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The Warsaw Voice » The Polish Science Voice » November 29, 2012
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Virtual Reality: From Fighter Jets to Trucks
November 29, 2012   
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For the first time in my life I’m driving a truck. I feel insecure, even though I am a driver with 20 years of experience. Except that I normally drive a passenger car, using it to commute to work every day. Now I’m driving through the city streets and every now and again find myself cutting into the shoulder of the road, and trying not to run into a truck traveling in the opposite direction or at least hitting it with my left mirror. A small traffic circle appears ahead. I haven’t got the feel of driving such a large vehicle and I cut right through the island in the middle of the circle, driving straight ahead. The truck is jumping up onto the curbs. Fortunately, the truck is not real; it’s a simulator used for training drivers.

The simulator for training truck and bus drivers is the work of designers and constructors from Polish company ETC-PZL Aerospace Industries from Warsaw. The simulator is an innovative device in terms of both design and technology. It relies on ultra-modern techniques and information technology.

ETC-PZL has considerable experience in designing and building various types of simulators and training devices designed primarily for aviation. For years, these have been used by cadets from the Polish Air Force Academy in the eastern city of Dęblin and by pilots of airplanes and helicopters, both military and civilian.

The company’s adventure with this type of equipment began in the late 1980s, when it developed and built its first flight simulator for the MiG-21 bis fighter plane. This was the first completely digital flight simulator of this type in Poland. In the following years, other cutting-edge flight simulators were built for the TS-11 Iskra and PZL-130 Orlik trainer aircraft as well as for the Su-22M4 combat plane and the W-3WA Sokół helicopter. In 2004, under a contract with American company L-3 Communications Link Simulation and Training, ETC-PZL took part in the production and delivery, to the Polish air force, of flight and ejection-seat simulators for F-16 C/D fighter planes.

The idea for a truck simulator originated in early 2008 when work began in the Polish parliament to adapt Poland’s road transport regulations to a European Union directive on the periodic training of drivers.

“Back then nobody in Poland produced professional simulators for such training, so we decided that this was a business opportunity for us,” says Zbigniew Uchman, a member of the board and commercial and marketing director at ETC-PZL. “We started research and development work related to this type of equipment,” says Uchman. “We established a relationship with the Faculty of Transport at the Warsaw University of Technology, which had some experience in this area, having built Poland’s first passenger car simulator in a project led by Prof. Zbigniew Lozia.”

ETC-PZL needed a substantial amount of money to carry out its project. Partial funding was provided by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. However, most of the tab was picked up by ETC-PZL using its own funds. As part of the project, the Warsaw University of Technology examined the vehicles involved to determine their characteristics and prepare mathematical models as the basis for developing simulation software by ETC computer scientists. All the remaining work, including the design and construction of the simulator as well as a complete software package, was taken care of by ETC-PZL engineers led by technical director Andrzej Synal and project manager Krzysztof Stępień.

The project was completed in November 2010. It ended with the construction of prototype bus and truck driving simulators and tests needed to go ahead with the implementation and production of simulators.

ETC-PZL says it tries to carry out its research and development projects in collaboration with partners. These most often include research institutions and users. The latter help determine the requirements for a specific type of equipment and subsequently evaluate its functionality and usefulness, ETC-PZL executives say.

ETC-PZL decided to go ahead with the manufacture of training simulators for truck and bus drivers despite stiff competition abroad. Similar equipment was offered by French company Tales and Norwegian firm AutoSim, Uchman says. He adds that ETC-PZL was aware of the risk, but undertook the challenge nonetheless. Today it is evident that the company made the right decision, Uchman says.

“The main advantage of our simulator over other devices on the market is that it is universal,” says Uchman. Thanks to the possibility of changing the cab and software for simulating the characteristics of the vehicle, it is possible to train both bus and truck drivers in an environment as close as possible to the actual conditions on the road. Meanwhile, rival companies abroad offer the user the possibility of changing the software but the cab remains the same, Uchman says. This means that bus drivers, for example, are trained in a truck cab.

Extremely important is the software—artificial intelligence, as Uchman puts it—that determines what other road users are doing. At first, ETC-PZL purchased this type of software from an American producer. But it turned out that the software did not meet the necessary requirements and Polish specialists got to work to develop their own system.

ETC-PZL has full rights to its simulator software, which is extremely important to the user, according to Uchman. Generally, simulators can be used for more than 20 years, he says, but in the case of driving simulators the software must be modified every now and again, for example when traffic regulations change. Retailers selling imported simulators often have no way of making changes to the software. For Polish users it is also important that both the interface and documentation are in Polish.

ETC-PZL has already won a number of tenders for its driving simulators. The company signed its first contracts for the production of simulators last year.

“We recently won a tender, beating several rival companies, including AutoSim, which specializes in the manufacture of such simulators,” says Uchman. “Both the technical parameters of our simulator and its price were rated higher by the customer. Other criteria taken into account included the conditions of maintenance service. We scored the most points on all counts, leaving the competition behind.”

How many simulators must the company sell in order to start making money on them? Uchman says he is optimistic. Under the company’s business plan, he says, ETC-PZL should break even with the next few orders. The company offers its simulators to both Polish and foreign customers.

As the number of potential buyers of this type of equipment is relatively limited, ETC-PZL uses direct marketing methods, targeting driver training centers and interested organizations bringing together carriers. It also takes part in conferences organized by these communities.

In addition to its simulators for bus and truck drivers, ETC-PZL makes a special system to train police in crisis situations related to riots and hooliganism in sports, for example. This system has passed all the tests and is now in the process of being implemented, the company says. At the end of 2012, it is expected to be installed and launched at the Police Academy in Szczytno in northeastern Poland.

The police training simulator enables comprehensive training at both strategic and tactical levels, which may include operations at sports stadiums, railway stations, public buildings and simulated operations during public gatherings and street demonstrations, ETC-PZL says. Training is conducted at various levels of command, with full integration of the various participants and the use of equipment and logistics as well as operating procedures; exercises take place in a three-dimensional environment that looks realistic to participants.

The computer image generated by the system is highly realistic, with a surround sound system. The system is one of the most modern training simulators for police officers of its kind worldwide, according to ETC-PZL.

The company has implemented the project while working in a research-and-production consortium together with the Police Academy in Szczytno, under an agreement with the National Center for Research and Development.

The simulator for training bus and truck drivers manufactured by ETC-PZL Aerospace Industries helps drivers develop the practical skills of driving motor vehicles safely in almost all conditions. The simulator also enables drivers to gain experience of how they should react in the event of failure of various systems and installations. Trainee drivers learn to identify potential dangers and acquire the right reflexes in dangerous situations on the road, the company says. They can also be taught to drive economically.

The simulator can be used to evaluate whether a candidate would make a good professional driver.

The ETC-PZL simulator has a modular structure, in terms of both design and software. The main modules are:
- the driver’s cab
- the instructor/operator’s station
- 3D display system
- motion system
- IT system
- surround sound system
- power supply
- training analysis and evaluation station

The simulator can be equipped with two interchangeable cabs and simulation software for bus and truck drivers. Each cab is a replica of a typical truck or bus cabin. Both types of cabins are fully equipped as in real-life vehicles. Simulation drills involve driving with both manual and automatic transmission.

A multi-channel digital background simulation system maps all the audio effects normally heard by the driver when driving in real-life conditions.

The system generates and displays realistic images seen from the cab of the simulator at a given time. The environment in which the simulated vehicle is moving comprises three-dimensional terrain, together with infrastructure, three-dimensional moving objects (vehicles and people), as well as changing weather conditions.

The instructor/operator is the key person during a training session. He plans and prepares a variety of driving scenarios, from the simplest situations, such as driving on a quiet road in the countryside with little traffic, to critical situations that suddenly appear on the road, for example, another vehicle suddenly changing the lane, etc. Configuration options include:
- the configuration of the vehicle and the cargo it carries
- the type of terrain
- the type of road and the state of the road surface
- weather conditions
- time of year
- time of day
- traffic intensity.

The instructor monitors the image seen by the driver from the cab in real time, as well as all the events taking place outside the simulated vehicle.

While monitoring the training session, the instructor can make changes to the pre-prepared script on an ad-hoc basis. For example, he can change the weather or road surface condition, or arrange to introduce surprising events, such as the sudden appearance of a pedestrian on the roadway.

ETC-PZL Aerospace Industries simulators and training devices for drivers are adapted to the individual needs of the user on each occasion.
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