If you’re troubled by the idea of pilots wearing VR headsets while flying real planes, prepare yourself: It’s already happening, at least on a small scale. In a new video titled Piloting A Real Aircraft While Wearing Oculus Go, Texan pilots John Nagle and John Paul Sommer demonstrate how they’ve been flying (and all but landing) a small plane while relying mostly on a $199 VR headset for visual guidance. They say they’ve accomplished the feat around two dozen times.
The end goal of these seemingly dangerous missions? Safer flights in dangerous conditions.
As cofounders of a software development company called Thrust Vector, 32-year flying veteran Nagle and “life-long pilot” Sommer told UploadVR, they’ve been using Oculus Go to fly and practice final approaches in VR, from mid-air to roughly 50 feet above a runway. The cockpit video shows Nagle wearing the headset as he flies a small Piper Cherokee plane towards a landing, with Sommer sitting beside him as a “safety pilot,” an arrangement that effectively prevents them from “actually flying blind.”
Using a VR headset to fly or land a plane with human occupants isn’t as crazy as it might sound at first. Putting aside remote and autonomous drones, aircraft today are piloted by people who rely on a combination of human vision, extensive training, and pre-VR navigation tools that were developed decades ago.
According to Nagle, the Oculus Go solution they’ve developed is well-equipped on both the hardware and software fronts. It pulls real-time positioning data from a WAAS-enhanced GPS, plus a modern ADS-B aircraft surveillance sensor with attitude and heading reference capabilities. Visuals based on the data (shown in simulated form below) are displayed within an app made with the Unity world engine and MapBox mapping software.
“The approach boxes bring you perfectly down the approach path, and the MapBox data has sufficient fidelity to really give me confidence that I know where I am,” Nagle said. While head tracking for the Oculus Go’s visuals is limited to 3DoF — one reason the developers want to use more powerful headsets in the future — the app keeps the head motion airplane-relative, adjusting for airplane and head turns. Nagle says that the live flight VR training is actually less nausea-inducing than fully simulated VR training, since your sight and actual body motions are aligned during a live flight.
An earlier blog post from Nagle suggests that the goals of testing have been to train pilots for flying in difficult conditions, such as little to no visibility, as well as to safely recover from unusual situations and to practice approaches. While the initial testing was focused on passenger airplanes, the company also hopes to help prevent fatal terrain-crashing accidents in helicopters and assist in military training, as well.
Nevertheless, the FAA is going to need to weigh in — and hopefully quickly — on the concept of planes piloted by VR headset-wearing pilots. While Nagle told UploadVR that the agency typically only approves things that are permanently mounted in the cockpit, “we look forward to working with the FAA as we refine the technology to make sure we stay within the boundaries of common sense and the regulations. After all, ultimately the goal is to improve safety, not compromise it.”