P1 don their Virtual Reality headset to get an intimate, technical tour of a Falcon 7X at Dassault Aviation’s ever-expanding Bordeaux-Merignac facility.
Dassault Falcon Service inaugurated a new maintenance facility in Bordeaux-Mérignac in November 2016 to meet the increase in repair and overhaul services for the Falcon 7X and other new Falcon models.
Located next to Dassault’s assembly plant, the new complex adds 49,000sqm of MRO space, including a 7,200sqm hangar, and can accommodate six Falcon 7X, 8X or 5X aircraft at a time.
“This additional capacity will permit DFS to keep up with the steady growth in the Falcon fleet, which currently numbers 2,100 aircraft worldwide and is expected to expand significantly with the arrival of the Falcon 8X, which started deliveries last month.” said Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier.
Dassault’s increasing footprint at Bordeaux-Merignac includes the impressive Dassault Training Academy, which provides Falcon Immersive Practical Training (FIPT) in a virtual reality (VR) environment. With more Falcons flying, there is a greater need for servicing, and that means more technicians. And that’s where this new training really comes into its own. Business aviation has long been at the forefront of technological improvements in the wider industry. We can thank business aviation for the use of composites, deployment of avionics (that took years to see the light of day on commercial airliners), not to mention aerodynamics and weight savings that have reduced fuel consumption on aircraft such as the 7X by more than 40% on previous models.
CATIA (computer aided three-dimensional interactive application) software – originally developed to design Dassault aircraft – is now deployed on everything from coffee machines to a staggering 90% of cars being developed globally using Dassault Systems’ wonder product.
GA can be seen as the development laboratory for aviation and one company has stood out for its ability to not only embrace new technologies but to invent them in the first place. Dassault.
The family-owned business, enjoying its 100th anniversary, has now taken that problem-solving ability into the world of training aircraft technicians with a new Virtual Reality system using the widely available Oculus VR glasses.
It started with their ‘chief geek’ Igor Fain Stoufflet speaking to the Director of the Service Centre Network, Patrice Kurdijian – an affable man with a larger-than-life personality. Apparently, their conversation went along the lines of:
“Could you use VR to train technicians on Dassault’s aircraft, taking them into areas of the aircraft that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see?”
“Why of course, young Igor Fain, but first you’ll have to show me what the hell you are talking about.” Or something like that.
Igor Fain developed the first iteration of the Falcon Immersive Practical Training (FIPT) which Patrice dismissed as not being involved enough. It did the job of being able to go deep into areas of the aircraft such as the fuel structure in the wing but didn’t allow students to feel that they could do anything. You could see in VR, but you couldn’t touch. You couldn’t point to a part or a structure and explain to the class. In essence, that first software was at best a 3-D drawing. Admittedly a very clever one, but one that didn’t solve the problem.
“What I need, opined Patrice, is avatars that represent the students and for them to be able to use their hands to touch and for the tutors to be able to touch and highlight within the virtual reality world.”
A couple of months later, Igor Fain had it ready. They used a modified version of the Oculus glasses, adding a camera to the front that allowed users to see their hands within the VR world.
I suspect that Patrice’s reaction was akin to my own but probably without the expletives.
Holy cow, it is impressive. I mean drop-dead impressive. I’ve always wanted to take a look inside the famous top of the fuselage-mounted, third engine on the Dassault 7X. Within a second, my avatar had jumped up onto the second engine and by highlighting the panels surrounding the tail and engine and then pulling them away, there it was, in its full glory. But better than that, we could get inside. Patrice was able to show me in perfect detail the structure, the fuel, the electrics, everything.
Now, truth be known, I didn’t really have much of a clue at what he was showing me. I’m no technician – although I didn’t tell him that, I suspect he worked it out pretty quickly.
We took a whistle-stop, hour-long tour through the virtual reality 8X. I could have stayed there all day. If you suffer from vertigo it’s best not to look down when you’re 25 feet up. I really felt I was about to fall even though I was comfortably sat in a chair at a desk. I even felt claustrophobic while inside the virtual wing.
Dassault’s Merignac facility hosts the training centre and the classroom has been set up next to the manufacturing floor so students are able to first see in the virtual reality world the detail and the problems, learning how to fix them, how to troubleshoot. And then they go onto the manufacturing floor, in the real world, to a green aircraft which is partway through the build, to see it for real.
Normally, a technician would go through years of practicals before they saw such detail. Patrice estimated that they are able to take a trainee technician through so much detail and expose them to situations that would take 12 years of experience to see.
For those of you not used to being inside the wing of a Dassault 7X, (so that’s pretty much all of us then) let us say for a moment that you are a technician who’s been asked to troubleshoot a fuel flow problem which has been located in the wing. How do you learn how to fix it without having to take an entire wing apart, removing all the panels to reveal what is underneath?
Enter VR. Training eight technicians at a time the Training Academy tutor takes the students through the very complex structure examining where the problems might exist. The students are able to touch each of the parts revealing the parts number before heading to a wing in production to see it for real. It was clear that by first using the VR set up that students’ ability to recognise and troubleshoot problems was significantly enhanced.
Dassault told me that so far they have had one set of eight students go through the program (it was launched at NBAA in November 2016) and that the speed of learning has been drastically increased.
I don’t for a second imagine that the development of this system will stop at training technicians. Imagine a database of every mechanical issue that has ever existed on a Dassault aircraft. It’s not a major leap of thinking to develop a database whereby a technician, anywhere in the world, can don their Oculus VR glasses and see where that problem existed and how to fix it. This has the potential to revolutionise Dassault’s Service Centres worldwide, decreasing downtime of aircraft and getting them back working for the customer quicker and safer than was previously imagined.
After the launch at NBAA, other manufacturers were quick to come along and try it and Dassault has already had approaches by two large manufacturers to purchase the system to train their own technicians.
It might just be that Dassault has got themselves another successful business from asking a simple question and creating the best answer.
Igor Fain and Patrice could well be the fathers of a system that will change the way aircraft are fixed around the world. And just like the CATIA software that the VR uses, I suspect that it will be deployed by industries outside of aviation.