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Release: May 26, 1999

Iowa Driving Simulator becomes test lab for industry

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Although it is better known for its application to cars, the Iowa Driving Simulator has sprouted wings over the past year.

That’s the word at the University of Iowa, where one of the world’s most powerful driving simulators — the eight-year-old, $13-million Iowa Driving Simulator (IDS) — is being used to test aircraft, as well as an occasional military Humvee vehicle or Ford Taurus.

"Our real research focus isn’t on a particular vehicle. If a human being operates it, we can probably test it," says Bob Schwing, who, for the past two years, has served as Chief Operating Officer of the UI College of Engineering’s Center for Computer-Aided Design (CCAD), which operates the IDS. "We’ve tested airplane controls in a simulated environment, and we could well take on the operation of ships or trains."

In fact, flight simulation has already begun, through a joint activity with Rockwell Collins Inc. of Cedar Rapids. Recently a group of the firm’s researchers asked Schwing whether the simulator could be fitted with an airplane cockpit. It wasn’t long after that a mock-up of a modern air transport-class cockpit was installed on the simulator platform and the researchers had pilots rocking and rolling to some very realistic turbulence.

"Rockwell Collins was looking for a place to test its systems, and we discovered that we had exactly the facility they needed," Schwing said. From Rockwell’s perspective, too, it was a perfect fit.

The fact that the simulator can accommodate aircraft testing may be less surprising when one realizes that the IDS motion system, donated to the UI by the U.S. Air Force, was designed to train B-52 pilots and that Schwing is a former U.S. Air Force B-52 training system program manager. However, the range of IDS research projects reaches far beyond the aircraft industry.

Examples of IDS current projects include research to examine the effects of strokes and Alzheimer’s disease on the driving ability of older drivers and research to help automotive safety engineers design more effective rear-end collision avoidance systems.

The simulator has a dome that holds a fully functional car cab, which sits atop a hexapod-shaped, motion-base platform that moves as operators maneuver through computer-generated terrain. The roadway and terrain are projected around drivers inside the dome, giving them the feeling that they are part of the environment. Schwing attributes the realistic environment to the immersion of the operator in a synthetic environment with rigorous dynamics presented through 190-degree forward field-of-view, surround sound, and six-degrees-of-freedom motion. He adds that realism enables the simulator to increasingly be used for testing by industry, as well as for university teaching and research.

"CCAD and the driving simulator support the College of Engineering mission by providing a tool for faculty research," Schwing says. "We also offer CCAD tools for graduate students, and as a resource to be responsive to the needs of industry. In the case of Rockwell-Collins, this was an opportunity to help a local company who is in an international business."

"We’re not just a computer-aided design facility; we solve problems. We’re not just a driving simulator. We’re improving the tools available to researchers. And we’re becoming a sort of test laboratory for industry at a time when industry is cutting back on research and development budgets," Schwing says.