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Augmented Flight: Physical and Virtual Planes Compete

Late September, 2008. In the skies over Spain, two and a half planes swooped and soared. Two physical stunt planes, piloted by Castor Fantoba and Bruno Van Waenberghe, competed with a virtual ghost - a virtual aircraft piloted from the ground by Ernest Artigas, and racing the same course as the other two.

The course itself, a seies of hoops and diamonds suspended motionlessly in the sky, and resisting all breeze were also completely virtual, but all three aircraft were expected to fly through them. To accomplicsh that, the heads up displays in the two physical craft as well as the head mounted display forthe user on the ground, showed a real-time 3D display of where each of the three planes was, together with all of the obstacles, and even an overlay of the ground showing terrain, fields, buildings, all in the appropriate places to use as a guide for thermals. It should be noted that the course itself took place high enough to render the terrain elvation itself, not a threat to pilot safety.

Peter Newport, Chief Executive of New Zealand-based Air Sports, masterminded the project, codenamed Sky Challenge, as a prequel to Air Sports upcoming attempts to create MMOs that interact with physical world events. In other words, legions of virtual planes, race cars, boats, runners, or anything that compete in real-time with physical competitors, on the same tracks.

In a statement after the event, he said. "It was amazing to see it come together. Ernest did surprisingly well against Castor Fantoba, the world number four pilot (in his class), coming only 1.5 seconds behind him."

At the core of the technology involved is an enhanced GPS system known as differential GPS (DGPS), combined with an Inertial Navigation System (INS), which measures momentum to track a plane's location. That information is relayed both to the simulation computers, which operate much like a battlespace system, annd from there to the virtual plane control computers and physical pilot navigation systems.

Battlespace is a military VR term. It refers to the simulated battlefield, the physical battlefield, and the forces involved on all sides in the simulated warfare, support units as well as combat. In its own way, that is exactly what is happening here, with an old military simulation technology finally being leveraged for commercial augmented reality uses.

Chris Hyde, a scientist at New Zealand's Geospatial Research Centre, helped calibrate the positioning technology. "GPS isn't good enough in an aerobatic aircraft," he said. "When it goes upside down and accelerates very quickly it's a very difficult environment to receive GPS signals, so we have to integrate INS."

The team had to apply for permission from authorities governing the non-proliferation of weapons before flying the INS equipment to Europe.

DGPS, the GPS system utilised, is itself significantly more accurate than standard GPS and uses a network of fixed base stations to correct the GPS signal, which on its own may only be accurate to within 10m. DGPS is commonly used for air navigation where precision is key, so the additional precision was for safety purposes in intense competition.

Nevertheless, safety concerns are an issue. One of the pilots from the trial reported feeling detached from reality in his cockpit.

Newport is wary of pushing boundaries too far: "We wouldn't suggest this is carried out by amateur organisations. We are working at the top of the game, using highly skilled pilots. Until virtual reality is better understood, widespread use should not be encouraged."

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