MITRE's Simulators Drive Aviation Research and Innovation

April 2018
Marco Quezada
Marco Quezada

When pilots use MITRE's cockpit simulator to test a new procedure or capability, Marco Quezada knows his efforts helped make it happen.

Quezada, a modeling and simulation engineer supporting MITRE's Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), joined MITRE in 2008, just as the company was upgrading its Aviation Integration, Demonstration, and Experimentation for Aeronautics (IDEA) Laboratory.

"The big additions to the redesigned lab included two new cockpit simulators," Quezada recalls, "and MITRE needed someone to build them." Quezada was an ideal match for the job. He had spent the last nine years designing and developing flight simulators for a small, privately owned flight simulation company in northern Virginia.

Using Math to Simulate Aircraft Behavior

MITRE purchased the simulator hardware and developed the software to have the flexibility necessary for research. "I was part of a team whose job was to enable the software to talk to the hardware," Quezada says.

The team first created a mathematical representation of the motion of a body in space. Next, they fed that model with data describing aircraft performance.

"We refer to these as coefficients—such as coefficients of lift and drag, or how an aircraft floats under certain conditions and how much it will be impacted by the atmosphere when it's moving," Quezada says. "The model uses these coefficients describing the characteristics of the aircraft and the simulated environment—together with pilot control inputs such as thrust, pitch, and roll—to compute the aircraft's new speed, position, and direction. It's an entirely mathematical description of the behavior of the airplane."

But not just one type of airplane. Quezada and his fellow engineers use the data in the model to make the cockpit simulators behave in different ways, depending on researchers' needs in their experiment or demonstration.

"By manipulating the data in the mathematical model of a body in motion, we can turn the airplane behavior from something like a big, lumbering air transport aircraft into a nimble fighter jet," Quezada says. "In fact, we could simulate any aircraft type—including unmanned aircraft and spacecraft—as well as ground vehicles such as cars, trucks, and trains, or even watercraft."

Creating a Real-World Aviation Experience Inside a Laboratory

Quezada's team wrote software that models the various systems on an airplane. "We can simulate the rate at which fuel gets consumed when the pilot turns the engines on, or events like an engine failure, where the systems lose power or go to a failsafe mode. It's quite a complex software package."

This high level of detail the team incorporated into the simulators improves the quality of MITRE's aviation research. "By providing pilots with a real-world feel in the cockpit, we can prevent distractions and enable them to focus on what's important to the research, so our investment in realistic detail has really paid off."

More recently, Quezada developed the software for another type of simulator, one that could represent tens of thousands of airplanes flying around the world. "This simulator can model the aircraft for just about any research experiment we run in the aviation lab," he explains.

MITRE's sponsors now depend on this simulator for many of their experiments. "It's really taken off, and we're always improving and upgrading the simulator’s capabilities, so that keeps me pretty busy."

New Flight Management System Simulator Tests Concepts

In addition, Quezada and his team members are building an in-house version of the modern flight management system (FMS) aboard an aircraft. "The FMS is essentially a computer that is the brain of an airplane," he explains. "It can program the airplane's route and drive the autopilot. It can predict where the airplane will be and at what time. Plus, pilots can input data that enables the FMS to provide them with various options for how to fly."

Quezada's work on the FMS simulation will allow MITRE to test new avionics concepts. For example, a pilot can use increased automation in the equipment aboard the airplane to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft or arrive at certain points in space at specific times.

"The new functionality of our FMS will enable more in-depth research into these new concepts and support their refinement."

Quezada enjoys the fact that he's always breaking new ground in his work. "It's always challenging, it keeps me learning, and that drives my interest," he says. It's also work that takes advantage of his multiple areas of interest and expertise.

"I have an aerospace engineering degree, but I've always enjoyed writing software, and this is the perfect mix. It's a very satisfying thing for me."

—Marlis McCollum

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