ANALYSIS: Simulator manufacturers fight for advantage in crowded market

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With at least eight manufacturers vying for a share of the small but rapidly growing civil flight simulator training device (FSTD) market, the machines have essentially become a commodity.

On the surface, the simulator manufacturers’ designs all offer a similar modular package of standardised visual system, motion system and aircraft-specific cockpit. This makes it a buyer’s market for airlines and independent training centres, which had been frustrated only a few years ago by a lack of viable vendors.

To try and steer negotiations for a new FSTD away from merely a race to the lowest sale price, simulator companies are shifting focus to life cycle support efficiencies and enhanced training features. These features include a mandate from the US Federal Aviation Administration to incorporate high-fidelity stall capabilities for upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT).

The saturated niche market – dominated for the past 25 years by Canada’s CAE – has historically produced around 40-50 level D FSTDs annually.

With airline growth generating demand for more type-rated pilots – especially in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East – the number of high-end simulators deployed is expected to reach around 60-70 annually.

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FlightSafety International lauds its FS1000's Crewview rigid glass display


Montreal-based CAE enjoys a 76% market share in competed FSTDs, according to Dean Fisher, vice-president and general manager responsible for global simulation products, on the strength of 48 announced level D sales in the company's fiscal year 2014.

That leaves at best 24 simulator sales to be divided up among Berkshire Hathaway-owned FlightSafety International, Frasca International, Spain’s Indra, L-3 Link Simulation & Training, Lockheed Martin’s Sim-Industries, Rockwell Collins, Textron Aviation and other aspiring entrants.

CAE and FlightSafety introduced new FSTD brands this spring. Both feature 64-bit computing architectures, electric motion systems and a ‘docking station’ design in which the ‘mothership’ motion and visual platform base is common to all level D simulators, accommodating the type-specific aircraft cockpit with on board instructor station as a plug-in module.

Where the new FSTDs differ is in the visual system display. FlightSafety’s FS1000 simulator uses a Crewview rigid glass display, which its engineers claim eliminates distortion at the edges of the pilot’s field of view. This is a common issue with the mylar film stretched over a frame panoramic display used by CAE and most other manufacturers.

For helicopter simulator applications, Crewview offers up to a 310˚ horizontal display – just about the full out-the-window perspective for any civil rotorcraft.

CAE’s new 7000XR simulator – the XR stands for “extreme reality” – features 4 megapixel LED projectors in its Tropos XR visual system.

Clean sheet

FlightSafety, which builds mostly for its own training centres, is placing particular emphasis on the instructor operator station (IOS). Based on input from a working group, the company nearly doubled the amount of interior space for flight instructors and observers – something of a departure from the trend to shrink the footprint of simulators, or move instructors off board. “We listened to the people who are going to use the device,” says Nidal Sammur, FlightSafety’s director of engineering.

Reflecting the preferences of a new generation of tech-savvy instructors, FlightSafety’s IOS eliminates most “hard keys” on the instructor’s control panel. “This was shocking to all of us,” Sammur says. “They don’t like hard buttons – they want iPhone-like touch technology. So we reduced the hard keys from 37 to only seven, and made the keys programmable to accommodate various functions.” Similarly – like smartphones and touchscreen tablets – the graphics on the instructor’s large display screen are touch-scalable.

FlightSafety also literally carried out some seat-of-the-pants engineering. “We designed the entire instructor station from the seat up,” says John Van Maren, vice-president, simulation. The new IOS is a “totally independent island which can move by itself”, which enables the instructor to more readily interact with the pilots. The computer monitors are also positioned to adapt to different-sized instructors, even adapting for instructors who wear bifocal glasses.

Adaptable technology

The 7000XR is a back-to-the-future approach for CAE – a return to a single level D product. The company is eliminating the 5000 series model – launched in 2007, primarily for the airline narrowbody market and business aircraft simulators.

“The DNA from the 5000 series is alive and well in the 7000XR,” Fisher says. “We’ve taken a lot of the lessons learned from the 5000 and made them run inside the new simulator.”

He says that 2007-era computer processing “did not permit us to build a fully simulated machine” for the original 7000 series product, which CAE used for widebody aircraft types, as well as customers who preferr a high degree of customisation.

Full simulation of aircraft systems, such as avionics, tends to cost less than ‘stimulation’ of actual, expensive, sometimes hard to get aircraft parts. Now, Fisher adds: “When you buy a 7000XR, you can either have it fully stimulated with the aircraft equipment, like a traditional 7000, or we can do a fully simulated version.”

Fisher calls the XR design “a step change” – not a new design that would merit upgrading the brand to an 8000 series. The first 7000XR will be ready by the end of this year.

The converged XR incorporates previously optional training capabilities, such as a simulator operational quality assurance debriefing system using data processed through CAE’s Flightscape flight data analysis software.

Fisher says instead of offering packages piecemeal to meet emerging regulatory requirements, “it’s all going to be in there”. For the approximately 1,000 CAE simulators in operation around the world that will need to be upgraded to meet the new UPRT regulations, Fisher says the firm created packages for previous-generation R1, R2, R3, R4 and Super C designs, which are backwards-compatible.

CAE also used the XR announcement to reveal its Sentinel remote diagnostics system – a capability the company has been testing on simulators in its own training centres. Fisher says the objective is “how to make the most use of the technicians available”.

Rather than sending a simulator technician on a plane to check out a customer’s device, the XR design feeds data from 600 sensors to a computer server attached to the simulator. The data then flows to CAE in Montreal, where it can be analysed both to troubleshoot a customer’s individual machine and aggregate data into global trends.

For example, in the early applications of electric motion systems, Fisher says CAE experienced problems with voltage peaks. Now, if one customer’s simulator data highlights an issue, “we can test all their sister ships around the world and look for potential problems”.

“We can tell a customer, ‘your voltage readings are out of tolerance with what we see across the network,’ and recommend a solution,” he adds. This holistic view will enable CAE customers to benchmark against the entire fleet of deployed simulators for their aircraft or simulator type.

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FlightSafety's VITAL 1100 has half a million polygons and shadow capabilities


New entrants

Textron Aviation, which now owns the Beechcraft, Cessna and Bell Helicopter aircraft lines, has branded its combination of the former AAI and recent acquisitions Mechtronix and Opinicus as TRU Simulation and Training.

Jim Takats, Opinicus founder and now president and chief executive of TRU, says for the time being Opinicus will continue to market the separate Opinicus Odyssey 9 business jet and Odyssey 10 airline FSTDs, as well as Mechtronix’s FFS X simulators. However, the wider group is already looking at a new clean-sheet design internally dubbed “Super Sim”.

Takats says Textron is willing to invest in the training business, and the group is casting a wide net, looking at next-generation hardware and software technologies, visual and motion systems and more. He says the focus is to incorporate the latest innovation while focusing on commercial off-the-self products. TRU’s timetable for the “Super Sim” is one to two years.

Frasca recently shipped its first level D FSTD – a Cessna CJ1+ model – to Nanshan International Flight Academy in Longkou, China using a flight data package developed internally. John Frasca, the company’s president, claims the privately-owned Illinois company’s data is “better than the manufacturer’s”.

Frasca often collects its own flight data package for smaller aircraft for which the OEM does not generate simulator-oriented data. “We think it’s the best data package in the world for simulation,” he adds. To address the new UPRT requirements, Frasca says the company deliberately flew stall conditions rather than stopping at approach-to-stall, as has been the industry’s past practice.

Rockwell Collins vice-president and general manager for simulation and training, LeAnn Ridgeway, thinks her company’s competitive advantage is that “we can provide both the avionics subsystems and simulation solutions”.

“We can provide concurrency between subsystem development/updates and simulators using this architecture. This offers customers near real-time simulation and training programmes at a lower life cycle cost,” she says.