From flying to making flight simulators: An innovation’s story

Sydney-based electronics engineer and licensed pilot, Ross Maclennan, launched SynFlyt in 2011.

How Ross Maclennan, founder of SynFlyt, combined his expertise in electronics and a passion for flying to manufacture flight motion simulators. Tara Hamid reports.

Flight simulators have come a long way since American innovator, Edwin Link, designed the first prototype of his famous “Link Trainer” using scavenged organ and piano parts from his father’s small factory in 1929.

While Link’s rather basic motion flight simulator went on to train hundreds of thousands of pilots during the two world wars, the boom in commercial aviation in the coming decades resulted in the design and manufacture of sophisticated motion flight simulators to keep up with the growing demand for pilots.

Today, the aviation industry is experiencing a critical pilot shortage as airlines struggle to keep up with the increasing demand for air travel.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) forecasts that airlines around the world will need to recruit 620,000 pilots by 2036 to fly the record number of planes being built, while also replacing the thousands of aviators expected to retire during that span.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates airline traffic will nearly double in the next 20 years. Many international flying schools and even airlines like Airbus and Boeing are in the process of expanding their training services.

SynFlyt’s Innovation 21 SFTD (Synthetic Flight Training Device) offers three degrees of freedom motion and an immersive environment.

In Australia, Qantas recently announced that its first ever pilot training academy will be based in Toowoomba and aims to train 250 pilots a year. A second site, to train a similar number of pilots, is still to be announced. Qantas says it will invest $20 million in its new flying school to ensure a supply of pilots amid high turnover in its regional arm QantasLink. Emirates also opened a $135 million flight training academy in November for up to 600 cadets.

The process of pilot training starts with the candidates first learning to fly light aircrafts at a pilot training school. But, the high cost of training is a main hurdle in attracting the young generation to pursue a career as a pilot.

The cost to become a commercial pilot is currently comparable to that of becoming a doctor or a veterinarian. A university-trained commercial pilot with a flight- instructor rating will pay more than $140,000 in fees, according to a report by academics from the Swinburne University of Technology.

SynFlyt is born

Having foreseen this surge in demand for pilot training and with the aim of bringing down the cost of training for new trainees, Sydney- based electronics engineer and licenced pilot, Ross Maclennan, launched SynFlyt in 2011.

SynFlyt’s flight simulator – Innovation 21, which also won the Most Innovative Manufacturing Company Award at Manufacturers’ Monthly’s Endeavour Awards 2016, combines in-house engineering and design with locally manufactured composites components to reproduce as close as possible a real-world cockpit experience.

SynFlyt commenced production for flight school placement in November 2017 and is currently in negotiations with a number of international clients for large-scale production orders.

“We design each component in SolidWorks software and we manufacture some components in-house. The composites parts are manufactured by a Sydney-based company and we can put together the whole simulator in four man- days,” Maclennan told Manufacturer’s’ Monthly.

SynFlyt’s Innovation 21 SFTD (Synthetic Flight Training Device) offers three degrees of freedom motion and an immersive environment, with online access to training data and satellite imagery for various terrains.

“Most flight simulators use computer generated imagery. SynFlyt is the first to exclusively use the satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe to produce high-resolution terrain with correct elevations,” Maclennan added.

How it began

The design process for the Innovation 21 Simulator started with one simple idea, Maclennan said. “It had to be in the shape of a ball.”

He spent the next two years figuring out the mechanism for moving and rotating the ball to simulate a real-world experience. It did help that Maclennan was a licenced pilot himself, with many hours of flying experience.

Simultaneously with lunching SynFlyt, Maclennan also started his own research by calling up regional flight training schools in Australia, New Zealand and the UK – which helped him understand better the hurdles these flight training schools were facing.

“The flight schools, in Australia, and globally, are mostly small businesses. They are often described as moms-and-dads’ businesses or a cottage industry. So, most of them can’t afford to buy the existing motion simulators that come with price tags starting at $130,000 plus. Moreover, the existing simulators all need protection from the weather, but many flight schools lack the space to accommodate them,” he said.

This sparked another idea – not only did the simulator need to be compact, but it also had to be weather-proof, so the schools with insufficient indoor space could place them outdoors.

The magic pudding model

Maclennan also realised that he needed a sales model that enables the flight schools to afford the motion simulators. He came up with a sales model that he describes as his “magic pudding.”

In this sales model, the flight schools can obtain an Innovation 21 simulator free of charge from SynFlyt if they can commit to minimum hourly targets of 65 hours per month. SynFlyt will charge the trainees directly and offer a commission to the flight schools.

While it’s not yet mandatory for the flight schools to use flight simulators for pilot training, employing a motion simulator can reduce the time and the cost of training considerably.

“According to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), it typically takes 75 hours for the cadets to gain a private pilot’s licence. But, if you develop the proficiency in a flight simulator, you can bring that time down to 50 hours.

“The current training process involves training with actual aircrafts, which costs about $300 an hour. It costs $65 an hour in a simulator. So, training with a motion simulator brings down the training costs by about $6,000 for each trainee. As the cadets move to Instrument Rating and commercial pilot training, the savings can reach up to $20,000 for each trainee,” Maclennan said.

A global product

SynFlyt recently launched an office in the US, to offer its product to the large number of general aviation training schools at airports scattered around country. The general aviation airports are where most pilot training schools are based, as they offer training using light aircrafts operated at these facilities.

“Globally, there are around 42,000 general aviation airports, and nearly half of them are in the US. Australia has only 600 general aviation airports. China is also planning to increase the number of its general aviation airports by 500 by the end of this year,” Maclennan said.

With the boom in demand for affordable pilot training, SynFlyt is looking to expand its production soon.

“Our initial estimate was to produce at least 3,000 units in the first five years. But, we recently launched an office in the US and the CEO of our US division has estimated that we would be supplying between 5,000-7,000 units in five years in the US alone,” Maclennan said.

SynFlyt is an example of how Australian manufacturing can take on the global markets using innovation, he said.

“Even if eventually some parts of the finished product are manufactured overseas, the intellectual property will always stay in Australia. SynFLyt’s model a good example of how we can use the technology we have available here and get the world to take notice of the Australian manufacturing.”