Helicopters in virtual reality

A joint project between STARS air ambulance and the University of Calgary is using virtual reality to design the interior of two new helicopters.

STARS is getting two new Agusta Westland 139 helicopters, and though they will not take possession of the helicopters for at least a year, a U of C environmental design professor is teaming up with STARS nurses, paramedics and a design engineer to ensure every interior element is perfectly designed when the helicopters take to the sky.

“To view it in potential space, they can test out the arrangement to make sure everything is in the right space,” said environmental design professor Dr. Richard Levy.

The project uses three large screens in the U of C’s Schlumberger iCenter virtual reality “cave” to map a life-size interior of the new helicopters, complete with patients and chopper sound effects.

On Fri., Oct. 6 STARS nurses and flight paramedics donned 3-D glasses for a virtual walkthrough of the AW-139 to make sure everything from the chair they sit in to their supplies and monitors are easily accessible and safe to use. The VR design allows STARS personnel to identify and fix potential problems–before they get into a life-or-death situation, noted Levy.

“Once you’re in that chair, you don’t move,” explained Levy. “You have all those ergonomic issues that need to be dealt with.”

The VR simulation means the helicopters will arrive perfectly designed, and the crew can begin their life-saving work more quickly.

“It means we get to get into these helicopters sooner,” said STARS flight paramedic Lance Stephenson. “Normally, these helicopters would sit on the floor [of the hangar], but we’re hoping within a month at the most we can have them up and running.”

The VR design of the two new AW-139s is the first time STARS has used this technology, said STARS design engineer and EVDS alumnus Keith Rach.

“We’ve always talked with crew, but we’ve never been able to actually put them in it before like we can with the virtual reality cave,” said Rach, noting the new helicopters will be faster and more spacious than STARS’ current helicopters, and are better suited to flying in poor weather conditions.

The Schlumberger iCenter is the only facility of its kind in Canada, and the uses of its imaging technology extend far beyond just the EVDS and STARS project, said Levy.

Since the $15 million center was established in 2003, Levy has used the VR cave to recreate Second World War battle sequences, archaeological dig sites and even to help elite athletes train on virtual bobsled and speed skating tracks.

The iCenter is also used by geologists to map underground oil and gas reserves and by the faculty of medicine to map CAT scans and molecular designs in 3-D.

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