Features - Insight

JANUARY 14, 2009

Formula 1's virtual reality


The decision to ban all circuit testing in the Formula 1 season was designed to save the teams money. For the big teams, however, the battle has simply moved from the race tracks to the factories where advanced simulation technology will take over from actual running.

The decision to ban all circuit testing in the Formula 1 season was designed to save the teams money. For the big teams, however, the battle has simply moved from the race tracks to the factories where advanced simulation technology will take over from actual running. Teams these days are using an arfray of different tools to make the cars go faster. These include highly-advanced rolling-road wind tunnels, transient dynos and seven-post rigs. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) is developing fast. The goal of all of these expensive items is to ensure that the racing cars are as competitive as possible - and as reliable. But simulation techniques in Formula 1 are now beginning to go far beyond that. Computers crunch away to work out every conceivable race strategy and increasingly the teams are realising the value of what are known as driver-in-the-loop simulators. This means that rather than engineers playing with computers, as happens with other simulation, the F1 drivers sit in virtual F1 cars and drive them.

There may be a belief that the F1 simulators are simply glorified computer games, which have a limited value in teaching drivers circuits that they have never visited, but the story is much more complicated than that.

Simulator technologies came to Formula 1 first because teams recognised that they could make money by working with computer gaming companies in order to create entertainment for the public. The first racing computer game was Gran Trak 10, a single-player racing arcade game released by Atari in 1974. The first big success was Pole Position, a Namco game in which a player had to complete a lap in a certain amount of time in order to qualify for a race at the Fuji Speedway. If successful the car would race with other cars. As home computers developed in the 1980s the first true F1 game appeared, called Formula One Grand Prix (F1GP), which was released in 1992. Nowadays you can sit at home and drive F1 cars, playing with many different parameters such as the fuel loads, tyre wear and so on. But home computers can only do so much. One may have a steering wheel and pedals, but there are none of the real sensations of what it is really like to drive an F1 car.

Formula 1 engineers began to realise that advanced simulation could be a tool not just for driver training, but also to work on technical solutions and set-up conundrums. Simulation can improve lap times and save time and money by giving the team a way to test without needing to put the cars on the race track. Virtual testing is now a reality.

Modern simulation techniques can be traced back to the 1920s when an American engineer called Edwin Link, who had begun his career as a builder of organs and nickelodeons, used his knowledge of pneumatic pumps and valves to create the first flight simulator in the out of the way town of Binghamton, in upstate New York. At the time teaching new pilots to fly in cloud, using only their instruments, was both expensive and dangerous and Link felt that it was possible to create a machine that could do the job cheaply and safely.

The result was a device which became known as the Blue Box. This was in effect an aircraft cockpit that was completely enclosed. The pilot sat inside and used the controls to "fly" the device using instruments alone. The Blue Box produced pitch, roll and yaw motions which were controlled by the pilot. The prototype appeared in 1929 but Link's business did not take off until 1934 when the US Army Air Force purchased four of the machines after a series of trainee pilots died while doing instrument training. For Link the advent of World War II created a boom for his ever-improving machines. He provided 10,000 of them and more than half a million aircrew from different nations learned to fly on Link's ingenious machines. The development accelerated and by the end of the war there were large scale simulators in which entire bomber crews could be trained together.

The boom in civil aviation after World War II led Link to develop simulators for the new generation of jet planes. By the 1960s the technologies had changed with the old pneumatic actuators being replaced by hydraulic versions. The new simulators were built to include what was known as "six degrees of freedom", which meant that the platforms on which the cockpits were mounted were able to generate roll, pitch, yaw motion plus surge (longitudinal), heave (vertical) and sway (lateral). Visuals were introduced, with the earliest versions using cameras that filmed models of the ground. By the 1970s wide-angled screens with film footage came in, to be followed by curved mirrors and ultimately plasma screens with virtual imagery.

The development of simulators was not restricted to planes, with the advent of gaming and a diversification into ground vehicles, notably armoured transport. These simulators enabled the army to create battlefield environments in order to train its crews. The automotive industry also started looking at the potential of simulators to help the companies involved understand how drivers behaved in different situations, thus enabling the designers to improve dashboard ergonomics and to strengthen safety features, based on the accidents that might occur because of drivers becoming tired or being distracted. Military demands meant that development was constant with innovations such as G-seats, belt-tightening devices and pneumatic cushions, all of which helped to create the impression of the pressures that a driver would feel at certain speeds, in addition to 360-degree domes to create a totally virtual environment.

Today there are reckoned to be 1200 professional flight simulators in the world, designed and developed by companies such as Canada's CAE, France defence giant Thales and US firms like Flight Safety International and Northrop. The majority of these use motion platforms known as Hexapods or Stewart Platforms, which feature six independently-actuated legs, the lengths of which change in order to orient the platform. Sound and imagery add to the environment created. The accuracy of simulators is based on the interaction of these three elements, but it is an area in which there has been much controversy between the mechanical engineers and advanced medical researchers. The latter argue that it simulations are not very realistic because of the way in which the human body reacts to stimuli. This is a very complex question because of the wide range of sensory inputs that the brain integrates. The medical men argue that the reactions of the muscles and joints (the proprioceptive system) do not tie in with the others and also believe that the vestibular system (the balance mechanisms in the inner ear) is also affected. They argue that this means that depth perceptions are not always correct.

One of the problems with simulators is that some of them induce sickness because of a discrepancy between the perception of visual motion and the corresponding motion cues. This led engineers to look at ways to overcome the problem and to the development of what are called dynamic simulators, which have the entire hexapod moving around to meet the body's need for the sensation of real motion.

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a standard simulator. Each one is a prototype and the most interesting element in their use in F1 is that most of the systems have been developed in-house by the teams, rather than being developed with specialist partnerships. One thing that is clear is that the experts on simulators have also been moving as teams realise the value of what they do not have.

There is general agreement that the two best systems at the moment are the two that have had the most development: McLaren is believed to have spent as much as $40m on its system and used British Aerospace technology, developed for the Eurofighter aircraft. At Woking the driver sits in a full-size F1 monocoque, in front of a large, curved plasma screen. The whole device is mounted on a hexapod which moves around an area about the size of a professional basketball court, in response to the driver's steering and pedal input. This is the only dynamic F1 simulator in F1 at the moment. It is believed that the best of the fixed-base units is at Williams where the development has been amazingly cost-effective, with a budget of probably a tenth of what has been spent at McLaren. Williams is believed to be able to stream data back to its factory after a practice session so that it can use the simulator to try out other set-ups, which can then be tried overnight to ensure that the cars have the optimum set-ups based on absolutely current data.

Up to now Ferrari has been using a fairly simple unit, which is housed at the Fiat Research Centre in Turin. The team had recently announced a partnership with the US firm Moog. This will be the very latest dynamic device.

"The dynamic driving simulator is a new step for us in developing virtual tests that give drivers the true feel of a real environment and direct feedback on their actions," says Scuderia Ferrari's head of R&D Marco Fainello. "It will support the new breed of tests we are planning to launch."

Red Bull Racing tried a relationship with a specialist company but is now doing its own thing and intends to have a dynamic unit as soon as one can be built. Honda was doing likewise. Renault has an arrangement to use a system created by a local specialist firm, but they don't want to give details. The team admits that the system is not on par with other teams. Force India has its own very basic system but recently tried out a facility at the old Upper Heyford airbase which is owned by Wirth Research, built by Nick Wirth, who was technical director of the Benetton team before it became Renault. It maybe that this is also Renault's secret facility. Oddly, Toyota and BMW say that they are not using any simulators at the moment, although both firms have advanced road car simulators: Toyota having the world's largest driving simulator at the Higashifuji Technical Centre in Japan and BMW having a similar unit in Munich. Both teams say that they do not use a simulator at all.

What is clear is that the teams believe that the F1 simulators are the most advanced of all.

"I think they are better than the best flight simulators," says Red Bull Racing's Geoff Willis. "Those are now more about training and not so much about performance."

And do they work?

"It's pretty useful," says Williams's Patrick Head, although he won't say more than that.

Itr is not just the technology that interests some of the teams. The marketing men know that there may be potential in the future to sell simple versions of these devices to the public. The Nintendo Wii is a move in that direction with sensors that transform the movement of the players into actions in the games. The next leap forward will probably be a device to give players the same sensations as those being simulated. Already some handsets give the player feedback when they run over kerbs or hit other virtual objects.

Since the end of 2006 an astonishing 30m Wiis have been sold. They cost around $250, which means that it is a $7.5bn market. The first company to get to the markets with simulation technology as is seen in F1 stands to make even bigger profits. In the meantime money can still be made. Recently the Costa cruise ship line bought a series of F1 simulators from a Dutch company called VESC to try to attract customers (mainly Italians) to its ships.

The fullscale machines, complete with hexapods, are now cruising the world.