Bell Embraces Virtual Reality to Design Helicopters

 - August 3, 2020, 8:54 AM
Bell used augmented and virtual reality to design new models such as its Nexus eVTOL aircraft. [Photo: Bell]

Bell turned heads when it revealed its FCX-001 concept helicopter mockup at the 2017 Heli Expo show. Now, more than three years later, two Bell insiders revealed not only how the company used augmented and virtual reality (VR and AR) to create that concept, but how the company is using these technologies today, along with staple technologies of computer gaming, to slash prototyping times for new products including the Nexus eVTOL urban air taxi model. 

Speaking on a Helicopter Association International webinar titled “Using virtual reality to design the future of flight,” Bell’s Levi Bilbrey and Cameron Ayres pointed out the many advantages these technologies bring to the table. Bilbrey, manager of creative services, said the road to a new aircraft begins with the traditional sketch making, albeit now done more rapidly thanks to modern animation tools. That technology facilitates faster transition into the “3D space,” once the exclusive purview of engineering programs such as Catia or SolidWorks. 

The big jump in productivity comes, Bilbrey explained, when those early 3D designs are run through the human factors gauntlet using virtual reality. This allows the fine-tuning of designs from human feedback in real-time, for instance, adjusting cockpit dimensions for sightlines or crashworthiness factors such as head impact criteria. Wearing a VR device and camera, a pilot can communicate directly with a designer armed with an electronic sketch tool. 

“We’ re able to jump right into a physical space and look around and actually move these elements around the person in real-time which that's been that big leap forward,” said Bilbrey. “[In the past] this was stuff you couldn’t tell until you built a physical model to sit in of cardboard, foam, or plywood to really get that 3D awareness. Here [with virtual reality] we’re able to do that really rapidly and then advance the design.” 

The technology also drives greater collaboration and synergies between the engineering and design sides of the company, he said. “It’s no longer prioritizing one over the other,” form versus function. Rather than the traditional analytic engineering left brain versus the creative, design right brain, Bilbrey credits the technology, deployed across cross-functional groups, as creating a “holistic brain” inside the company, where engineers are more aesthetically aware and designers embrace more engineering sensibilities and where issues of contention led to discussions that were more Socratic in nature as opposed to “a game of ping-pong” that led to unsatisfying solutions. 

While the main advantage of using VR to design a new product is unquestionably overall program speed, it also allows real-time feedback from both pilot and passenger focus groups that can quickly be incorporated into the design, Bilbrey said, producing an end result that is not just visually compelling, but more intuitive and user-friendly, such as simplified avionics displays. The technology makes customer collaboration more immediate and compelling, unlike what he called “death by PowerPoint,” which had been the hallmark of customer focus groups in the past. The collaboration required for this result works not unlike popular video game engines, Bilbrey said. 

“I don't know that 15 years ago a game designer would have made sense to hire at Bell,  but  I can speak from firsthand experience that having a background in game design and serious games [is helpful],” said Ayres, an innovation engineering specialist. “Rapid iterative development is something we need to have moving forward.” However, Ayres added that the process of incorporating game design technology into virtual reality tools was “not easy.” 

Bilbrey said that using the technology is a “significant shift” for Bell that diverges from the traditional route of OEM engineering, but that it is gaining in popularity throughout the company. In fact, he and Ayres formed an internal interactive council at Bell to promote best practices and share information and lessons learned with other teams in the company. The council doesn’t just cross-share information, but in some cases stands up other small project teams at Bell. It also works with third parties outside the U.S. manufacturer.