A virtual world for flight

Contact: Diana Hearit
Aug. 1, 2017

Read more about WMU researchers and their ongoing work in the WMU Magazine.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Particularly in light of a fast-approaching shortage of skilled aviation professionals, the aviation industry may be an increasingly attractive and viable career option for students interested in becoming tomorrow’s pilots and technicians.

Aviation Week & Space Technology, for instance, forecasts that with the Federal Aviation Administration-mandated pilot retirement age at 65, the U.S. will be short close to 20,000 pilots by 2022. Meanwhile, international aviation giant Boeing expects that nearly 1.5 million pilots and technicians will be needed by 2035 globally.

To help replenish the field with well-prepared and ready-to-work aviators and technicians, Lori Brown is exploring advanced educational technology to meet the learning styles and needs of the next generation.

A new approach to teaching

The associate professor of aviation says that because today’s students generally have great facility for using computer technology and also require engagement in the classroom that goes beyond lecture and slide presentations, she’s working to bring immersive experiences such as augmented reality to learners who aspire to pilot or service planes.

Augmented reality, or AR, overlays computer-generated virtual images onto physical objects and two-dimensional images.
“AR takes our real work environment and overlays digital content such as 3D images, checklists, airspace graphics, part numbers, procedures or manuals which creates a ‘mixed reality’ environment,” says Brown, who teaches advanced aircraft systems and airline flight operations.

Not just in the classroom, but in industry, she says that AR promises to transform “the way we train to operate and maintain aircraft—allowing us the ability to enhance real-world environments to accelerate learning and increase situational awareness.”

According to recent research, she says, people trained with the help of 3D maintain better situational awareness, and they have improved skill performance as well as improved long-term retention and recall.
“This approach, combined with customizable mobile applications, creates engaging interactive, experiential learning and immersive experiences.”
She’s found that “mixed reality” encourages students to practice and more quickly progress to advanced skills. It also bridges the gap between flight simulators and the classroom.

Industry informed

Brown came to WMU after working in airline management, as an airline transport pilot for commercial airlines and simulator instructor.

She developed a love for teaching while working for Flight Safety International as a ground and flight simulator instructor. So, it was a natural transition to come to WMU in 2001 as a simulator instructor and WMU International Pilot Training Center classroom instructor for cadets from British Airways and other airlines.
“I’m grateful for my years in the industry, as this has allowed me to bring real-world applications into the classroom and share my passion along with lessons learned with my students,” Brown says. “This experience also allows me to better understand some of the challenges my students may have in their future careers.”

She’s developed a strong passion for education and enjoys merging industry needs and technology with the classroom environment.
“It’s with that understanding that I’m driven to connect the classroom with the application of technical-driven education used in the industry.”

Key collaborators

Brown says that teaming up with colleagues in engineering and computer science as well as receiving WMU grant awards that support instructional development have been key to her efforts to advance educational technology for her students.

“Along with my colleagues from engineering and computer sciences, Dr. Ala Al-Fuqaha, Ihab Mohammed, Gregory Ostroy and Dennis McFall, we started with interactive scalable vector graphics and now have moved into 3D virtual, augmented and mixed reality,” she says. “We have developed 3D interactive cockpits for commercial aircraft and several jet engines by using each grant award to help build a new platform.”

That group of enterprising faculty members now has a suite of educational tools for students, including virtual reality goggles, smart glasses featuring augmented reality and HoloLens holographic capability, thanks to WMU web developer William Chheu.

Currently, Brown is at work with Dr. Ronald Sterkenburg from Purdue University on a state-of-the-art textbook, which has AR overlays. The book is a unique learning tool that helps pilots bridge the gap between aircraft systems theory and operations.

With help from AR, students can view two-dimensional objects in 3D by using the camera embedded in their iPhones or tablets. They simply scan the images in the textbook, and those 2D images are reconstituted on their smart phones or tablets as 3D models or videos.

“These enhanced technologies can improve learning outcomes and student assessment, and change the way we interact with technology while engaging our students,” Brown says. “It’s all about preparing our students to be successful to meet the needs and challenges of tomorrow.”