“Everything we do at Collins we do for a strategic reason,” said Kent Statler, executive vice president, Rockwell Collins Services, speaking of the avionics major’s strengthening foray into the simulation and training market.
At the beginning of the decade, he elaborated, “what we saw was that people were taking the intellectual property that we had spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars creating and turning it into training devices for our products.” Collins had always provided classroom and, more recently, computer-based training (CBT), he explained, but “there was a big chasm between that and how the end user was using our products. And that gap would be filled by others in the industry leveraging our research and development.”
The core of a simulator, Statler said, is the cockpit avionics. “You put motion underneath it and you have to have a visual that displays the outside scenery, but its purpose really is to train the pilot or the user how to react to situations with the equipment that they have.” And in most cases, he claimed–whether military, legacy commercial platforms or, going forward, the Airbus A350 and particularly the Boeing 787–that equipment is a Rockwell Collins cockpit.
Having identified the strategic driver, he continued, the question was whether to address the opportunity by organic investment or acquisition. The scale of the task dictated the latter course.
“We chose to begin in late 2003 with the acquisition of NLX,” Statler recalled. “It had been around for about ten years, largely focused on complex military systems. It was a little bit less than a $100 million company. It had maintenance trainers and full flight simulators, and was beginning to move down market into things such as desktop trainers. So there was the beginning of a continuum of a full training and service provider.”
Being a leader in these fields meant differentiating the solution. And differentiation in simulation, Statler said, can come in two areas.
“One is in the realism of the simulator–how well does it simulate the actual environment that the person being trained is going to face in the real world?” he said. The core of realism, in turn, is in the interaction between the visual system and visual display system. So the next two acquisitions were visual systems leader Evans & Sutherland in May 2006 and UK-based display system specialist SEOS in November 2008.
The second area for differentiation, Statler said, was the market’s desire for “a full continuum of training, from classroom to desktop trainer to flight demonstrator to full flight simulator. So we’ve completed the marriage of the Rockwell Collins legacy with the upper-tier offerings of NLX into a suite of training products.”
Moreover, they run the same software, the same visuals and the same databases across the whole suite. “That brings incredible value to our customers as they look at the different ways they need to provide training to their target audience,” claimed Statler, “because some of the training needs to be in motion, while other portions can be done at the desktop or in a CBT environment.”
What next? Realism remains a principal focus. “We believe the future of simulation will continue to build on realism, so continuing to keep the product positions that we have on our former E&S visual systems, the product positions on our SEOS display systems, is core to keep those leading edge,” Statler said.
Beyond that, he identified three market trends, the first being more open systems architecture. Commercial platforms typically fly for 25 or 30 years, and military aircraft can last twice as long, he pointed out, so the ability to accommodate new features is crucial. “Technology is doing nothing but accelerating,” the Rockwell Collins executive maintained, and so an open modular system that can plug and play with new technology from the gaming world or with higher fidelity projectors is essential.
The second trend is interoperability of devices. Military users, in particular, want to train as they’re going to fight and these days that means as part of a network. “So bringing together multiple simulations, and in some cases bringing a simulated environment into play with a real environment, we see as a key trend on the military side of the house,” Statler said.
On the technology side, finally, Statler believes there will be a continuing focus on the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) items in simulation. “We want to have a visual system that is agnostic to the projector used to project it onto the display screen,” he explained. “Projector technologies are turning every 12 to 18 months, so we want to have a system that can take those COTS solutions and the best of the best commercial practices and work with our software, our image generation and the core display.”
Given the efforts and achievements of the last six years, and his clear vision of the future, Statler’s conclusion comes as little surprise. “Simulation,” he said “is definitely a major growth area for Rockwell Collins.”