Australian software engineers are using virtual reality to help astronauts train for space travel

Boeing Research & Technology engineer Leighton Carr tries the VR trainer his Brisbane team helped design for Starliner astronauts, with the actual simulator in the background. Source: Boeing

When Boeing’s $US1.5 billion CST-100 Starliner heads to the International Space Station in late 2018, the expertise of the NASA astronauts piloting the spaceship will be in part due to software engineers from Australia.

The first major space R&D initiative by Boeing Australia’s Brisbane-based team is a VR trainer for the Starliner capsule, to complement the simulator and help astronauts train for manoeuvres such as docking with the International Space Station and then reentry to earth.

The Starliner will be reusable up to 10 times, with a six month turnaround time, and will carry four crew and cargo to the ISS.

The new low-cost training alternative was revealed alongside the Starliner simulator at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, last week as the first one developed by Boeing outside the USA.

While the achievement sounds like a massive effort for the Brisbane team, Boeing research and technology engineer Leighton Carr said the whole thing came together surprisingly quickly after he met with the Boejing space team and NASA officials in Houston earlier this year and offered to help.

“One of the advantages of the technology we work with is we can move very fast and be very responsive,” he said.

“They were interested in finding an application as a supplement for the physical training and simulator work. So we spent about six weeks on initial development, and then another five to six weeks polishing it for the IAC conference.”

Like VR games, the technology also gives astronauts in different locations the ability to hook up and train together.

Boeing also signed a deal with Melbourne-based VR supplier, Opaque Space, to collaborate with the Brisbane team on future training scenarios for the Starliner.

Opaque Space CEO Emre Deniz said his company was proud to go from VR gaming to working with NASA to now partnering with Boeing.

“It’s especially gratifying to demonstrate Australian technical leadership in an emerging area like virtual reality,” he said.

Boeing Space and Missile Systems senior vice president Jim Chilton, said having the company’s Australian team working with the US for NASA and international space agencies will also have spin-off benefits for the Australian Defence Force.

Boeing Defence Australia is planning to explore space situational awareness capabilities as part of its growing command, control and communications business and the ADF currently has Boeing-built satellite communications supporting its operations.

Australia is Boeing’s biggest international outpost outside the US, including the R&D side, which invested more than $47 million last year on projects ranging from robotics to analytics, composites, flight training and autonomous systems.

The company is also currently completing the Dreamliner 787-9 commercial passenger aircraft for Qantas.

Leighton Carr said the Australian team had a long history of working with the US and they’ve been working on VR in other programs in the company for a number of years.

Boeing’s other Australian-developed space technologies include a weather server that can analyse the surface of the earth and objects in space, an application to connect teams during live test events such as space launches, and spacecraft cabin anti-microbial polymer research.

Part of the genius of a VR option, Carr says, is that “the hardware itself is worth just a few thousand dollars”, can be easily replicated where it’s needed, and has a range of enterprise and industrial applications.

In Adelaide last week, everyone from primary school kids to defence industry minister Christopher Pyne tested out their ability to fly the Starliner via VR.

“It’s helped them understand the power of technology,” Carr said.

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