FAA to Test Virtual Reality Headsets for Helicopter Pilot Training

US aviation regulators are turning to a small Swiss technology startup to rethink how helicopter pilots are trained.

(Bloomberg) — US aviation regulators are turning to a small Swiss technology startup to rethink how helicopter pilots are trained.

The Federal Aviation Administration will evaluate virtual reality technology in flight simulators for the first time, taking delivery of systems from Zurich-based Loft Dynamics, the company said Monday.

The technology combines VR headsets with a frame replicating the control panel and cockpit of a helicopter, but at a scale significantly smaller than traditional full-motion setups. Two simulators — one to train pilots on Airbus SE’s H125 helicopter and another for the Robinson R22 — have been installed at the FAA’s R&D facility in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

The FAA often explores the use of new technologies in aviation and has extensive development programs, many of which don’t result in commercial deployments. While this is the first time the regulator will review VR headsets as a training tool, it’s for the narrow helicopter market and wouldn’t apply to commercial planes. Additionally, the agreement with Loft Dynamics does not equate to certification of its tech in the US.

The little-known startup, whose systems have been certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, has raised $20 million from institutional investors since December. Its hope is that the technology offers a a more-streamlined, lower-cost method for training pilots across multiple aircraft types and can ultimately replace training schools and instructor-intensive programs.

“The helicopter is far more difficult to simulate so we have taken this as the higher benchmark,” Loft Dynamics Chief Executive Officer Fabian Riesen said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Monday. “It’s around 20 times cheaper than” domed simulators.

Loft Dynamics has sold and deployed 13 units in Europe so far, with each requiring regulatory approval.

VR headsets for the R22 would be a particular help for new pilots, not least because helicopters are even more expensive — and can be more complicated — to fly than traditional fixed-wing aircraft. The two-seat R22 has a conventional piston engine and is widely used as an entry-level trainer. The higher-performance Airbus chopper has a turbine engine and is flown by corporate operators, emergency medical teams, law enforcement and the military, among others.

The market for virtual headsets across consumer and commercial use cases remains small and nascent. Meta Platforms Inc., the company formerly known as Facebook, dominated the market in 2022, accounting for 82% of sales, according to data from IDC. But just 8.5 million virtual reality headsets were sold globally. By comparison, more than 1.2 billion smartphones were shipped globally last year, according to IDC.

Meta cut prices earlier this year for its premium-tier headset in part because of a lack of demand from commercial customers, Bloomberg has reported.

Riesen said Loft Dynamics is getting the hardware from third parties but is “hardware agnostic.” The current headset is provided by Helsinki-based Varjo Technologies Oy.

The next phase is to expand the technology for training fixed wing aircraft and electric vertical take off and landing vehicles — or eVTOLs — also known as flying taxis.

–With assistance from Caroline Hyde and Edward Dufner.

(Updates with CEO comment, additional details starting in the sixth paragraph)

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