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Choosing a visual system

A Sim Ops customer, looking at buying a new Full Flight Simulator (FFS), recently asked us a question; the Training Device Manufacturers (TDM) were offering them different visual display and Image Generator (IG) systems and wanted to know if and how they might choose between the different systems available. As this remains a system which can be, and often is, changed during the life of a Flight Simulator Training Device (FSTD) we thought we would look at the factors you might want to consider when choosing a visual system.

So what constitutes a visual system?

The system is often considered as four elements, namely:

  • An Image Generator (IG) - the hardware/real-time software that generates the image

  • Display system - the optics

  • Projection system - the projectors and mountings

  • Visual scenes, databases - the visual models

Image Generator

Mounted off board, usually in its own cabinet, modern IGs now use predominantly Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) hardware. Open the IG cabinet door and you will now find industrial rack-mounted PCs. Probably one will be the system interface/controller and then one PC per channel each containing the image generating software and a COTS graphics card.

Display system

If you are buying a new FSTD the chances are it was designed around one particular system; in the case of a FFS probably the OEMs own design or preferred third party solution. Changing these by specifying an alternate, while not impossible, will be expensive. Most FFS mirrors sold in recent years have used vacuum shaped mylar mirrors. However there are other systems available including glass mirrors and RSI recently launched their ”NEXGLASS” technology which we are looking forward to seeing (no pun intended). The other main element is the projection screen, this is mounted above the flight deck and can be either a front projection (FPS) or back projection system (BPS). As with the mirrors there are pros and cons in both but it will be largely dictated by the TDM.

One last thing on the display system is the Field of View (FOV), the latest standards are potentially moving from 180 degrees by 40 degrees to 200 degrees by 40 degrees on high end devices; however we have seen a trend for RFPs to require 220 degrees by 45 degrees. Be very clear as to what field of view you want and need to support your envisaged training needs, and more importantly, why; what training will the extended FOV give you other than circling approaches if applicable. The simple answer is that the required field of view, and how it might be distributed horizontally and vertically, needs to be sufficient to support the training to be conducted considering the cockpit window layout and geometry.


The development of projectors has been rapid and driven largely by the gaming industry, the evolution of projectors could occupy many a blog. Walk around any simulation trade show and you will see a variety of offerings which change very frequently. If you choose one of these the choice needs to be based on the initial purchase price, the guaranteed life in hours and cost of consumables. However check with your selected TDM and IG supplier, in the case of a new build, that you won’t be charged a one time design cost for fitting a projector they have not integrated before. Some of the visual system suppliers provide the TDMs packages that include the projectors, there are advantages for ongoing support to go with those standard offerings. For an update you also need to consider the cost of modifying the device to fit them.

Visual scenes (databases)

These are the models of the airports required for training tasks involving approaches and landings/take-offs and ground manoeuvre training.

Make sure you get a comprehensive list of which specific airport databases are available and their currency. How many and which type of databases you need should be driven by the training to be conducted not just for initial or type rating training but perhaps also for Category C airport familiarisation and authorisation (eg LOWI Innsbruck) possibly also involving specific RNP AR approaches where the correct terrain modelling is vital.

You will also need to check the fidelity of the default generic databases, these are used when you haven't purchased a specific database for a given airport but your training takes you there! These are normally now auto generated based on the airport’s published runway characteristics (length, width, direction, lighting, etc.).

You will also be offered a number of objects, static and dynamic, that can be added to represent airport services, marshallers, gate guidance systems, SMGCS, traffic and weather effects. Make sure you carefully consider what is important for your training and what is required.

Make sure that a worldwide satellite and terrain database is included sufficient for transition between models.

Be careful when you are being shown databases, when viewed on a monitor, even a very large one, models will always look good. Frankly going to a trade show to select your IG supplier is only a first step, just use them to select candidate companies.

So what are the main considerations?

Well the first question to ask yourself is if you intend to only ever buy one FSTD or you intend to buy all your FSTDs from the same supplier; if so it may well make sense to go with the TDM’s standard offer, particularly if the TDM has their own Image Generator (IG). However if you are intending (or have) a fleet of FSTDs it is best to shop around and consider having commonality of IG between the FSTDs so they can all use the same databases.

For the IG hardware pretty much whichever you choose, as we have seen, it will be COTS hardware, all the manufacturers produce professional systems full of nice features. The graphic cards evolve quickly so make sure you buy some spares and a spare PC is always a good idea. So as long as the supplier has had their systems qualified under the same regulations as your authority follows and your TDM has integrated their IG it is a cost based choice.

For the display it is pretty much dictated by your choice of FSTD TDM. If you have a preference for a particular technology that may well dictate your choice of TDM. You may also find that your training department requires a FOV beyond the current 200 x 40 degree norm, this again might drive your selected TDM.

To be frank projectors come and go, whatever you specify now is unlikely to last the life of the device, just make sure you select a proven design at the early stages of its production cycle.

So for us it's all about the databases!

The database options are what make a massive difference going forward. Although for qualification purposes you only arguably need only 3 customised specific databases there will be more needed to fulfil the training need. However this requirement will not stay the same. Airlines add new routes and third party suppliers, hopefully, get new customers that will want to train on databases on their route structure. So your needs will change over time.

Carefully check the suppliers catalogue of available models to ensure they adequately cover your area of operations, they are being regularly updated. Then carefully consider the offers on pricing and availability of additional models or model update subscription based support services. If you have, or are planning to have, multiple FSTDs make sure you have the right to use models across the fleet.

Then, and only then, start looking at some of the cool features the suppliers have on offer!

How can Sim Ops help?

The partners at Sim Ops have vast experience in selecting visual systems; we can guide you through the procurement process and provide objective feedback on the offers you receive.

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