In previous posts here I’ve suggested that one of the big problems with the future of flying is that it is too hard to learn how to fly an airplane. Pilots today are manually controlling the same elevator-aileron-rudder combination like Lindbergh did when he was flying in the early 1920s, and mastering the control of three dimensions is not intuitive. Getting the mind and body to work in the right way to keep from crashing takes a lot of work and money and presents a significant barrier to entry to aspiring aviators.
The solution to this problem is obvious. Make all new airplanes fly-by-wire and drive the controls with a computer . . . which can be programmed to convert any new and easier pilot input scheme into appropriate control surface outputs. The inputs could be almost anything – including, it is now clear, your mind.
In late May researchers from Technische Universität München in Germany described the emergence of a new paradigm. In part they said:
The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables. His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway. The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls.
This is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but rather the rendition of a test at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM). Scientists working for Professor Florian Holzapfel are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project “Brainflight”.
I’ve tried to make it clear that we are on the verge of an unprecedented revolution in aviation, driven and supported by information technology. We’re talking things much more than glass panels and things like that that, which although new, would look familiar. This revolution is being described by the convergence of a number of breakthroughs, some of which (like mind control of the aircraft), seem very foreign how we think of flying and airplanes.
Many big breakthroughs in display and computer interface technologies get their start in the gaming and entertainment sectors. Here demands for lifelike, high resolution presentations (think of the 3D film Avatar), compete with compellingly immersive virtual reality goggles and new, more intuitive input-output device. Early computer thought control approaches showed up first in the gaming space. Now it is spreading to aviation.
The gaming (and now Facebook) world has also produced another breakthrough product that is certain to change how we fly . . . and everything else. The cover of the present issue of WIRED characterizes it thus:
This kid (21-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey), is about to change gaming, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education – and reality. The Oculus Rift is here, and it will blow your mind.
Oculus is talking about a set of virtual reality goggles that: “. . . creates a stereoscopic 3D view with excellent depth, scale, and parallax. Unlike 3D on a television or in a movie, this is achieved by presenting unique and parallel images for each eye. This is the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.”
The WIRED article explains why Facebook paid $2 billion for this little start-up with two dozen employees a couple of months ago and why it represents a paradigm shift that will obviously change the whole idea of IFR flying. Just think of putting on your Oculus Rift and making all of the weather disappear. Drop it over your eyes and there’s a new augmented reality world that has every bit of information available from every database you select superimposed in front of your field of view.
Couple that with only needing to “think” about what you want to do and where you want to go and you’ve clearly got a new world out there.
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