Illinois Simulator Lab Provides Flight Simulation and More

The flight simulator at the ISL supports several projects that are in constant pursuit of creating safer, more intuitive flying environments for pilots. Alex Kirlik engineers safe cyber-physical-human systems. With the help of graduate student Ben Seefeldt, Kirlik is finding better ways to display information to pilots so they can respond to emergencies more swiftly and accurately. The researchers are developing a feature on the control panel that dynamically provides information indicating a safe flying zone. If the plane is about to breach that safe zone, the pilot will be alerted and provided with information on how to remedy the situation.

Beckman's Illinois Simulator Lab (ISL) is a constantly evolving resource for research efforts in simulation, beginning in the late 1990s with the CAVE, an immersive virtual reality environment. In the past year, the flight simulator at the ISL was used for a project aiming to develop safer and more intuitive flying environments for pilots. 

When the Beckman Institute opened its doors, the simulators at the Illinois Simulator Laboratory (ISL) were not yet built or even invented. But like most of the projects and facilities at the Beckman Institute, the ISL became a space for increased collaboration. 

The first simulator used in the ISL, the CAVE, was designed in 1995 and almost immediately became the centerpiece of a large, federally funded five-year grant called the Federated Lab for Advanced and Interactive Displays (FedLab), which made a number of significant contributions to basic and applied research relevant to the development of the next generation of advanced displays. 

At the time, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) was housed in the Beckman Institute, and, as part of a graduate student project, the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois-Chicago created the CAVE, the world’s first room-sized immersive environment, and provided the CAVE to NCSA. 

“After the first year of the FedLab project, we realized there wasn’t enough coordination between the researchers,” said Hank Kaczmarski, director of the ISL and former technical program manager for NCSA. “So we created the Integrated Systems Lab (later to be renamed the Illinois Simulator Lab) to provide a space for all the researchers to work together.” 

After the FedLab project ended, NCSA moved to their new building across the street from Beckman, but Kaczmarski, the CAVE, and the ISL remained. Over time, the ISL would acquire the CUBE, a six-sided virtual reality environment, a driving simulator, a flight simulator, and motion capture studios. 

From the beginning, the CAVE has been heavily used for psychology experiments. In many studies, performances of tasks in the CAVE environment are used to measure cognitive functioning before and after an intervention. For example, participants may engage in a pedestrian street-crossing task in the CAVE, where the virtual streets gradually become busier and more difficult to cross. During the weeks or months in between their visits to the CAVE, participants engage in a variety of interventions, such as taking a theater class or participating in physical exercises for a specified period of time. 

The flight simulator, which came to the ISL in 2008, is continually upgraded as new projects from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA are added. One of the projects is led by Alex Kirlik, who uses the flight simulator to engineer better ways to alert pilots of dangerous flight situations and how to fix them. 

“Imagine that you have automation that is looking out and making sure your plane is operating in a safe area within the sky. What the automation is doing is looking out for you and letting you know when you’re starting to exceed the boundaries of safety, and when you do, it tells you that you’re getting near the boundaries so you can fix it and start flying safely again,” Kirlik said. “It will also provide you with information and guidance on how to get out of the impending problem.” 

This project, funded by the NSF, looks to improve flying environments, so pilots are better able to respond to emergencies by assigning specific roles to automation and allowing humans to perform the tasks that they do best. 

In addition to the flight simulator, the CUBE is expanding and upgrading as well. With six sides, the CUBE provides an entirely immersive virtual environment for participants to explore. A new project is using the CUBE to create virtual urban and nature environments to investigate if there are advantages to a person’s mental capabilities if he or she is in a realistic nature environment versus being in a realistic urban environment. 

To upgrade the CUBE, ISL employees are equipping it with new LCD displays, which will be 10 to 15 times brighter and provide more visual depth and much greater colorimetry than the projectors used previously. 

The ISL continues to be place for state-of-the- art simulation research, with many new projects on the horizon. 

“We’re growing, and we’re excited about several upcoming projects that have the potential to benefit society,” said Kaczmarski.