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Cockpits are at the front of the airplane, and they have pretty limited visibility. Pilot windows can actually open to help with some of this. We know that there are a ton of tricks that are done to assist pilots in navigating their aircraft with the limited visibility that the cockpit provides. The A380 has multiple cameras to assist in visibility. On the ground, there are people to assist in taxing the aircraft.

Has there ever been any research into a flight engineer, or pilot flying an airplane with a VR headset?

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    $\begingroup$ . . .What would you do when the VR headset fails? $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Oct 11 '15 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 - Ideally, switch back to looking out of the glass cockpit? I'm not proposing killing cockpits as they are today, but it'd be interesting to have a VR view in addition. $\endgroup$ – Sargun Dhillon Oct 11 '15 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, it's where all the controls are. $\endgroup$ – Dan Hulme Oct 11 '15 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ As always with these kind of question, you should state what problem it would solve. I am not aware of any problem with commercial traffic and visibility. $\endgroup$ – Simon Oct 11 '15 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly relevant - Windowless cockpit patent article $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Oct 12 '15 at 1:12
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The only direction a (fixed wing) aircraft can move using the flight controls is forward. So, it is the forward visibility that is important. The front of the aircraft is the best place for this purpose. The limited visibility in other cases are reasonably over come by using extra cameras or marshalers and markings in the ground.

The Airbus A80, for example, has three cameras, one each in the nose, belly and the tail,which can be viewed in the screen by the pilot.

A380 Cameras

Source: onemileatatime.boardingarea.com

The closest any aircraft has come to be flown using a VR headset is the AN/AAQ-37 electro-optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) which is being used in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

The EO/DAS consists of six high resolution Infrared sensors flush-mounted around the aircraft to afford 360-degree, spherical (4$\pi$ steradian) coverage, basically allowing the pilot to see through the airframe.

DAS location

Source: alternathistory.org.ua

Each of these sensors collect data in different directions and the on-board computer 'stitches together' these images (and data from EOTS and Radar) and projects them onto the pilot's Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS), making it the only modern combat aircraft without a HUD.

F 35 HMDS

Source: brucesterling.tumblr.com

However, there are issues with using these in a commercial airliner:

  • They are costly- around $400,000 (some reports say ~700,000) apiece and non-interchangeable; while this (situation awareness) could be priceless in combat scenarios, I don't see commercial airliners shelling out this amount of money to replace a system that works pretty well.

  • The amount of computing power required is enormous. Reportedly, the DAS system collects about a terabyte of data per hour. For aircraft which fly most of their time in a predetermined altitude and heading, this amount of data flow and computing power is not required.

  • Note that the system is not yet fully operational. There are issues with the helmet like latency, 'green' glow, jittery image, resolution issues etc.- reportedly solved, though some pilots say they don't use this system very often.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ships mostly go forward and yet are often piloted/steered from the back or the middle. Not saying this would be a good idea for airplanes but explaining the difference could be interesting. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Oct 11 '15 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Relaxed Cars, trucks and trains are also driven from the front. Ships are the exception, because it usually makes most sense to have the bridge where the engine is, so your engineers aren't a hundred metres away from the people who are controlling the vehicle. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 11 '15 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Relaxed Just adding to David's point- Cruise ships do have their bridge in front, as do the RN's new Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers. In cargo ships, it makes sense to have bridge close to engines as the crew complement is pretty small. $\endgroup$ – aeroalias Oct 11 '15 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ @aeroalias Yes indeed but my point was that it's worth adding that to the answer… $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Oct 11 '15 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting to claim that the HMDS is not a HUD (not sure if that's your claim, or one made by others you're just repeating). I'd call it a HUD that just happens to always be in front of your face. Just a matter of semantics, though. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 12 '15 at 15:04

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