Experiencing the future of flight through simulation software

Avatar for Jen NevansBy Jen Nevans | October 20, 2022

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 36 seconds.

Aviation enthusiasts around the world can now experience the future of vertical lift through X-Plane 12, the latest version of the simulation gaming software released on Oct. 19.

The simulation platform has traditionally included various fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, but for the first time, the latest version of the software will include an eVTOL aircraft model as part of its default line of aircraft.

Beta X-Plane
With the release of the latest X-Plane 12 flight simulation gaming software on Oct. 19, the world can experience what it’s like to fly in a Beta Technologies’ Alia-250 eVTOL aircraft. X-Plane 12 screenshot courtesy of Joe Mattern

“The addition of Alia-250 to X-Plane 12 marks a step-change in aviation, and we’re excited to bring this technology to the X-Plane community so they can experience electric flight first-hand,” a spokesperson from Beta Technologies told Vertical.

The Alia-250 is a lift-plus-cruise aircraft that’s designed to fly a range of up to 250 nautical miles (288 miles or 463 kilometers), while carrying 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of payload or six people.

Once certified by U.S. aviation authorities, the Vermont-based startup intends to use its aircraft to carry out cargo delivery and medical missions, later pursuing the passenger-carrying market. Beta’s customers and partners to date include UPS, United Therapeutics, LCI, Bristow Group, Blade Air Mobility, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army.

“What’s so fascinating is Beta Technologies has two actual prototypes flying,” said Austin Meyer, founder of Laminar Research, the software company that develops X-Plane. “Their test pilots have been practicing in X-Plane, and now, anyone anywhere can do the same test flying themselves.”

As an early investor in Beta, Meyer’s relationship with the eVTOL company goes back several years with Meyer providing flight simulation services for Beta.

“At Beta, we use [X-Plane] alongside our in-house simulation software to power all of our simulators,” a Beta spokesperson said. “It helps us offer a hands-on experience to pilots rehearsing test missions before flying our prototypes, or young kids exploring STEM fields.”

Beta X-Plane
Beta Technologies currently uses X-Plane to offer a hands-on experience to pilots rehearsing test missions before flying the Alia-250 prototypes, or young kids exploring STEM fields. X-Plane 12 screenshot courtesy of Joe Mattern

X-Plane is designed to look at the geometry of an airplane and predict how it will fly even before an actual aircraft begins flight testing. In the case of the Alia-250, the model was added to the simulator before the company even built the physical aircraft, Meyer said. But adding the new type of aircraft to the simulation platform didn’t come without its challenges.

“Electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft are extremely dependent on the performance of the battery, and so updating the battery model was a little bit of a challenge in getting the simulation accurate,” Meyer said.

Another challenge was getting the flight control system to accurately match that of the real aircraft.

“These were not huge challenges because these are exactly the type of code I write for X-Plane all the time, but they were some challenges that did have to be addressed,” he said.

The developers of X-Plane said the software uses the same flight controllers and firmware that runs on the full-scale aircraft, which allow simulation users to experience the same control dynamics and flight characteristics as they would in a real aircraft.

“X-Plane is one of the most comprehensive, realistic simulation software out there, making it a great tool for new and experienced pilots, casual gamers, and engineers alike,” a Beta spokesperson said.

Beta X-Plane
The developers of X-Plane said the software uses the same flight controllers and firmware that runs on the full-scale aircraft, which allow simulation users to experience the same control dynamics and flight characteristics as they would in a real aircraft. X-Plane 12 screenshot courtesy of Joe Mattern

Joe Mattern, CEO of Mattern Aerospace, can attest to how well the Alia-250 flies in simulation. Mattern has logged more than 25 hours of flying the Alia-250 in X-Plane 12, which he acquired a license for before it was released to the public.

He said his goal is to be an ambassador for the eVTOL industry and encourage people to consider a career in the burgeoning sector, but he believes software like X-Plane could have other uses in addition to providing public awareness about the industry.  

According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the industry could require as many as 60,000 eVTOL pilots by 2028, creating what Mattern fears will be a bottleneck in the industry when it comes to pilot training.

Mattern believes X-Plane could be used to relieve those bottlenecks, calling the simulation software a “ground school” that potential pilots can use to familiarize themselves with an aircraft platform before attending a certified pilot training school.

Through his company, Mattern conducts flight simulation research with an aim to provide his expertise and recommendations to help form eVTOL pilot certification and training standards.

Mattern hopes to work independently or with like-minded organizations to provide recommendations to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, as the aviation authority works to publish a special federal aviation regulation (SFAR) to address eVTOL operations and pilot training. The final SFAR is expected to be implemented by the end of 2024.

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