In real time; from sewing machines to space shuttles. (Singer Co. Link Flight Simulation Div.) Russ Lockwood.
Most people recognize Singer as a manufacturer of sewing machines--not exactly hi-tech devices--yet some of Singer's less-publicized divisions design and manufacture a variety of high-technology products for the aerospace industry. Link Flight Simulation, which builds flight simulators, and Kearfott, which builds navigation and guidance systems, are not exactly household names, yet their products are crucial to the success of the Space Shuttle, Trident missile, B-1 bomber, F-16 fighter, Boeing 757 and 767, and numerous other civil and military aviation and aerospace projects.
Most aerospace companies, Link and Kearfott included, use mainframes and minicomputers for their programming, design, and engineering work. Microcomputers perform the more traditional office functions: word processing, spreadsheet analysis, and database management. However, Link and Kearfott are beginning to explore creative ways of applying the microcomputer to engineering problem solving.
The managers and task supervisors to whom we spoke at Link and Kearfott are enthusiastic about using microcomputers for engineering applications. They cite cost effectiveness over minis and mainframes and ease of use as specific advantages.
The latter reason is especially important. Austin Maher, Kearfott director for computer software engineering, points out that microcomputer operating systems are usually friendlier than their mainframe counterparts. Engineers can concentrate on solving problems rather than learning complicated command structures.
Another advantage is security. Russ Pepe, Link director of information resources, notes that many people have access to a mainframe, but a microcomputer can be physically isolated from unauthorized users. The PC to Cessna Link
Link boasts that it is the leading manufacturer of flight simulators in the world. Indeed, its product list reads like a what's what in aviation: Space Shuttle, F-16 fighter, Boeing 767, B-52 bomber, Learjet, and AH-64 attack helicopter to name a few. These are top-of-the-line, multimillion dollar units with sharp mainframe and microprocessor-based visual systems. They precisely duplicate aircraft controls, including the ability to swivel and tilt in response to pilot actions.
On a more modest level, the newest flight simulator in the Link catalog mimics single engine airplanes. It features a fully instrumented cockpit, a visual system that operates roughly like a projection television, and a separate instructor station. The instructor station consists of an off-the-shelf IBM PC, joystick, Quadram Quadchrome RGB monitor, and Epson printer, hooked into an Aydin graphics terminal.
The hard disk holds a database of maps, which can be edited to localize weather conditions and geography. The areas are stored using longitude and latitude coordinates. Project engineer Dave Tripp brags that the system can simulate any area in the world down to three-quarters of an inch.
As the student pilots the simulator, the instructor monitors the flight on the IBM PC. The instructor can introduce variables, such as nightfall, inclement weather conditons, and equipment malfunctions. The effects are faithfully reproduced in the cockpit and on the screen.
The keyboard of the Ibm PC has custom keycovers with commands printed directly on them. The instructor merely presses a key to induce a change or begin a function. The programs are written in compiled Fortran with some assembly subroutines.
An especially nifty feature is called "snapshot." The instructor freezes a particular situation, such as a landing approach, with the snapshot function. Then, each time he presses the snapshot key, the student starts the simulation in that situation.
The joystick allows the instructor to change the position of the aircraft. To continue the example above, the instructor can call up the landing situation with the snapshot key and then change the heading of the aircraft with the joystick to simulate a different approach to the airport.
A printout (see Figure 1) from the Epson printer shows how the student fared in the simulation. The graphs display an optimum landing approach (center line) and acceptable limits (lines to either side of the center line). A dotted line in dicates the student's actual approach.
A special combat simulation, between a student-controlled single engine plane and a computer-controlled F-18 jet fighter, is available (see sidebar). Yes, they did cripple the jet so it would not fly rings around the propeller-driven plane. Potpourri of Applications
Kearfott is using microcomputers to help with engineering research on fiber optics networks, automatic data collection, and robotics.
Staff Engineer Michael Sottile is using a trio of IBM PC ATs to create a multiplex data communciations network using fiber optics. Multiplex networks with regular wires and cables are already used to interconnect workstations in the Space Shuttle and aircraft. Fiber optics will increase the speed and accuracy of communications.
Sottile chose the PC AT over other microcomputers because of its expandability, microprocessor speed, and IBM product longevity. The three microcomputers cost less than building a dedicated network from scratch--especially since no standards exist for 100MHz fiber optic communication networks.
The fiber optics cables attach to custom-made expansion boards (optical transmitters and receivers) that plug into the IBM PC ATs. Each computer has 256K RAM and uses the PC-DOS operating system. The input/output programming is done in assembly language; the main program in compiled Basic or Pascal.
Task Supervisor Frank Tamaro uses an IBM PC XT to collect and analyze test results of inertial navigation systems. Previously, a person collected 16 sets of data by hand and then punched the numbers into a calculator.
The navigation systems plug into dedicated test equipment, which is connected by cable to custom-made expansion board in the PC XT. As the test equipment generates signals, the computer stores the data on the hard disk and performs the necessary calculations. A printer makes a hard copy.
Tamaro notes that the PC XT speeds up data analysis while saving many man hours of effort. It does not take coffee breaks and can collect data overnight during extended testing periods. Since the test results come back quicker, engineers can react faster to potential design problems.
Task Supervisor Herbert Rogall uses an Apple II Plus for robotics research and training. The computer connects to a commercially-available Microbot Inc. MiniMover 5 robot arm. Applesoft Basic programs control the arm.
In our demonstration, Rogall maneuvered the arm to stack three wooden blocks according to size. The computer stored the commands. Rogall then reset the blocks in their original positions. With the press of a button, the arm grabbed and restacked the blocks.
This apparently simple operation, picking up and placing objects, is the most common application of robotics, according to Rogall. Lessons learned on the Apple-controlled robot arm can be transferred to larger factory robots. One for the Lawyers
According to some software companies, corporations are a hotbed of software piracy. Lotus Corp., for example, sued Rixon Inc. and Health Group Inc. for copying and distributing Lotus 1-2-3 programs within their organizations.
Gus Raso, Kearfott manager of computer applications planning, who devised an anti-piracy program for the controller's office, contends that aggressive management practices are needed to protect the integrity of the division's data and equipment and to comply with the copyright laws. Under his plan, each floppy disk carries a copyright warning and a control number. In essence, the warning reinforces the idea that the program belongs to Lotus and data generated with the program belong to Kearfott. Spot checks are made to confirm that disks are where they belong. Requiem for a Mainframe?
The trickle of microcomputers into the engineering labs of Kearfott and Link by no means marks the demise of the mainframe or the mini. High-technology products such as ring laser gyros and digital imaging systems require the speed, storage, and central location of a large computer.
However, progressive companies like Singer are learning that increases in computing power allow selected, hardcore engineering projects to be run on microcomputers. They find that use of personal computers results in large personnel productivity gains and that the small outlays for hardware are very cost-effective.
Thus, while traditional word processing, spreadsheet, and database functions continue to account for most microcomputer usage, creative engineers are capturing the power of the microcomputer for innovative engineering applications. If their enthusiasm for these machines is any indication, more and more microcomputers will soon find homes in engineering departments.
Incidentally, since this is our education issue, we asked what sort of career opportunities were available. Kearfott (1 Hughes Pl., Little Falls, NJ 07424) and Link (Binghampton, NY 13902), we were told, are always on the lookout for bright programmers and engineers. Half their employees fall into the engineering category, and a quick glance at salaries, benefits, and expansion plans indicates a thriving company. The Personnel Departments will be more than happy to look at resumes from Creative Computing readers.