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Make a better flight simulator for safer skies

The motion of most flight simulators is more like that of a rocking chair than an airplane. That's fine for simulating a flight where the most severe event is a shortage of Diet Coke. Not so good for training pilots to regain control in actual emergencies.

"It's one thing to push some buttons in a cockpit. It's quite another to do it while you are spinning," says Metin Yaras, chair of Carleton's department of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The goal of its Simulator Project is to create a more realistic flight experience. The simulator's spherical cockpit was designed so that there are no restrictions to movement. It will go up, down, forward, backward, and side to side and will spin in any direction. Its visual system projects images onto spherical surfaces, as opposed to the flat displays of most simulators, further enhancing realism.

More than 200 engineering students have contributed to the project, facing many challenges in the decade since its inception. Finding space for the 4.3-metre-tall structure meant digging a pit in a lab. Students had to write their own software, manufacture their own parts, and design a system of sensors and cameras to track the cockpit's orientation.

"Another major challenge is that, because the cockpit can spin, we can't have any mechanical attachments to it for power, data exchange, or ventilation," says engineering professor Robert Langlois, the project manager.

Construction of the simulator began last September and should be completed within two years. "If it does everything we think it can do, it will have all kinds of applications," says Langlois, who envisions it being used in education, for research, and to train commercial, military, and aerobatic pilots.

Better simulators make for safer skies. So does the experience gained by the hundreds of student engineers who worked on this project, says Langlois. "The contribution to the simulation industry goes far beyond this simulator."