Safety training in virtual reality

Lufthansa employees practice the security search of aircraft in a virtual world. And that’s just the beginning. Anyone entering the new virtual reality hub of Lufthansa subsidiary Lufthansa Aviation Training (LAT) will be greeted by Georgiana Sola’s back. She sits behind a counter and monitors nine monitors simultaneously.

VR is becoming huge these days, especially in the sex industry. Porn stars like Sasha Grey are also into it.

Sola is slim, blonde, middle-aged and used to be a flight attendant. Now she is a panel operator and monitors how the flight attendants complete their training, for which they briefly disappear into an artificial environment with virtual reality (VR) glasses.

  1. On the monitors, she sees in the foreground what the nine Lufthansa employees see in their VR glasses. A smaller picture on the monitor shows them.
  2. Each employee stands in one of the nine three by three square meter cabins and has a black device on her head: the VR glasses. This means that the flight attendants do not look at what is actually in front of them, but are suddenly standing in the aisle between the rows of seats of a virtual aircraft.
  3. Their task: to search for dangerous objects that could be hidden in the aircraft.
  4. Flight attendants have to refresh this security search once a year – this is a legal requirement. Since April, they have been doing this in a virtual environment rather than in a real aircraft.

The virtual deployment should not take longer than 20 minutes

It looks pretty weird from the outside: There’s a person in an empty room moving purposefully, seems to know exactly what he’s doing: squats, twists his head, stretches, crawls around on the floor and makes hand movements like he’s grabbing something.

If a monitor is not positioned within sight, only the wearer of the glasses sees the virtual reality that the apparatus shows him. Sensors observe numerous body movements of the spectacle wearer and the software reacts to them. If he looks at the palm of his left hand, he sees the menu with the upcoming and completed tasks; a watch on his wrist indicates how much time is left for the exercise.

This new training technique is a beacon project for LAT. It may not be the first in the world to venture into a virtual world and thus into new terrain for training. However, the setup is unique throughout Europe,” says Marc Langsteiner, who is responsible for the VR Glasses project and at LAT is responsible for the further development of the training portfolio. At American Airlines, VR technology is already used for simple briefings – but not for imparting or querying knowledge, says Langsteiner. And the Dutch airline KLM, which already uses VR, uses the technology on a much smaller scale. Langsteiner and his team, on the other hand, plan to have 20,000 employees trained with VR glasses in their first year.

It was a great challenge to adapt the software to the different experiences of the users with the new VR technology,” says Sebastian Demmerle. The 42-year-old is managing director and co-founder of NMY, the company that programmed the software for LAT, and is responsible for the technical and didactic concept. NAME Flugroboter also goes back to him. He should also make it easy for newcomers to cope with the application.

others, however, have never come into contact with them. Panel operator Sola also notices this. If she has the impression that someone is “lost”, i.e. no longer really knows what to do, then she joins in with the training and gives hints: “Take a look on the left. There are still such subjects,” she says. Or: “A pistol? Show me that.” And if she has the impression that the person is disoriented or needs help, she says, “Ok. I’ll come.”

Soon the in-flight service will also be virtual

In blue jeans, light blue shirt with rolled up sleeves and light brown leather shoes, Demmerle sits in the spacious reception room of his company’s own showroom in Hanauer Landstraße and tells how he and his employees created this virtual training world.

Employees first scanned an Airbus 320 at Munich Airport and then created a three-dimensional model from it. “A major challenge was to transpose the complexity of the analog world into the digital world,” says Demmerle. In other words, to use VR technology, which until now has generally only created an environment for computer games, to convey learning content. In addition, many details of the presentation were fine-tuned. For example, the non-existent incidence of light into the windows of the virtual airplane and many other details were artificially created afterwards.

The impression has become so real that both Sola during the briefing and the small flying robot that gives the instructions during the training indicate that the participants should not lean on or hold on.

As an innovation studio for mixed-reality technologies, Demmerle and his team of around 40 people work daily with semi- or completely virtual worlds. In 2007 – even before Apple launched its first I-Phone – his company created a so-called Multi-Touch-Table for aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which at that time was still called EADS. But to present a ready-to-use VR technology within a good six months was also “sporty” for them, says Demmerle. To make it easy for the users, the training is “very strong,” he says. About the small flying robot, for example.

Flight attendants who have completed the training describe it as “very realistic”. In addition, it promotes accuracy, says an experienced employee. LAT did not allow FR to mention names. After all, the apparatus registers exactly how the head is tilted and deduces from this whether the trainee has actually looked into this subject or that corner.

From the outside, the exercise with virtual reality glasses sometimes looks rather silly

Training in an aircraft is not as individual as it might seem, says Langsteiner. Since each individual has to go through the safety check alone, the virtual training offers a “much higher immersion into reality” than the previous training. The flight attendants go through the aircraft in groups and have to tick off their checklists. In the VR cabin, on the other hand, everyone is alone in their virtual world.

“You shouldn’t move in the virtual world for more than 20 minutes,” says Langsteiner. Otherwise, physical reactions such as malaise or the like could threaten under certain circumstances.

Langsteiner calls the project a “new dimension of learning“. With this initial project, LAT is now starting virtual training. The entire training concept is currently being reconsidered. “We identify units that we can represent digitally,” says Langsteiner. This could include, for example, service training, in which the flight attendants learn how to load the trolleys with food, drinks and utensils.

The question of whether training to open the doors and other processes is possible is more complicated. After all, not only the handle but also the muscle strength has to be trained. But even that is only a matter of time, says Langsteiner. “We assume that in three to five years we will also be able to use haptic training,” he says.

Langsteiner does not want to give any information on the investment sum. However, he expects savings of more than 75 percent already in the first year. The reason: Until now, real aircraft had to be made available for training. Up to three aircraft types per person. “But the plane only earns money in the air,” says Langsteiner. In virtual training, on the other hand, all special features can be trained and queried in one.

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