Simulators: from airplanes to Formula One runways

Simulator  s. m. [from lat. simulator -oris, der. to simulate]. In the technique, denomination of devices used as analogical models of particular systems, machines and systems: s. of flight, system of training of aeroplane pilots, inclusive of a cabin on the ground that exactly reproduces the pilot’s cabin, able to simulate the flight.

Today, simulators are used in many different fields: from entertainment to medicine, from sport to the army. The leading sector in the development of simulators, however, has always been aviation. In fact, it was in this field that the first real modern simulator was born: the Link Trainer, or “Blue Box”, developed in 1929 by Edwin Link for flight training.

The “Link Trainer” for flight training

This incredible innovation was introduced for the first time only in 1934 following a huge tragedy: twelve pilots lost their lives in less than three months in an attempt to deliver air mail. From that moment on, pilots began to use the simulator to become familiar with aircraft controls and flight conditions, thereby drastically reducing the number of accidents caused by human error. This led to a full understanding of the potential of this new technology and started its development in all those areas where two conditions occur simultaneously: long training periods and lives at risk.

Soon this technology also became fundamental in the automotive sector. In particular, the first driving simulator was built in the early 1970s by Volkswagen. Basically it consisted of a car with a screen on the windscreen, mounted on a 3DOF movement system. DOF is an acronym for “degree of freedom” and refers to the ways in which you can move within a three-dimensional space. Specifically, there are three axes of linear movement: forward/back (x-axis), up/down (z-axis), left/right (y-axis) and three axes of rotational movement: yaw, pitch and roll. The three axes of rotational movement are the 3DOF, if you add the three axes of linear movement you get 6DOF. 

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Schema sistema 6DOF:

Rapid advances in the use of this technology soon led to the first simulators on 6DOF motion systems. An emblematic example of this evolution was the simulator launched in 1985 by Daimler-Benz: a more advanced driving system, mounted on a structure suspended on hydraulic arms, computer-controlled, which made it possible to study the behaviour of the driver and the vehicle on a busy road.


This same technology was soon applied in the world of Formula One. The turning point for the development of simulators in this sector, however, was 2008. In 2008, in fact, the so-called “private” tests, i.e. tests on circuits adjacent to the sports teams’ headquarters, were abolished by regulation. So all the teams had to invest in the “simulation” of track laps in order to optimise their cars. Pioneer in this new technological adventure was certainly the McLaren team: at the time it invested around 40 million to develop a system that applied the same technology used by British Aerospace for the EuroFighter simulators. In this case, the simulator consisted of a full-size monocoque of the car, with a curved plasma screen, mounted on a dynamic platform 15 metres wide and 20 metres long.

Coming back to Ferrari, the protagonist of the first episode of ITS from which this in-depth exploration was born, we must remember the first simulator developed in 2010 together with Dallara, better known as: “the spider”. In this case, the simulator is similar to a spaceship. Inside it was placed a real single-seater chassis surrounded on three sides by plasma screens. All this resting on a dynamic system of 6DOF actuators with a possibility of movement up to one and a half metres from the walls of the room. To give back the order of magnitude, the room is 9.5×9.5 in size.

Il simulatore Dallara:

As can be deduced from the synthesis prepared by LEA, the world of simulators and virtual realities has experienced a rapid growth in the last century. Today, however, the advancements that have been made seem to be only small steps compared to the revolutions that the market is facing. Augmented reality and virtual reality are rapidly pervading all fields and will soon become part of our daily lives.

If you want to know more, all you have to do is listen to the next episodes of Italian Tech Speak.

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