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Flight simulators go from hydraulics to all-electric

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Machine Design
Charles Bartel
Mon, 2014-06-09 10:50
Electric actuators and components have replaced hydraulics in flight simulators, making them more energy
efficient and easier to maintain. But going from hydraulics to electric actuation posed a number of engineering
challenges among them, handling heavier payloads, providing smooth motion, ensuring safety, and
preventing unwanted noise.

An ideal flight simulator replicates the 3D or spatial feel of flying while closely matching the real-world reactions
of the pilots controls. So when pilots in the simulator activate the controls, they should experience the same
response as when they are in the actual planes. Until recently, simulators relied on electrohydraulic actuators to
provide feedback to pilots and power the simulators motion. Today, full-flight-simulator designers use the same
mechanical concepts but the actuators are all-electric.


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Electric actuators and components for simulators such as the Moog ball screw which translates rotational
motion into linear motion are designed for longer life with less maintenance, and greater efficiency to provide
the high levels of system availability the market requires.

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Flight simulators go from hydraulics to all-electric


A key safety provision for flight simulators is preventing the cockpit/crew stations from dropping uncontrolled
when theres a loss of electric power or other fault conditions. Instead, the simulator should stop or gracefully
return to its starting position to let the aircrew safely exit.

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Flight simulators go from hydraulics to all-electric

One option used to ensure the pilot or aircrew escapes the simulator in case of a fault is to equip the simulator
with a backup battery capable of energizing the motor long enough to get the simulator to the home position.
The return-to-home feature independently drives the actuator motor using batteries and a sensorless controller
when servo power is unavailable. Simulators with a backup battery closely perform as the hydraulics did with an
accumulator at each leg and an abort valve, which supplied pressure to the retract side of the cylinder and
returned the simulator to its start position.

Hydraulics can typically handle a wide range of large loads with the same servovalve and actuator, while electric
actuators have a more limited range. The challenge to engineers was replicating hydraulics payload-handling
abilities with electrics. Developments in higher-power density devices have allowed engineers to use servodrive
technology to match the performance of hydraulics. For example, engineers boosted the power density of

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Flight simulators go from hydraulics to all-electric

brushless servomotors by using high-energy magnets. The advantage of these upgraded components is they
draw less power than hydraulic alternatives while sacrificing none of the precision, speed, and availability.

Simulator operators also require high fidelity, or smooth motions with little noise to prevent. To meet these
requirements, Moog upgraded ball-screw and servodrive technology, as well as software algorithms to minimize
actuator noise.

Engineers and pilots have always evaluated simulators subjectively. In the future, the flight simulation industry
is apt to take a more deterministic, or objective, approach to evaluating simulators and take the subjectivity out
of the validation process. The goal will be to provide the same performance across all simulators while making
the qualification process more efficient.

How motion cueing is evaluated will be critical to achieving this goal. Motion cueing uses the pilots senses
(sight, sound, and haptics) to make them believe they are moving, turning, and accelerating more than they
actually are. For example, simulators recreate many of the effects of take-off and climb even though the
simulator does not accelerate to 200 mph or ever climb higher than the stroke of the actuator.

By tuning a simulator to execute cueing algorithms that mimic sensations in actual flight, the industry will better
prepare pilots to fly before they ever leave the ground.

The Moog G-seat

Motion simulators cannot recreate the sustained accelerations felt by fighter pilots. So for training, military-
aircraft pilots strap into a Moog G-seat installed in the cockpit section of the simulator. The cockpit is wheeled
into a spherical multiscreen display, much like a smaller version of an IMAX theater. While the cockpit does not
move, the pilots controls (stick, throttle, and rudder) are hooked to the computer generating the graphics on the
inside of the dome, which provides visual cues of the aircrafts movements.

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Flight simulators go from hydraulics to all-electric

The motion or physical cues come from small electric actuators invisibly mounted in the seat bucket, seat pan,
and back pad. These actuators push or pull on the pilot at up to 100 mm/sec for distances of up to 25 mm, and
recreate accelerations of up to 1,200 mm/sec2. The shoulder and lap belts are also hooked into tensioning
mechanisms that add to the realism. For example on take-off, the seat back pushes out, and the lap and shoulder
belts tighten, making pilots feel as if they are accelerating.

For more realism, harness and leg straps can be controlled and an additional actuator in the seat pan replicates
rolling options. The G-seat can replicate positive and negative gs by changing the shape of the seat pan, raising
or lowering the seat bucket, and altering tension on the harness. This closely recreates conditions pilots
encounter in dogfights and bombing runs such as stall buffet and weapons release.

The seat looks like a standard ejection seat found in tactical military aircraft. But there is also a version
specifically for simulating helicopter flight where vibrations from the blades are critical cues.

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