ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
When performing sensor validation tests in the Arnold Engineering Development Complex Sea Level Test Cell 1, or SL-1, this summer, AEDC engineers at Arnold Air Force Base had the opportunity to view in nearly real-time a three-dimensional representation of the test hardware and support systems using virtual reality.
The VR capability was provided by Augmntr, Inc., a Colorado-based company that specializes in augmented reality and virtual reality display technologies, through a Small Business Innovation Research project.
“In early 2018, we submitted an SBIR proposal for the development of the Virtual Test Cell Presence System (VTCPS), and we were fortunate enough to be one of the selected companies,” said Lafe Redd, a cofounder of the company. “To date, we have supported five Phase I and two Phase II SBIRs serving the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Defense Health Agency and the U.S. Marine Corps.”
The goal of the VTCPS is to provide a cost-effective, intuitive, and natural method to view and interact with hazardous environments that would otherwise be inaccessible, such as aerospace and automotive test facilities or other industries requiring remote monitoring of areas where humans cannot safely be present or where they would introduce unnecessary contamination factors.
“The VTCPS project was our first Phase II, which is the prototype system that was installed in SL-1 at Arnold Air Force Base,” Redd said.
The virtual system is based on a distributed camera design, so that there are multiple viewpoints of the test cell simultaneously. The prototype system installed in SL-1 utilizes eight visible band cameras and one thermal longwave infrared camera. The architecture can accommodate almost any type of sensor and can support highly specialized devices, such as cameras that detect petrochemical vapors in the atmosphere.
The hardware architecture was selected to minimize data transmission delays through the system. This allows a near real-time delivery of the various video feeds.
Redd described how the set up works in the engine test cell and what the team is able to see.
“The system operator wears a VR headset and can see the views from the different cameras,” he said. “The direct view of each camera is provided as a dashboard, and the user can focus on any scene desired. These are 2D views, but the software then combines the ‘best view’ from each of the cameras and combines them to create the 3D reconstruction of the test cell.
“The operator uses a gamepad to move around within the reconstructed virtual space. He or she can ‘fly around’ the test cell to any vantage point desired. If a detailed view of a particular engine feature is desired, the user can look at the 2D camera feed and inspect to the limiting resolution of that feed.”
The SL-1 cameras allow viewers to closely inspect an object in the test cell with the capability to zoom in to see features as small as 0.050 inches.
According to Redd, future versions of the software will interface with the existing AEDC data feeds and display those data results in the VR environment.
“For example, in SL-1 the operator will be able to see the various temperature and pressure values overlaid on the 3D view in VR. This would provide a fully comprehensive live view of the test event in VR, as though the operator were actually inside the test cell. Longer term, we envision that the system could blend in computational fluid dynamics prediction models, such that the user could see the ‘as predicted’ versus the ‘as testing’ results.”
According to Bernie Williamson, test project manager at Arnold, the VTCPS offers AEDC test facilities advancements to the methods currently in place.
“Using the system in SL-1, we had a stable, more usable image, even with the heavy vibration caused by the General Electric F404 engine,” Williamson said. “Another advantage is the test team is able to easily navigate between a full cell 3D view and individual cameras.”
Redd added that future development and improvements to the system will include growth potential to add artificial intelligence and machine learning features and provide automated alerts and insights; inclusion of additional sensors into the existing housing, such as thermal infrared for remote temperature monitoring; and user-interface improvements that integrate the video recording system with existing AEDC systems and processes.
“Augmntr is fully committed, and highly excited, to work so closely with AEDC on this system,” Redd said. “We hope to mature the system so that it can be used on a daily basis in multiple test cells, meeting all IT, security and operational requirements. The system should also be able to integrate with needed legacy and all future planned sensors to maximize AEDC’s investment in any sensors. Additionally, the specific camera and lens modules used by VTCPS could be used for other systems as needed to provide an increase in image quality and stability.”