At NASA Ames Research Center, in Californias Silicon Valley, scientists conduct advanced research in a unique flight simulation complex. The facility provides researchers with exceptional tools to explore, define, and solve issues in both aircraft and spacecraft design. It offers fast and cost-effective solutions using real-time piloted simulation, realistic sensory cues, and the greatest motion range of any flight simulator in the world.
Welcome to the Vertical Motion Simulator, or VMS.
While the VMS offers much that is unique, two capabilities stand out. First, engineers can customize the system to simulate any aerospace vehicle, whether existing or in the design stage. Existing vehicles that have been simulated include a blimp, helicopters, fighter jets, and the Space Shuttle Orbiter. One aircraft being designed that is being considered for simulation at the VMS is a next-generation transport capable of flying in near-earth orbit.
Interchangeable Cab (ICAB) on the VMS Motion Base
Second, simulations occur with high fidelity; that is, the simulator reproduces the flight characteristics of an aircraft with a high degree of accuracy. This entails delivering realistic cues to the pilot in real time, so that the pilot perceives that the simulated aircraft responds just as quickly as a real aircraft.
The VMS provides exceptional flexibility in the aircraft it simulates in part because of the Interchangeable Cab (ICAB). The interior of the ICAB can be modified to represent the cockpit of any aerospace vehicle. First, the canopy of the cab is lifted off and much of the equipment removed. Then, in a process called "cab build-up," the empty cab is customized by installing the flight controls, flight instruments, and aircraft seats specified by the researcher.
For efficient operation, the VMS simultaneously uses five portable ICABs. During cab build-up, a cab is secured in one of two fixed-base labs, where engineers can run a simulation with all capabilities except motion. Cabs are thoroughly tested here prior to experiments to ensure accurate operation.
Cutaway View of VMS Tower
After testing, an ICAB can be moved to the Motion Base, which offers unequaled range of motion, moving as much as 60 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally. This is one key to high-fidelity simulation and makes the VMS unsurpassed at simulating aircraft during all phases of flight, including the critical phases of landing and takeoff. The transition from one experiment to the next unrelated experiment occurs in just one day, making the most efficient use of the motion base.
The Out-the-Window Graphics, the computer-generated images that simulate the outside world for the pilot, are highly customizable. The VMS maintains many representations of geographic locations in the United States and abroad. Three-dimensional models, such as aircraft, ground vehicles, and buildings, are included in the Out-the-Window graphics, and various weather and light conditions can be simulated. All the scenes can be modified, and new ones are created according to researchers needs.
For piloted simulation, its important to have Flight Instruments that read accurately. Besides the older dial-type instruments, the VMS uses modern electronic instruments, which can be programmed to display information in many formats. A special type of instrument is a head-up display, which projects important data onto a clear screen between the pilot and the window. In this way, the pilot has less need to look down at the instrument panel during critical phases of flight.
ICAB's OTW Display
Another important cue for the simulation pilot is delivered through the pilots controls, such as the stick and pedals that a helicopter pilot might use. The high-fidelity Flight Controls at the VMS accurately measure the input a pilot makes and give the pilot's controls a realistic feel. They can be programmed to reproduce the characteristics of any existing control or to exhibit the desired characteristics of a control being designed.
Located in the VMS Lab is the high-speed host computer. The host computer runs the simulation model, the software that represents the aircraft. This provides another key to flexibility because various aircraft are simulated by changing the simulation model. The host computer also directs the other components of the simulator.
Engineer in the VMS Lab
Engineers control simulations from the VMS Lab. They can start and stop a simulation and change many variables in the experiment. From the lab, engineers communicate with the pilot, monitor information generated by the simulation, and record data in numerous formats for later analysis. These data are the end result of the simulation process; researchers draw conclusions from them that become important knowledge about the aircraft or system being researched.
To extend the capabilities of the VMS Lab to distant locations, engineers have developed Virtual Lab (VLAB). This unique technology gives remote researchers the same tools for monitoring simulations that are available to engineers in the VMS Lab. A remote researcher can view all the same data, talk to the pilot, confer with personnel in the VMS Lab, and even affect a simulation as it occurs.
At the VMS, flexibility in both hardware and software allow the simulation of any aerospace vehicle. Powerful computers and custom-designed systems enable high-fidelity, real-time simulation. By providing flexible, accurate tools and the support of experts, the facility offers researchers quick and cost-effective solutions in aeronautical design.