to rectify issues and implement improvements.
Throughout the trials, a number of issues were noted, and included the following:
- Training has to support a wide demographic of users. The trainees who helped with the trials ranged in age from 18 to 58 and ranged from tech savvy to tech resistant. Various modifications were implemented to ensure that the trainees knew what was required of them, and were easily able to interact with the VR environment. An example of an issue was that voice guidance within the scenario is not processed well by a subject that is absorbed by the virtual world around them, so the guidance was incorporated visually into the environment in a way that directed and held their attention. This improvement created a step change in the performance of the system.
- Trainee comfort is hugely important to allow them to get the best learning result. Consideration has to be given to users who have not used VR before, to ensure that the experience is comfortable, and that what they see and how they interact is completely at one with their expectations. An example was changes to the control inputs to avoid unintentional movement within the VR world.
- User input must be natural and predictable with minimal guidance. As we progressed through the trials, the amount of guidance that needed to be given to the trainees diminished, until it was limited to just conveying the information on the aircraft systems and procedures. An example of improvements was to remove the reliance on using control buttons on the hand controllers, and instead present realistic animations of the trainees hands in the virtual world, each animation being appropriate to the operation being undertaken.
Modifications were made to the software, and fed in to subsequent trials to confirm effectiveness.
The results reported by the University of Exeter concluded that:
“…all participants felt totally present within the IVR, familiarised themselves with the layout of the inside of the aeroplane and rapidly learnt where to find the various items. Trainees reported no sickness issues; and in fact the opposite effect was found in some cases, with headaches and dizziness dispelled by the experience. The simple gamification elements included in the second study contributed to the enjoyment of the activity. These findings suggest that this VR educational experience has the potential to augment the existing training, speed it up and, in some respects, improve it. VR is not a complete substitute for visiting the real plane, but it could replace significant elements of the current training…”
An excerpt from the executive summary from the white paper, “Novel training through virtual reality – Final Project Report for NATEP from the University of Exeter team”
The findings showed that the trainees perceived the environment to be fun and engaging, and as a result they enjoyed the training. Each trainee performed the exercises more than once, and after the first time through learning the locations and processes, subsequently the time to complete exercises dropped dramatically.
A major discovery was that the trainees reported that the VR environment was less distracting than the real aircraft, and it allowed them to concentrate on the task in hand. It was a respite from the traditional training they were undergoing, and therefore found that on completing the exercise they actually felt less stressed.
The exercise has demonstrated that the prospects for learning in a VR environment for Cabin Crew training are positive, and can be delivered in a practical training environment.
Invirt Reality has subsequently created a commercial product based on the Proof of Concept VR system, and is progressing commercial opportunities with a number of airlines. A study has identified a number of training elements for which there is a clear business benefit. The delivery of Cabin Crew training in Virtual Reality is subject to scrutiny by the Civil Aviation Authority, and as such has to contain no elements or interaction that could be viewed as ‘negative training’. Progressing CAA Certification is ongoing, but the first installations of a VR training system to be evaluated as part of a live training course are due to be completed in Q2/3 2017.
“Simulation has fast become an important facet within the aerospace industry and Flybe is keen to take an industry lead. We place great importance on exploring new simulation tools which enhance business efficiencies, but also add resilience to safety, which is deeply rooted in the quality of training we provide to our crews. Access to such cutting-edge technology is not only beneficial to Flybe but will ultimately be beneficial to the aerospace industry as a whole.
To this end, we are exploring a ‘novel training through virtual reality’ project in partnership with Invirty Reality and Exeter University. Using virtual reality headsets, it offers an exciting and innovative opportunity for us to deliver crew training at optimised levels for our business. In addition, and also critically, this technology will afford us the ability to deliver training through enhanced experiential learning methods, adding huge value to our crew’s experience over and above the already high level currently achieved.
The expertise available through this collaboration will provide a robust platform on which we can deliver enhanced aspects of our training programmes, with the technology being underpinned by the research and pedagogic framework from the University of Exeter’s ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’ team. The proposed design-based research approach will also play an important role for this added larning component to satisfy compliance with CAA EASA guidelines.”
Stuart Redhead, Business and Projects Manager, Flybe.