Inspired by a trip to the museum, a group of students built the Viper 2.0, a life-size flight simulator fashioned after the Viper spacecraft from the TV series “Battlestar Galactica.”
The initial Viper, introduced at last year's Maker Faire innovation festival, is impressive. The realistic-looking capsule was cooked up by Sam DeRose, now an engineering sophomore at Harvey Mudd College, and his family after a clearly influential visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“They had a flight simulator that could turn 360 degrees on the roll axis, but not on the pitch,” DeRose said. “And it was so much fun riding on it [that] we wanted to build our own. We spent the next week dreaming up how we'd do it.”
But the project didn't take shape until about four years later, when DeRose said he and his family first felt like they could start doing it because the technology was ready. “Then, we pulled together our friends,” he said.
The Viper 1.0 was built for last year's Maker Faire by a group comprising five high school students, their parents and mentors.
The core build team consisted of eight people, and all but the most critical welds on the cockpit fuselage — recycled from an old Cessna in the airplane scrap heap — were completed by the students themselves. The project cost about $20,000 — $13,000 of which was raised via a Kickstarter campaign, and other components donated through corporate sponsors like Autodesk and Nvidia.
The students built the monitor frames, the dashboard seat mount and the rear motor mount, which is mounted to the cockpit and has its shaft fixed so the motor rotates. This design helped the students achieve what the simulator at the Smithsonian could not: rotate and roll 360 degrees.
Inside, there are three 22-inch monitors, tiled together to form the windshield-style front display. The displays are hooked up to an on-board PC running two Nvidia Quadro 4000 graphics cards, SSDs and the game software. There are also six Arduino boards controlling the LEDs on the in-flight control-panel knobs and switches; a joystick; and a thruster.
Ethernet runs out of the cockpit through slip-ring contacts to allow an outboard master control panel to communicate with the onboard software and electronics. The design team added this component for safety reasons, DeRose said. “You can run everything inside, but for safety, we wanted some of it to be outside, too," he said. "One switch is for auto mode, and another is for manual mode, where we control it ourselves.”
Big updates on Viper 2.0 include an overhaul of the software and changes to how the cockpit pilot can communicate and interact with others in gameplay.
Originally, DeRose said, there was a generic flight-simulator game loaded on the in-flight computer. While he was in college, the remaining team switched out the software to the freeware Diaspora game, a single and multiplayer space combat game that feels tailor-made for the homegrown, life-size Viper simulator. An even more notable feature is that the game can be set up for multiplayer gameplay between the player in the cockpit and players outside the cockpit. During demos at Maker Faire, the Viper 2.0 team had up to five additional players, picked from the audience, playing against the pilot.
“We even made the end game for the pilot more interesting,” DeRose said, “because now, from the ground, we can trigger a sequence where we light one of the in-game engines on fire, and the pilot has to turn off that engine and empty the fuel pump. That makes it more interesting for the pilot.”
Ultimately, once the students are done with the Viper, it will move on to a new home. “It's in our garage now,” DeRose said. “We're looking to donate it to an educational institution or a museum.”