Group editor Marty Kauchak examines the emergence of serious games-enabled learning in the civil aviation market.

One of the more intriguing developments in the military learning space is the ascendancy of serious games for learning. CAT’s sister publication MS&T follows defense organizations’ use of militarized versions of games to supplement their training and education programs and with good reason. A corporate presentation obtained from Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BIS) noted the gaming industry is clearly disrupting the military simulation and training (S&T) market. BIS further declared that its VBS game product “is the most widely used simulation in the US Army today.”

With the usual ease of migration of learning technologies between the civil and military aviation sectors, an unbiased observer might expect the civil sector to be quickly embracing serious gaming for those on the flight deck, its cabin crews and maintainers and other learning audiences. But that does not appear to be the case - yet.

S&T industry companies are gradually entering this product space. Demand from current and prospective airline customers for these products is slowly increasing. This assessment was validated in part by a spokesperson for one North American-based airline. The industry media expert told this author on background that his airline hasn’t considered gaming for its training program, as it wasn’t even certain this effort would necessarily have incremental value for airlines – whose missions were deemed simpler than those of the military.

Tepid but Potentially Vibrant So what’s really happening in this currently tepid, but potentially more vibrant learning sector?

Neal Tomblyn, Lockheed Martin Commercial Flight Training’s Business Development Director, unabashedly declared these “are very exciting times right now” for gamification and the progress being made in serious gaming technologies.

The industry veteran built a compelling business case for including serious gaming-supported instruction in airline community members’ learning programs, for pilots for instance - from university or ab initio environments up through airline recurrent training. Noting the cost of training is very, very expensive, he added, “the more that I can get sound, effective training on lower cost devices it can help me exponentially when I get to higher cost devices - the ultimate full flight simulators - to vet through the students to make sure they are qualified properly in each phase of the training process they go through.” And by being able to bring serious game-enabled products into the entire civil aviation sector, this strategy also helps train a broader base of students quicker. Tomblyn continued, “It helps you bring realistic training environments into their hands, whether it be through computer-based training or augmented reality training or the ‘full blown’ training environment - virtual reality. It gives them the real live learning experience early on and helps them with their entire learning process.” As significant, the community expert observed that the community’s younger learners grew up with technology in their hands, and are “expecting gamification and that is what they will train on.”

One recent product from the company’s internal research and development (IR&D) effort is the third release of Prepar3D®, simulation software which permits aspiring pilots to start learning how to fly without the cost of going through an expensive, full flight simulator. “We’re also combining this with what we call ‘science of learning’ research and development. What we’re looking at is beyond just trying to train someone. We’re actually looking at the science of learning - how you incorporate data analytics, decision support tools combined with the entire gamification learning experience.”

Over at Cubic Defense, Amanda Bond, the company’s lead human performance engineer, reflected on the current state of gaming in civil aviation, noting the biggest challenge any time serious games are brought up is the word “game”, adding “The connotation of games is that they’re fun, they’re inconsequential, they’re meaningless … so they couldn’t possibly be valuable training. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.”

Cubic Defense is one of a handful of other companies making its presence known in this learning space. The company has been contracted by a major commercial airline to provide cabin crew training in an immersive game-based setting. Bond added, “We feel, as does our customer, that with the evolving job requirements of the cabin crew (and others), immersive game-based training provides the best instruction possible by providing meaningful teaching in a way that is engaging, realistic, and has high transfer of training.”

Game-based instruction is viewed as filling a void in this learning audience’s training continuum, as many cabin crew members today aren’t fortunate enough to have expensive motion simulators, door trainers, or service trainers, and rely on lecture-based and computer-based learning that is static and non-responsive. Bond further observed this type of passive training doesn’t engage the learner and/or allow them to explore their environment: it’s a question of knowing the procedures as opposed to recognizing the right procedures - even in unfamiliar circumstances. She continued, “Further, all commercial airlines are facing an increase in throughput that will strain even the largest training facilities - for both cabin crew and flight crew - and providing immersive game-based training has the benefits of simulation while capitalizing on the intrinsic motivational factors of games for learning.”

While S&T entities are just beginning to come to the forefront with true gaming-enabled products for this sector, they are also selectively taking best-of-breed gaming technology underpinnings for other e-learning products.

In one instance, Ole Andersen, the director, head of development and captain TRI/E at Aviation eLearning, noted his colleagues use the 3D Unity game engine from Unity Technologies to give the learner the option of free movement in a learning environment and the feeling of “exploring" instead of timeline based e-learning. “It also gives a ‘close to real life’ experience. We also think that this style of training will attract and motivate compared to the more traditional training tools available as e-learning.” Indeed, the Kastrup, Denmark-based subject matter expert further noted his company wants to support operators and aviation authorities in using software that not only replaces the expensive real life demonstrations around or in the aircraft, but also takes the quality and standardization of training to “the next level”.

This October Andersen reported the delivery of the first Boeing 737 External Inspection Application package to Scandinavian Airlines System Crew Training. At initial assessment, he reflected “The roll out of this module is very promising. It will be the first but very important step exploiting the game engine for aviation training and we expect it to be a ‘game changer’ when you look at the business case it offers return of investment compared to a real life walk-around training, with scheduling of instructor, students and aircraft.”

The company delivered this App earlier for Air Greenland’s use on its Bombardier Dash-8 fleet.

The company executive justified Aviation eLearning’s presence in this emerging sector, stating Generation Y (the “tablet generation”) is eager to use this kind of training. “Our initial talks with flight schools indicate that this could very well be a “must have feature”, as this group (Generation Y) is expecting their learning to be on a tablet and are used to technology,” he added.

Also in Europe, Fanny Keller, the marketing manager at Lausanne, Switzerland-based MindOnSite, told CAT that while her company is not taking part in any serious games development per se, “We are however, heavily involved in gamification as we integrate serious games from external editors and we use gamification elements in our learning environment.” The industry spokesperson continued, “The learner portal interface is highly customizable and gamification element (leaderboard, progress radar, badges, credits, avatar...) can easily be added or developed on our platform.”

Beyond “Soft” Demand While there are “soft” demand or requirement signals for gaming products from this sector’s customer there is another major force at play.

Lockheed Martin’s Tomblyn observed the biggest challenge to more widely implementing serious game-enabled training resides with regulatory agencies - and with good reasons. In most regions of the world, there is a tremendous amount of regulation governing civil aviation training programs, as regulatory agencies are the “gatekeepers” of safety. He noted, “When you produce products that are intended to be Level D-conformant and if you are in the US, you are also thinking: how do I get the FAA to certify a new training program or technique using this new technology?” The industry veteran further added this process is the major challenge to a wider use of games or other emergent learning technologies because the regulatory process and certification decisions tend to take time. “Any time you introduce something new into the mix that hasn’t been done before it simply takes time. As we work with the airlines and the regulatory agencies around the world - that’s the bigger challenge that we’re seeing. The ‘technology piece’ and the desire of the aviation community for these products exceed where the regulatory side is at. This is a ‘push-pull’ environment that we are living in right now.”

Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, Aviation eLearning’s Andersen commented on the market force of conservatism - especially when viewing regulatory agencies and their directives’ processes. “We see operators eagerly exploring the technological options, which we can develop but at first we saw some reluctance due to operators’ doubt about authority approval. Lately we have seen more and more positive signals from regulators, willing to credit the use of technology. Especially as the growing concern of meeting the global need for both pilots and cabin crew pushes both regulators and operators to be open minded to new solutions, if the industry shall be able to keep up with demand. However we see a trend that more and more operators are concerned about training quality not just quantity, and clients have specifically chosen our service for courses that will provide more than just the mandatory tick mark.”

Future Developments Cubic’s Bond provided a glimpse of the expected evolution of this technology, adding that in the future, Cubic hopes to also produce more service-oriented games and branch into some interesting “mini-games” for specific skill training.

The company also doesn’t envision its initial product as a purely off-the-shelf solution. “Every airline has their own Standard Operating Procedures that are beyond and more comprehensive than manufacturer aircraft manuals, and as such, it is important to provide some customization for each solution,” Bond said and added, “A Boeing 777-300 L1 door is the same across carriers; however how each airline approaches that door is a critical piece of the learning - particularly in the customer service aspect of training. As a result, we envision doing some level of customization for any customer requesting our training products.”

Cubic’s first deliveries of its cabin crew training product will occur in March of 2016 to an unspecified customer.

Aviation eLearning will be testing low cost virtual reality equipment such as Google Cardboard, which permits the learner to use his or her own smartphone as a display device. Andersen further revealed, “We will also test some new technology that includes eye tracking and motion detection. More and more hardware is being launched on the market at reasonable prices but it requires a lot of software development to have a valuable training tool ready for use. We have already tested motion tracking in connection with the Oculus Rift VR but the result of motion tracking was not satisfactory to develop a useable training tool.”

On LMCFT’s horizon for 2016 is the continued development of collaborative IR&D activities with their counterparts at the Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training Innovation Demonstration Center in Orlando. In one instance, LMCFT will continue to work to support unspecified airlines’ requirements to permit the science of learning methodology to be used to redesign a pilot’s continuum of learning. The project’s outcome will improve how a pilot interacts between device levels - from computer-based up through a full flight simulator, and into the realms of augmented reality and virtual reality - and how those mediums interact with one another. “This is curriculum-based using the gamification technologies - the Unity technology, the Prepar3D technology, and also incorporating that into the lower-level hardware device trainers for pilots,” Tomblyn concluded.