Guide to Building your Own VR Paraglider / PPG Simulator  - V2.0 (16Apr13)

Note:  I've tried to be as accurate as possible with the information shown, but be cautioned that this page is still under development.

Table of Contents

1. Overview

2. PPG Components

3. Component Price Breakdown

4. Basic Operation

5. Frame Construction

6. Adding Components to the Frame

7. Controller Box Construction and PC Connection

Overview

This guide was put together in order to provide assistance for those wanting to build their own virtual reality (VR) powered paraglider simulator.  This guide is by no means a complete reference, but will hopefully give enough information for you to build your simulator.  It is recommended that anyone attempting this project have some experience soldering wires as there are a few electrical connections to be made.  The layman should be able to build this project within a weekend if care is taken.  Upon completion, the simulator will give you and your family hours of fun in the comfort of your own home!

In regards to the total price of this project, you can build your own simulator for well under $500.  Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of the PC (assuming everyone has a PC available to use that can effectively run flight simulator software), nor for the additional expense of a virtual helmet or head-tracking device.  In the next section, I’ve provided a detailed breakdown for each component of the simulator and its approximate price.

In my search for other VR PPG (or paraglider) simulators, I’ve found only two.  One is another home-built model, and the other is a commercially available unit.  (At the end of this guide, I’ve provided links and additional information regarding these other simulators for your information.)  After reviewing these other simulators, I believe that the costs associated with this particular project is much less than what you’d spend cost of these other units would be more than what most people would be willing to spend.

There could certainly be a better and less expensive method, but I believe my design is about as inexpensive as it gets.  If anyone has any ideas or suggestions to improve the design (or as an alternative design), please let me know!

PPG Simulator Components

The PPG VR Simulator consists of a paraglider harness, a frame (which suspends the harness), brake toggles, throttle, controller box, a personal computer (PC) with installed flight simulator software, and (optional) virtual headset and head tracking devices.

Component Price Breakdown

Here’s a price breakdown of the major components of the simulator (this list includes EVERYTHING, including the PC):

 

 Part Description

Price

(Per Unit in USD)

Frame material (PVC, steel,aluminum,etc.)

 $100-200

Harness (recommended) $200-600
Controller Box (Including components) $400-500
Personal Computer {Typical} (inc monitor) $500-1,500
Head Tracking Unit (recommended) $100-150
Video Head Display Unit (optional) $400-1,200
Software $30-70
* * Total * * $1,700-$4,200

 

As mentioned previously, if you already have a PC that can flight simulator software and skimp on a couple of the tech gadgets, you can build an affordable simulator.

The flight simulator software I'd suggest you buy is called "Vehicle Simulator" by Ilan Papini.  The controls for this simulator were specifically designed to work in Vehicle Simulator, although other flight simulator software should work just as effectively.

Basic Operation

Basic operation of the PPG simulator goes like this:

The pilot sits in a harness suspended from a frame, with left brake, right brake, and throttle controller in hand.  Both brake lines run up to separate pulleys (attached to the frame overhead), then down into a controller box at the base of the frame behind the pilot.  The hand throttle consists of hand grip controller and a pushbutton (engine start/off) with the cabling/wiring running back into the controller box.

The controller box houses the electrical components that decipher the physical brake and throttle controls.  As the pilot controls brake and throttle, his responses are being measured and decoded by the components in the controller box.  The PC reads the inputs from the box just as if it were reading a joystick (which is exactly what the control box looks like to the PC).  The flight simulator software can then respond to the inputs accordingly.

The addition of a head mounted LCD display unit and a head-tracking device only adds to the immersive environment of flying a virtual PPG!

PPG VR Simulator Construction

Constructing your PPG simulator will take about a weekend.  Figure a day to cut and assemble the PVC frame (if that's the route you go), and a day for putting together the controller box and final assembly.

Tools and Misc. Parts

Some of tools and miscellaneous parts (not otherwise noted in the component price list above) include:

Tools

Mallet (for PVC frame assembly)

Saw (hacksaw or miter saw)

Drill (w/ bits)

Screwdrivers

PVC Cement

Epoxy Cement (quick drying)

Parts

Misc. nuts and bolts (frame assembly, mounting linear wire pots)

12 feet of 16 or 18 gauge wire

6’ Type A to Type B USB Cable

2 laundry pulleys (plastic)

Small Zip Ties

Constructing the Frame

My prototype frame was created from 3” PVC, with some additional 2” sections for support cross-members and where I mounted controller box to.  Here’s a picture of the fully assembled frame with harness attached:

 

Prototype PVC Frame

So far, the prototype has held up to a hanging weight of 280lbs (pilot plus harness).  The overall dimensions of the PVC frame are 5’L x 5’W x 7’H.

The following photos are the latest updates to my designs which now include a realistic H-frame suspended design, along with a more portable (but less realistic) T-Frame design that can be mounted on practically any computer chair:

Steel H-Frame

 

 H-Frame on Portable Hoist

T-Frame Mounted on Computer Chair

The following video is a concept of the Hang-Man paraglider simulator which shows the configuration of the H-Frame and Main Frame together with the video projection set-up:

 

I won’t go into much detail for construction of the frame outside of some of the basic requirements.  Rather, I’ll let you decide what materials and basic form you want to build.

The frame can be constructed from many kinds of material:  PVC, steel, aluminum, wood, etc, in any configuration that you could think up.  It needs to allow for arm movement when sitting in the harness (at least 4 feet laterally), and most importantly, that it can support a static hanging weight of at least ~500lbs.  Don’t skimp here as you don’t want your frame to come down on top of you when you’re spiraling your virtual wing!

To provide additional support, allowance for weight shift, and a smaller footprint, my next frame will be 1 1/4” tubular steel construction.  I’ll offer additional details when they become available.

If requested, I can provide the measurements of each PVC component in turn and provide a simple breakdown of the components required (total lengths of PVC tubing, number of couplings, etc.).

Adding Components to the Frame

When your frame is complete, you’ll need to attach your harness, brake toggle pulleys, and controller box.

Attaching the Harness

To attach the harness to the frame top cross-member, I used a couple of sections of 5/8” climbing rope and a couple of d-links.  Originally, I was going to drill a couple of holes into the cross-member and use eyehooks to attach the rope to, but decided to just wrap the rope around the cross-member and tie a slip-knot.  Drilling into the PVC and attaching the eyehook will create a pressure point, whereas looping and tying the rope around it spreads the pressure over a larger surface area. You could also use webbing or tie-downs in lieu of the rope, or even incorporate a riser set.

Brake Toggle Pulleys

I attached two plastic laundry pulleys (found at home depot) onto the top frame cross-member to the outside of each riser connection point.  I used a couple of inches of 1/8” nylon rope to attach the pulleys to the cross-member.

 Right-Side Brake Toggle Pulley Attached to Frame X-Member

Brake Toggles

I made my brake toggles from a couple of loops of double-sided Velcro.  This allows you to adjust the loops to a comfortable size (I set mine to approximately 4” diameter). 

 

 Brake Toggles

Brake Line

I used some extra paragliding brake line that I had on hand, but 1/8” nylon would be fine to use and it's inexpensive.  Approximately 20’ total is required (10’ per side).  Tie one end of a line around each brake toggle and bring the other end up and through the frame pulley.

Controller Box

The controller box functions as the interface to connect your physical components (brake toggles, throttle, and engine switch) to your PC.  The components within the controller box consist of a USB controller card (also known as a joystick controller card), a linear slide potentiometer for the throttle, and two linear wire potentiometers - one for each brake input (left and right).  The throttle controller handle and cabling will also become part of the controller box as it will be permanently mounted to it.

The enclosure that I used for the controller box is 6"x6"x4", and I purchased it from home depot for $11.

Before I go into the details of constructing the controller box, let’s review in detail each of components that are mounted within.

Potentiometers

For those not familiar with potentiometers (pots), they’re simply an electrical component that provides an electrical resistance value (ohms) based on a user-selected position.  By applying a voltage across the pot, a voltage drop is generated which can be then be measured.  In our case, this measurement determines how much brake input or throttle is being applied.

For the simulator, three pots are required:  Two linear wire pots and one linear slide pot.

Linear Wire Pot

The linear wire pot is used for our brakes (one for each side).  A typical linear wire pot is shown here: 

Linear Wire Potentiometer

The best way to describe a linear wire pot is that it works a little bit like a tape measure.  Instead of a tape though, it has a set length of wire round about a spring retracting spool.  As the wire is pull-out, it actuates a multi-turn potentiometer, creating a resistive value based on the length of the wire that’s extracted.  Since it features a spring return, the wire is always in tension and will spool back into the unit automatically when released.

For the brake inputs, each brake line from the hand toggles (left and right) goes into its own linear wire potentiometer.  Simply put, the amount of brake you pull will spool out an equal amount of wire out of the pot!  Since we’re looking to capture the amount of brake pull from a “hands-up” position (zero brake pull) down to a “hands-down” or stall position (full brake pull), we need at least four feet of brake pull available.  The pot that I’m using has 50” of free pull, which is more than enough for our use.

This linear potentiometer is available at the online store here.

Slider Pot

The linear slider pot is used for the throttle control.  Here’s a picture of a typical slider pot:

Slider Potentiometer

A slide pot is has a post which slides back and forth creates a resistive value based on its position.  With the end of the throttle cable attached and the hand throttle engaged, we now have the ability to measure the amount of throttle pull being applied.

An important note in regards to potentiometers:  They are not created equal!  There are different tapers of pots.  The taper determines the scaling factor of the pot.  You want to make sure that your pots used in this project are Taper B or Linear pots, meaning that they provide a linear resistance value based on position.  Don’t use Taper A pots as they provide a resistive value based on a logarithmic scale.

Also, pots come in a variety of ohm values.  Generally, one end of the scale for a pot is 0 ohms (no resistance), and the other is a determined ohm value (5k, 10k, 100k, etc).  The controller card that we will be attaching the pots to accepts any value of 1k ohm to 100k ohm, so make sure you select pots that fit within that range.  The components I’m using are all 10k ohm.

USB Controller Card

The USB controller card converts the signals from the pots and the pushbutton into usable signals that the PC can recognize via the USB port.  This simple little device simplifies the project tremendously by handling the communications between your physical inputs and your flight simulator software.

The controller card I recommend is the BU0836 from Leo Bodnar.  This card retails for around $45 (including shipping from the UK).  Here’s a photo:

 Leo Bodnar’s BU0836 USB Controller Card 

As you can see, the controller card is quite small, but it has some powerful features.  It allows up to 8 analog inputs and 32 push button inputs.  For our project, three analog inputs (left brake, right brake, and throttle) and one pushbutton input (engine start/stop) are used, leaving the remaining available for any additional connections that you might devise.

More details of how to wire-up your controller card can be found in the following section “Constructing the Controller Box”.

Leo Bodnar also produces a card (the BU0836X) that has push in terminals (no soldering required!).  You’re still going to have to solder your wiring to the pots and pushbutton though.

Constructing the Controller Box

I’ll be going into the most amount of detail in this section on how to construct the controller box (being it’s the most complicate component of the simulator).

For the box itself, I used an $11 electrical project box from Home Depot.  The dimensions of the box are 5x5x6, which provides plenty of room to mount the components in and will protect them as well (especially the rather expensive linear wire pots!). 

Completed Controller Box with all Components Installed

The two wire pots are mounted to the bottom of the box, with their wire leads exiting out the top of the box and attached to the brake lines.  The slider pot is mounted to the back side of the box and is shown with the throttle cable attached.  The USB controller card is mounted to the side of the box and has all wire leads from the pots (and the throttle engine stop PB lead) attached.

Gather your components

Qty      Description

1          USB Controller Card

2          Linear Wire Potentiometers

1          Linear Slider Potentiometer

1          Bicycle Brake Handle

1          5’+ length bicycle brake cable

1          2” Tension Spring

1          11’ of 16/18 gauge wire

Other items needed include quick-set epoxy and zip ties.  A rubber grommet for retaining the brake cable to the box is optional.

Assemble your hand throttle

The bicycle brake handle will act as your throttle.  Attach it to the brake cable.

The brake cable I bought is 60 inches in length, which is the absolute minimum length you want to go. (I thought that the 60 inch brake cable length was going to be more than enough, but after hooking it up, found that I can’t pull my arms completely forward with the brakes in hand.)  On my set-up, the 60 inch cable is just long enough to use when activating the brake toggles.

I purchased my brake handle and cable through eBay for $20.  Of course, you can go to a local bicycle shop to buy these items, but just expect to pay a lot more.

Assembled Hand Throttle

Attach throttle cable to the controller box

Drill an appropriate size hole on the right side of the Controller Box in order to thread the end of the brake (throttle) cable through, approximate ¼ inch from the inside back wall.  Bring the cable through approximately 3” and then apply epoxy around the hole opening (inside and outside) to retain the cable in place.  To add some additional strain relief, I took it a step further and made a thin plastic washer to thread the cable through.  I then added epoxy both to the cable and then washer and then secured them to the wall of the enclosure.  You could also use a rubber grommet in lieu of the epoxy, but it would have to be a tight fit and you want some strain relief available so that the throttle cable does not pull out of the box (and tear out your potentiometer with it!).

Make sure the cable is perpendicular to the side wall of the box and allow the epoxy to set before moving on to the next step.

Attach throttle cable to slider pot

Now that the throttle cable is secured to the controller box, the cable end (nub) needs to be attached to the post of the slider pot.  It doesn’t matter which way the slider is orientated.  I used a small zip tie around the brake cable nub and slider post to, and then applied a dab of quick-set epoxy for additional security.  Let dry.

Attach slider pot to the controller box

Take your slider pot (with brake cable now attached) and place it on the back wall of the controller box enclosure to determine the mounting position.  It should be located in line with the cable entering the box, and positioned and centered in such a manner that upon activating the hand throttle, full range of motion is evident upon the slider.  Make sure that the slider is not “bottoming-out” when the throttle is fully engaged or disengaged.  (If you selected a slider pot that offers more movement than what your hand throttle can produce to the cable, this shouldn’t be a problem.)  Once the correct position is found, mark it, add some epoxy to the back side of the pot, and then set it on the mark. Hold the pot tight against the back wall until the epoxy sets (you might want to activate the throttle again to verify position before it fully sets).

 

Slider Pot Mounted to Controller Box

Adding slider return spring

In order for the slider to move back to a “throttle off” position once the throttle handle is released, you need to install a slider return spring.  (A rubber band would probably work just as well.)  I bought a 2” spring (with approx. one ounce of pull).  Attach an eyebolt on the inside of the enclosure.  It should be in line with the pot and the throttle cable.  Attach a 2” spring to the post of the pot and the eyebolt.  See photo above for the view of the spring attached to the pot post. 

Installing the Linear Wire Potentiometers

The linear wire potentiometers that I sell have an angle bracket that allows you to easily mount them to the bottom side of the enclosure box with a few small fasteners. 

Wait until your box is wired and mounted to your frame before drilling the guide holes in the box that the wires will go through.  This will be covered in the section titled “Attaching the Brakes”.

Wiring your Controller Box

Wiring your controller box will consist of wiring each of your pots and the push-button to the controller card.  See the diagram below which shows the wiring terminal points of the BU0836 USB Controller Card:

Pin Diagram of the BU0836

The controller card analog inputs (as noted on the upper left of the diagram) are used for the brake toggle and throttle potentiometers.  They require three wire connections to the pots:  Ground, input voltage, and +5v.  Diagrams are normally available for the pots (or printed or engraved on the pot) to determine which wire goes where. 

The controller card scan matrix columns (to the upper right of the diagram) are used for the pushbutton (PB) switch for your engine on/off.  (Unlike a real PPG, you can use the same PB for both “engine on” and “engine off”).  The matrix allows you to hook up to 32 PBs, however, since we only need one, the connection becomes very simple:  Just use Column 1 Row 1 for your two wire pushbutton.  The PB you use should be a momentary PB which is normally open.  This means that it should only complete the circuit upon pressing the button, with a spring return to open the circuit when you release.

See the following simple wiring diagram for additional details:

Controller Box Wiring Diagram

Wiring the box is fairly straightforward.  There are 11 wires that need to be cut and soldered (3 for each potentiometer and 2 for the pushbutton).  18 gauge wire is recommended (either stranded or solid core will work fine).  For the potentiometers, cut each wire length to 12”.  For the pushbutton, since the leads need to run outside of the box and to your hand throttle, you’ll need 72” or more.  Measure before you cut.

The USB controller card comes with pin block connectors that you can solder your wiring to.  Once your wires are soldered on, simply plug the connector onto the appropriate pins on the card.  The other end of the wiring is soldered onto the appropriate pin located on the pots and pushbutton.

Each potentiometer has 3 electrical connections that have to be made to the controller card:  ground, input voltage, and +5v.  It's important that the connections are made from the pots to the card correctly, else, it’d be possible to fry the pot (if not the card itself!).  If you follow the diagram carefully, you should be ok.

To keep your wiring in order and reduce errors, it’s recommended that you use 3 different wire insulator colors:  +5 volts, ground, and input.  I used red, black, and blue, respectively.

The pushbutton simply has two wiring connections, and unlike the pots, it does not matter in which order the wires are attached.  Before attaching the PB, 1st drill a hole in the box (near where the throttle cable comes in) and run the set of wires out through it.  Then run the wiring along your throttle cable and through the handle of your throttle.  Solder them to the PB, and then install the PB onto the end of the throttle cable:

Mounting the Controller Card 

The controller card can be mounted to your controller box via the 4 attachments points on the corners (or simply epoxy into place to the inside of the box like I did).  Attaching with screws allows for easy replacement of the card (if ever required):

Controller Card Mounted in Controller Box 

The controller card connects to your PC via a USB connection.  The USB Controller cable connector is a type B, which isn’t the same as what is on your PC (type A), but there are cheap cables available that you can buy online or elsewhere.  (Note that the card does not come with the cable.)  Drill an appropriate size hole in the box to run the USB cable through.  You can provide a strain relief by tying a loose knot in the cable, or leave it as is. (I chose the latter since, if the wire gets pulled on, it’ll simple unplug from the controller card.)

Before attaching the cable to your PC, you need to mount it to the frame and attach the brake cables.

Mounting the Controller Box

Attach your controller box to your frame.  I added two PVC cross-members along the back of the frame and mounted the box to it in the center:

Mounted Controller Box

Attaching the Brakes

After mounting the controller box to the frame, pull the left and right brake lines down from the pulleys to the box.  Since the brake lines will be attached to the 'nub' on the linear wire pots, take a good estimate where the brake line will enter the enclosure and drill two holes (approx 1/2" in diameter).  Connect each brake toggle to its linear wire pot nub.  See above photo for a completed installation.  Verify that the pot wires or brake lines do not rub against the opening of the hole.  Redrill if required.

Calibrating your Controller Box

Once everything is wired up (double check your connections!), turn on your PC.  After it’s booted up, plug in your controller box via the USB cable.  For Windows XP, Vista, or 7, your PC should recognize your controller box as a joystick and install it as a device named “BU0836”. 

Make your way into the joystick calibration menu (through the Windows Control Panel) and start the calibration process.  You will first be prompted to press any button on the controller.  Before doing so, you need to pull left and right brakes (together) approximately halfway down (Approx 20”).  Hold the toggles there and press Next (or push the button on your throttle control).  Now, you must pull down and let up both toggles to their furthest extents (sitting in the harness while you do this is a good idea).  Make sure you alternate pulling each toggle as well.  This will map the calibration curve for your toggles.  Press Next.  Now, activate your throttle a couple of times.  Press Next.  Now, pull down both toggles again halfway (20”) and press Next.  That’s it!  You should have a perfect calibration. 

Program Set-up in Vehicle Simulator

I’ll give some details for using your new simulator controls in Ilan Papini’s Vehicle Simulation program.  Load Vehicle Simulator and go into the joystick menu.  Select the right brake, left brake, and engine controls to the appropriate joystick axis.  You might have to reverse the controls to make them work properly.

Now, add the powered paraglider as a vehicle to control and start flying your new simulator!

Other Paraglider / PPG Simulators

There isn’t a lot of information available concerning other paraglider / PPG flight virtual simulators, although I have found two in existence:  One is a home-built unit located in Germany, the other is in the UK and is commercially available.

The German build is a permanently installed aluminum-framed unit.  It appears to be quite robust, although not very portable:

http://destroy24.de/simulator/technik.html

The UK unit was a professionally designed unit and is available for purchase.  (I’m still trying to determine the cost at this time, but I believe it to be quite expensive.)  It's a very well designed unit, with a portable steel frame, weight shift, and virtual head-set.  This unit was developed through the efforts of the BHPA (British Hang Gliding Association) and Hull University, so there were some very smart people involved (and a lot of funding!)  I really like the frame for this unit, and plan on using this design as a starting point for my next frame.

http://www.dcs.hull.ac.uk/simvis/projects/paraglide/index.htm

http://www.northern-paragliding.com/northern-news/paragliding-vr-simulator-is-born-2.html

One noticeable difference found in both the German and UK designs and lacking in mine is weight shift.  Although it’s something my unit lacks, it will soon be available when I construct my next frame from steel in lieu of PVC.  I believe that no further modification will be required to the controls in order for weight shift to be in effect.

Enjoy your new simulator!

Questions or comments to:  Mark Deseck  flyingndiving@yahoo.com 

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