Friday, April 28, 2023

Aerobility VAE Cursus With GeoFS

A few months ago, Aerobility, a UK based charity contacted me to see if GeoFS could be used in their new Virtual Aviation Experience (VAE) program. Aerobility is dedicated to teaching flight to disabled people with the help of custom equipped aircraft and facilities. The pandemic and the ambition to reach a wider audience got them thinking about remote teaching and they needed a tool for that. The fact that GeoFS is web based makes it a very good fit: you can just share a link with the students and they start flying right way! Moreover, GeoFS's control sharing feature enables the instructor and the trainee to fly the same plane each from their own computer and swap control at will. However, making sure people with severe disabilities can use the simulator easily was the real test for an application that calls itself "The Accessible Flight Simulator".

A few discussions and experiments later and I was building the Piper PA-28 used for Aerobility's real world training, down to the exact cockpit layout reproduced from pictures, and wrapping it in their own livery. Getting used to reading instruments and manipulating controls in a cockpit that shows the proper layout is a great plus for young pilots who will soon find themselves in the real plane. Flying VFR with high resolution aerial images also prepares the students to recognise the area and get familiar with landmarks around the airport.

The simulated aircraft was tested by Mike Owen, Aerobility Chief Flight Instructor, who provided feedback on the plane's behaviour compared to the real thing. The goal is to be able to replicate manœuvres done in real-life conditions and see the same reaction from control input.

In February, Mark Rothwell, VAE Program Manager and Mike Miller-Smith, Aerobility CEO, were kind enough to invite me to their home base at Blackbushe Airport (EGLK), an hour drive south-west of London, to visit their facilities and see first hand what it takes to fly with disabilities. Mike made me fly GeoFS using a clever gyro-based controller device you wear like pair of glasses - a way to "eat my own dog food" as we say in the software industry.

I could really feel the passion and enthusiasm for aviation of the whole Aerobility team. Mark has plenty of experience when it comes to flying and has the patience to bear with my tinkering with GeoFS to make it work for them. Mike has a vision and the drive , and it is truly impressive to see him flying the sim using eye tracking and voice control (Mike suffers from muscular dystrophy). I was sitting next to him during a - rather acrobatic - session in GeoFS' Piper Cub and I could instantly spot all sorts of limitations in the application when it came to accessibility. I made some modifications to the user interface, controls and settings as soon as I got back to my keyboard to alleviate some of these pain points. But I am sure much more can still be done as I will gather more feedback from Aerobility trainees and instructors.

I also got the chance to try the PA-28, first hand, during a quick flight over the British countryside together with Mike. Mike is a brilliant instructor and had me go through some flaps/rudder/stall maneuvers to see and feel how the aircraft behaved. I used this great opportunity to take note of some of the specifics of the aircraft and fine tune the flight model once back at home.

This was, overall, a very rich and fulfilling experience. I am very proud and very happy to see GeoFS being used in such a way.

The Aerobility VAE cursus is just getting started and all info and registration can be found here:

Friday, January 20, 2023

GeoFS 3.5 - The World in 3D

Ever since the migration from Google Earth to Cesium, buildings have been dearly missed in GeoFS and this was one of the most requested features. Starting this year with version 3.5, the GeoFS world is now populated with over 500 million buildings generated from OpenStreetMap data. Oh, and a couple billion trees have been planted too, just to add a bit of green.

Buildings (and trees) in GeoFS are still experimental features and need to be enabled in the Option > Graphics settings panel.

What sort of coverage/quality can be expected?

The coverage is worldwide but OSM data can be missing in some areas. 

OSM provides building footprints along with (but not always) some metadata such as height, type, period, roof shape, color, etc. When this data is missing, it has to be guessed or randomized. Big cities like New York or Paris have pretty accurate building definitions whereas suburban or rural areas only provide basic land survey data. 

GeoFS buildings are generated using in-house tools that may (or may not) do a correct job at estimating and extrapolating missing data and adding height, roofs and textures based on what can be guessed from the metadata. Theses tools are being improved and tweaked and some new data will be regularly pushed to the servers. 

And of course, all this has to be easily maintainable, served fast and run at a reasonable frame rate in your browser. A single texture is being used for global buildings which will fall short of variety and have a bit of a generic look to it whether you fly in America, Africa, Europe or Asia. But this has the advantage of being cacheable and much easier to generate, maintain and update!

The 3D models are also heavily compressed which will sometimes lead to some imprecision in building shapes.

Finally, some major landmarks, despite the most creative attempt made by OSM contributors, will never look quite right when extruded from a 2D shape. This is why some of them have been replaced by proper 3D models. i.e Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Christ the Redeemer, London Eye, etc.

How about Airports?

For certain airports, OSM does provide gates location at which a generic Jetway model will be positioned (orientation is difficult to guess and can be off). Some will only show blocky terminal or gates. Wherever available, detailed airport 3D models have been placed instead of OSM generated ones (Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles de Gaule, San Francisco, Madrid, London Gatwick, Nice and Stockholm Arlanda). More may be added depending on availability.

Is it possible to land (crash...) on the buildings?

No, appart for some specific landmarks (aircraft carrier, Golden Gate Bridge) there is no collision detection with 3D buildings for now. This is something that will be worked on. There is no definite date though.

How to contribute to or fix the data?

OpenStreetMap is a participative application and accept contributions from anyone. However, the process can be complicated and the expected quality standards do require a certain amount of experience with GIS data.

Changes to OSM data will not be reflected right away in GeoFS. Given the current infrastructure being used, it takes about a week and a half to download, import and process a fresh global dataset. There will most likely be several updates a year depending on the evolution of the source data and the improvements made to the generator tool. 

And there are so many other things that need to be worked on...