Illini Engineers Propel Frasca to Global Stage in Flight Simulator Innovation
Over the past 60 years, the name Frasca has become synonymous with flight, deeply embedded in the history and culture of the Champaign-Urbana community. Familiar, yes—but even the most ardent locals are likely unaware of the tremendous impact Frasca has had on the aviaton industry. The truth is that for over two generations, a stream of Illini engineers have helped to build Frasca International into a global leader in flight simulation technologies.
Founded by Rudy Frasca in 1958, the company has grown to include a 400 acre home in Urbana, Illinois, with a factory and a 3,000-foot runway. By the 1980s, they were already pushing the aviation industry forward at the forefront of simulation development.
“While simulators were once used only to teach instrumentation, we started putting in visual systems in the '80s,” said John Frasca, CEO of Frasca International. “We also worked with the first electric motion bases. Prior to that, it was driven by hydraulic systems. What the pilot feels in terms of the flight controls is very important, so we have advanced our technology to replicate flight controls very precisely.”
The company currently employs 10 Engineering at Illinois alumni, with a diverse set of clients across 70 countries—from universities and small flight schools to military programs, emergency medical operators, and firefighters. Frasca has long been a pioneer of simulation technologies, most recently in advancing helicopter training.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets parameters for both flight training devices (FTD, ranging from 4-7) and full-flight simulators (FFS, ranging from A-D) based on how close they represent flying a real aircraft. Depending on the level, time in the simulator can count toward actual time required in the air.
“There are certain objective requirements for each level that progressively get more demanding” David Frasca, Director of Engineering for the company, explained. “These range from performance requirements, for example, control feel, power output compared to air speed compared to angle of attack, surface positions, etc. Visual requirements include field of view, resolution and brightness. We take data from an actual aircraft flight test to produce the model and match those tests.”
In the early 2000s, Frasca dove into helicopter simulation, where they have made several breakthroughs including the first level-7 helicopter training device (HTD) in existence. The FAA only grants the higher level distinction for those elements tested on an actual airplane and accurately represented by that simulator. A level-7 HTD can take upwards of 20,000 hours of engineering and 12-16 months to produce. In 2016, Frasca built the first level-5 HTD certified in the United States and China and the first level-7 FTD in Canadian history.
“The cuing base was one of our cutting edge technologies,” said Eric Stoecker, a 2002 graduate in Computer Science. “We developed it in response to the fact that some of the helicopter simulator training didn’t translate to the air because of a lack of motion cues. A full motion flight simulator, on the other hand, was more expensive and you’d need a lot of space to move around. Our small, quick reacting cuing base saw a lot of positive reaction because it was seen as a good compromise.”
In addition to FTDs, Frasca builds FFS models that project 200-degree virtual truvision graphics from an eight-channel projection system and a 6 degrees-of-freedom motion system with 60 feet of travel, which can replicate the feel of flying an actual aircraft.
“The instrumentation displayed to the pilot is quite often virtual,” Stoecker said. “Sometimes there are some really complicated systems that we have to almost reverse engineer. We have been able to replicate what a pilot will see out the window, like moving waves from ships on the sea, other aircraft in the sky, and the all the elements on the ground.”
“What we do that we think is revolutionary is in our data collection,” John Frasca said. “Through sensors mounted throughout an actual aircraft, we are able to flight test airplanes and obtain precise information to make our simulators more realistic. The data we collect in the aircraft and the way we program it are very critical and improves the value of the simulator substantially.”
Illinois alumnus Chris Frost (BS, Aerospace Engineering, 2010) and his team are responsible for the flight, engine model and ground reactions.
“We take the physics of motion and apply them to a simulation environment, getting reactions out of those very complicated systems,” Frost explained. “The way they react is not just a simple input pitch and roll, but it is reacting appropriately to how the system is reacting.”
Although not a certified pilot, Frost is also charged with much of the quality control both before and after delivery. As a result, over time, he has become proficient in flying and landing. Many of the higher-level devices, however, also often require a pilot, or SME (subject matter expert) to provide shake down and feedback.
According to Stoecker, much has changed in his 15 years with the company. “When I first started, the visuals associated with the scenery were plain,” Stoecker recalls. “We began by adding textures, but as the wave of computer gaming took off, the quality of the simulator graphics were expected to increase with even better and better fidelity over time. We have been able to deliver.”
Besides the graphics, the choices available to the instructor have grown as well. At his fingertips, an instructor can instantly change weather conditions (rain, lightning, wind, even a dust storm), replicate a failure or fire in the engine or affect the instrumentation. The conditions can even be integrated with weather radar systems.
“We have the ability with the software to trigger failures based on events, which I think is really powerful,” Frost said. “We are creating software components that are modeled around physical reality. We are not failing some number, but actually failing a component.”
The challenge of any industry leader is to continue to anticipate what’s next. In looking at the future, John Frasca notes some of what is coming down the pike.
“We are now looking into small motion bases,” he said. “In the past, bigger was better. Now we’re starting to understand in the training world that small cues are the most important cues.”
“Artificial intelligence is an area that can apply to our simulators,” he added. “We want air traffic controllers talking to our pilots. We look forward to finding ways to exploit that. Where I see growth is trying to get some adaptive training. There is a level of intelligence in the simulator that is changing the problem for the student and we are working on ways to better monitor that performance.”
Frasca is big on vertical integration with the design, the manufacturing, software, and delivery all being handled in house. And as it has for nearly 60 years, Frasca will lean on University of Illinois engineers to drive future innovation.
“I lose sight sometimes about just how awesome it is here,” said Chris Frost (BS 2010, aerospace engineering), a seven-year Frasca veteran, said. “It started out just being the job of convenience because I am local. It’s really fun. I get to travel the world.”
“This has been a unique opportunity,” adds Stoecker. “I found it amazing to be able to work on a physical device, to see all the pieces come together, and in the end see it go away and be sent to the customer for training.”