Posted 9 days ago ago by Admin
“Timing is everything,” says Marek Polcak, CEO and co-founder of the Czech Republic-based technology company that he hopes is timed to transform rotary- and fixed-wing aviation training. That company, Vrgineers Inc., has a unique spelling that reflects its unique combination of technology it is introducing to aviation. The first two letters are pronounced as individual letters: V-R-gineers. That captures what Polcak and his team do—they are virtual reality (VR) engineers creating realistic training scenarios in virtual- and mixed-reality systems that put civilian and military pilots into certain scenarios that allow the training of more tactics or missions than a normal simulator.
You may be thinking: So, what? A full-motion Level-D simulator can do that. Yes, probably so, but you cannot pack a big, dome-type simulator into a portable case or have 12 of them interconnected for a squadron training exercise. Vrgineers can. In collaboration with U.S. Navy and U.S. Airforce under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) they are developing and testing these simulators to succeed projection based simulators. The Airforce and Navy aren’t Vrgineers only big customer. The company claims Airbus, NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), and Gulfstream on its customer list. Polcak says he’s been personally delivering training devices to multiple bases across the US.
XTAL is Vrgineers’ virtual-reality and mixed-reality headset worn by trainees in either full-virtual training or in scenarios where virtual reality is ‘mixed’ with physical objects. In mixed reality, the trainee sees through the virtual computer-generated world in his headset to a reconfigurable physical simulator that contains common helicopter controls, such as the collective, cyclic, and other fundamental components for use with virtual training. Reconfigurations currently reproduce the most common helicopter types such as the Robinson 22/44/66 and Bell 206. Vrgineers is also working on two new platforms for the Black Hawk UH-60 and the AH-64 Apache.
Are You Getting It?
When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s new iPhone to the world at a 2007 conference, his audience was initially puzzled. They knew about cell phones, the internet, and music-playing iPods, but what was this device that combined those three existing technologies? But as Job’s presentation progressed, a lightbulb seemed to turn on above the attendees’ heads as they realized that this wasn’t just a new type of cell phone or iPod, but a powerful hand-held computer that would provide internet services and capabilities everywhere there was a cellular data signal. Sensing his audience’s growing realization, Jobs asked, “Are you getting it?”
So, are you getting it? The technology revolution is impacting aviation and it goes beyond drones and autonomous flight. Just as earlier personal computing and evolved “smartphones” empowered—and disrupted—people and industries by offering affordable computing power to exponentially more people and places, so is technology now transforming traditional aviation training.
Polcak is not Jobs, but he and his company of approx. 50 engineers and PhDs may be creating a revolution in aviation training. “In the long-term we think this mixed-reality technology can equal what’s experienced in full-motion, Level-D flight simulators and replace them,” he says, but he concedes the technology has not arrived to make that a present reality. Still, Vrgineers is working on advances to realize that possibility.
Since Polcak and company are working hard to revolutionize rotorcraft training, you should meet him. Let’s introduce you. You might like to know that one of Polcak’s hobbies is flying around on his spaceship. He says, “I’m trying to find extra time to fly around in the spacecraft using our technology because it’s an amazing experience.” No, Polcak is also not to be confused with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Polcak is referring to a virtual spaceship and that escapist gaming inspired his real-world business. “I got into virtual reality and simulation because I like that you can create any environment and be in it. I wasn’t really happy with existing VR goggles; they weren’t realistic.” He enjoys using his company’s own product that they work to build—as an escape from work? “Yes, totally!” he answers. “Virtual reality took a lot of traction from the gaming community.”
He's not a stereotypical arrested-development gamer; let’s be clear about that. The guy works hard in the here and now. Polcak’s average day spans around the world. He says, “Currently, I’m in Prague and after I wake up and do all the work in my time zone, another shift for the U.S. starts.” That’s a relatively easy day of telecommuting. When he travels—by airline, not spaceship—the days get longer and harder. At the time of our interview, he’s just returned from HAI Heli-Expo in Texas. “When I travel to an event like that, there is always a lot of preparation upfront,” he says. “When you arrive at the expo, you gather together all the parts you need to showcase. Then you are there presenting from early morning until late evening, and then you are totally exhausted. When I get back to the hotel, there are emails to sort through and then the next day starts.”
That’s the life of a young tech entrepreneur, not the lifestyle of a young tech gamer. Polcak actually comes by his entrepreneur streak naturally. His father, Mirek, started a construction business and a small technology company after Czechoslovakia gained its independence from the Soviet Union. “So, I am a second-generation businessman in my family,” he says with pride.
Campus Colleagues Collaborate
Polcak, who was born and raised in the city of Brno, can also take pride in his education. In 2015, he graduated from Czech Technical University in Prague with a degree in electrical engineering, specializing in cybernetics (a challenging combo of robotics, algorithms, and bio-signals). While attending college, he built his first company, one that focused on software and hardware development of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices—things like video doorbells connected to the internet. Not only did Polcak build his IoT business at Prague’s respected university, that campus was also a steady source of engineering talent for Vrgineers Inc. He says, “I wasn’t really smart enough to build what I wanted; I’m a managing engineer. So, I gathered colleagues I knew from university. They were specialists in their fields who could design and construct what I thought VR devices could be.”
Polcak strongly believes that collaboration among those specialists is vital and getting them to work together is his managerial focus. “A technology company that is trying to create revolutionary, or even evolutionary, products needs very specific specialists, but you’ve got to get them to work with one another and get them outside their individual bubbles,” he says. “You’ve got to get people with very specialized knowledge in their niche to communicate and participate in the overall company.” This philosophy is not original to Polcak; he read it in a biography on American electricity industrialist George Westinghouse. “It stated that he got geniuses together and taught them how to communicate with one another. I believe that’s how you build a technology company,” he says. “Building a company requires long hours and hard work. Company leadership has to have that willingness to work harder than average; I have that motor within me to make things. If other people see that in you, they are much more willing to follow you and help you…. They have to make their own decisions whether they will support me down the road or not.”
With their support, Polcak thinks that road may lead to unexplored terrain. “We did market research to find other industry sectors our VR technology is best suited for and two areas stood out. One is remote, robotic surgery where a surgeon sits behind our high-resolution display to operate a precise robot to perform surgery remotely and another (sector) is controlling industrial machines remotely.” For example, in the future an operator of a heavy excavator might not be in the actual machine, but in a remote-control center where with the aid of stereoscopic cameras and other data, he’d have the inputs to do his job.
One More Thing
Although, we’ve disclaimed that Polcak is not Steve Jobs, to quote Jobs’ product presentations, Polcak does have “one more thing” for the helicopter industry. Vrgineers technology cannot only apply to flight training, but also to future maintenance. “Virtual Reality is suitable for training; augmented reality is suitable for performing physical tasks in reality,” he begins. As he explains, if you want to learn maintenance for a Robinson R44, but don’t have the aircraft where you are, you will load an R44 training module into your VR headset and learn from that. If you are actually maintaining the aircraft, you would put on an augmented-reality headset that allows you to see through to the parts you are handling as the maintenance procedure outlines in your field of vision.
Companies like Airbus are currently moving in this direction. It will be exciting to see how far new technology companies like Vrgineers and visionaries like Marek Polcak will take us down the revolutionary road.
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