A really unique competition was recently held in the skies of Spain. Sky Challenge was a race between two real planes and a virtual one organized by New Zealand based Air Sports Ltd. and the Geospatial Research Centre (GRC), a New Zealand based company which is a joint venture between the University of Nottingham, the University of Canterbury, and Canterbury Development Corporation. This air race in the skies 'saw two stunt pilots battle it out with a virtual plane which they watched on screens in their cockpits' at 250 miles per hour. And guess what? The young Spanish Internet pilot finished only 1.5 seconds after a real pilot rated as #4 in the world of aerobatic competitions. But read more...
You can see above images from the Sky Challenge race. The main part shows the "planes flying through virtual doughnuts" while the two small insets show the Internet pilot and one of the real ones in action, one on the ground, the other in the air. (Credit: Sky Challenge)
Let's look at how the competition was organized. "The 'virtual' aircraft was piloted by a computer-gamer who never left the ground, but could likewise see the relative location of the real planes on his own computer screens as the trio swooped around each other during the 'Sky Challenge' race. The event could pave the way for massive online competitions, and also demonstrates the power and scope of the very latest in GPS and related systems."
The technology which made this race possible was developed by the Geospatial Research Centre (GRC) and combines satellite navigation technology (GPS, or global positioning system) and inertial navigation system technology (INS). Here is a quote from Dr David Park, CEO of GRC. "We've been involved with the development of Sky Challenge since July 2007. Our role has been to develop a technology solution that can provide the position and orientation of each of the real aircraft, in real time. The high G-forces and extreme manoeuvres of the racing aerobatic aircraft make this a very challenging technical and operational problem. GRC is developing a solution for providing the position and orientation of the aircraft using a combination of satellite navigation and INS technology. The INS constantly tracks the position and orientation of the aircraft, while GPS signals are used to correct the INS errors -- although getting a GPS signal is not always easy as the aircraft twists and turns through the sky."
For more information, you also should read a recent BBC News article by Andrew Webb, "Virtual planes fly in real skies" (October 3, 2008). Here is a short quote from Dr Chris Hide, Senior Research Scientist at GRC. "GPS isn't good enough in an aerobatic aircraft. When it goes upside down and accelerates very quickly it's a very difficult environment to receive GPS signals, so we have to integrate INS."
Finally, here are two links to short movies about this race. The first one is available from the BBC article mentioned above (2 minutes and 13 seconds) and the above image has been extracted from this video. A longer movie is available from the Sky Challenge website (7 minutes and 25 seconds).
Sources: Tim Utton, University of Nottingham News, October 17, 2008; and various websites
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