Here’s how VR is revolutionising the aviation industry

Cheerful girl with hands up wearing the virtual reality goggles.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how virtual reality (VR) is making waves in the travel industry. Experts have been touting the technology a means to revolutionise travel.

But how is it doing this? What is VR REALLY contributing to the industry?

See also: Virtuoso APAC MD on how to best use emerging tech in travel 

It’s difficult to say. But thanks to new insights from IATA, we’ve now got a clearer picture of what this tech means for the aviation industry.

Here’s Caroline Camilli-Gay, Program Manager, SITA Lab to tell give you the low-down on this emerging tech and why its useful to aviation.

“This is the year VR goes mainstream” has been the mantra for several years now, probably starting as far back as 2014 when Facebook bought Oculus Rift.

In an effort to move the dial from ‘curiosity’ to ‘useful’, IATA hosted the Aviation Virtual and Augmented Reality Summit (AVARS) in their Geneva headquarters. For two days around 20 companies, mainly AR/VR manufacturers and developers, shared their best practices, use case studies, and presented their products to the audience.

Over the two days, three use cases seemed to be at the top of the “maturity” list.

1. Training

In an industry full of large, complex and expensive equipment, training is the standout use-case for Virtual Reality. The fully immersive environment of VR allows trainees to gain not just visual familiarity with an aircraft, but they can also learn the physical movements required to interact with the aircraft.

American Airlines have built a sophisticated VR environment for cabin crew training which they say helps to build the muscle memory for tasks such as disarming the aircraft door.

Airbus also has a program to train airline pilots on cockpit operations.

VR won’t replace training in real aircraft, but it can cut the amount of training time required which is an important factor for airlines with a large number of crew to be trained across a mixed fleet. Some other wins for VR training are being able to train more students in a limited space; easy data capture for debriefs and analysis; and for trainees to be free to make mistakes as it doesn’t cost anything to break something!

2. Designing and demonstrating

AR and VR are very real ways to prototype new product concepts and to demonstrate products in customer environments. Compared to building physical prototypes, they are also generally a lot cheaper. VR can be used to replace traditional 2D storyboards and allows product manager and engineers to give a very realistic view of their new concept.

A few companies (Airbus, Materna, AkzoNobel) explained how they use AR to help their customers visualize their products in their own environment: for example, the seat configuration with the full airline branding of an aircraft, or the check-in kiosk layout in an airport.

Lufthansa have used VR to sell upgrades to premium class at the gate. By building a VR model of the premium cabin, they provide a very compelling visualisation of what the premium experience will be.

3. Maintenance and remote assistance

AR is a powerful tool to support remote technicians and engineers performing maintenance, repair or production tasks. By holding a phone or tablet in front of an aircraft part, static instructions become interactive, showing the worker where the new parts should go on top of what he actually has in front of him. Labels can be added to indicate the name of a part or actions to take.

AR also allows more experienced staff to remotely assist junior staff preventing key engineers from wasting time in transport. TAE Aerospace has developed a special wearable allowing the senior staff to see what the remote staff sees and can point out physical objects using a VR hand, or marker, that will be visible on the wearable screen worn by the person on site doing the work.

Not all plain sailing

User experience: Wearables that are too heavy or too immersive are not fit for industrial use. Vuzix is producing some slimmed-down headsets but they come with the trade-off of performance and battery life.

TAE has developed wearables with a focus on safety and compatibility with physical work.
Costs: It can still be expensive to develop a VR/AR app compared to traditional web or desktop apps. In addition, finding companies with the appropriate skillsets and experience is still hard to do.
Education: there is still little awareness of the potential of AR/VR especially among senior executives and this makes justifying the ROI a difficult thing to do. Responding to this, Berlin University has launched training programs targeted to top executives. A number of companies are creating internal AR/VR communities to evangelize the technology internally.

This is a shortened version of a blog post that originally appeared on SITA’s blog page. Go here to read more. 

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