Group Editor Marty Kauchak reports on efforts to advance the fidelity of air traffic control capabilities in flight training devices and systems.

Community training organizations use increasingly sophisticated, state-of-the-art, multi-million-dollar flight simulators with motion, visual displays and other high-fidelity systems to provide the training audience with a high level of synthetic representation of the “real world”. Concurrently, the airline training organization-simulation and training industry team is delivering increasingly capable non-motion flight training devices which are allowing students to learn and rehearse increasing numbers of skills heretofore completed in full flight simulators and even on an aircraft.

These training stakeholders are also bringing to bear technologies and other resources to close one technology gap in fielded flight training devices – the persistent requirement for high fidelity Simulated Air Traffic Control Environment (SATCE), a system that provides synthetic air traffic control to the flight crew in training and other simulated traffic, with correlated radio and data communications.

Increasing Demand Signals

There are several forces converging to increase the demand for SATCE.  John Merwin, Adacel’s director for Business Development and Nick Papadopoli, the company’s corporate product manager, provided a high-level overview of the current operating environment and built the business case for even higher-levels of fidelity in training devices. As airspaces become more and more congested due to the worldwide increased travel demands, it has become imperative that flight operations be conducted with the highest safety and efficiency, the two subject matter experts said. “This requires that pilots and air traffic controllers be able to communicate correctly and with ease. In addition, pilots need to be proficient at conducting and managing their flight in and around congested airspaces. This can only be done by means of training in the flight simulator with other traffic present,” they added.

Jeremy Goodman, the product lead for SATCE at Quadrant Group. Image credit: Micro Nav Ltd (Quadrant Group).
Jeremy Goodman, the product lead for SATCE at Quadrant Group. Image credit: Micro Nav Ltd (Quadrant Group). 

Jeremy Goodman, PhD, MRAeS, the product lead for SATCE at Quadrant Group, looked at the challenge from another perspective and pointed out that in one instance, “SATCE exercises and supports the development of arguably all the core pilot competencies referenced by ICAO (Doc 9995 Manual of EBT [Evidence-based training]), including situational awareness and management of information, communication, flight path management, workload management, problem solving/decision making and perhaps we should also add knowledge.” Further, the increasing use of real-time scenario-based training is underpinning rising interest from airlines and training organizations for SATCE.

Goodman further offered, “Scenario-based training is a substantial element of modern ab initio licenses and training courses, such as the Multi-Crew Pilot License, and the new EASA Airline Pilot Standard Multi-Crew Co-operation. SATCE is also well suited for enhancing realism, workload and variety for advanced pilot training, such as evidence-based training scenarios.”

The clarion call for higher fidelity ATC scenarios in training devices and systems has resonated quite well in industry, with an increasing pace of activities in this technology lane reported. A significant trend observed in these efforts is the use of intelligent agents, speech recognition, cutting-edge visual displays and other underpinning capabilities in the overarching ATC simulation products.

Industry Activities

Adacel has two products designed to deliver ATC training to aircrews.

One offering, ATCiB (Air Traffic Control in a Box), is Adacel’s implementation of SATCE for flight simulation training devices (FSTD) as described by ARINC specification 439A (Simulated Air Traffic Control Environments In Flight Simulation Training Devices) and ICAO document 9625 (Manual of Criteria for the Qualification of Flight Simulation Training Devices). John Merwin and Nick Papadopoli told CAT ATCiB creates a realistic air traffic and radio communications environment that can operate autonomously within the flight simulation exercise without any required intervention by the instructor. They further explained, “The system generates a realistic volume of other traffic with correlated radio chatter augmented by Adacel’s intelligent simulated air traffic controllers.”

And in an effort to extend ATC training into the lower levels of the training enterprise, Adacel’s Intelligent Communications Environment (ICE), a stand-alone desktop training system, is designed for aviation communication training before the student enters the fight simulator. ICE is reported to be “an easy to use application that utilizes accent tolerant speech recognition to master proper terminology and communications procedures in a non-intimidating environment using FAA or ICAO standard phraseology.”

For its part, UFA, Inc. (UFA) continues to invest in product development, perform research into key technology areas, and work with existing customers and potential users of the SATCE capability to refine use cases and define their requirements and capabilities. Ron Taylor, a senior ATC specialist at the company, provided another important perspective, that “ATC is standards based” and to that end, “each customer tends to have specific ‘pain points’ that they want to address to make their training more efficient and effective.”

Offering another insight on end-user requirements, Taylor pointed out although not a “must have capability” for SATCE, voice recognition and response (VRR) provides a significant benefit for the user.

“A recurring theme from aviation customers in general is the importance of radio communications. For air traffic controllers, pilots, and airport airside operators, proper radio communications are essential for safe and efficient operations. Using VRR in the SATCE setting allows pilots in the simulator to not only practice proper radio communications but also experience the communications environment of a busy airport or airspace,” this subject matter expert said and added, “Furthermore, the skill of situational awareness can be honed when realistic and situation specific radio communications is available. This is not an environment that exists in flight simulation training today.”

Because UFA bases its SATCE product, ATWorld, on its core ATC Tower Simulation products, most of the enhancements the company introduced can be of benefit, since its SATCE solution is based on constantly maturing and innovating simulation technology. “Many flight simulator providers have in the past pursued an in-house SATCE solution. In the end, this tended to divert technical resources from their core competency – building and improving flight simulation products. This is where UFA employs its nearly 40 years of experience in the simulation of ATC movement, sequencing and separation skills to the emerging SATCE technology,” he further remarked.

Similar to Adacel’s business model, UFA develops the ATWorld SATCE product in-house, based on its mature air traffic simulation products that provide the realistic ATC environment, including support for voice recognition and radio communications.

Quadrant INTERACT in trials in Europe. Image from MPS-built B737 fixed-base FNPT-II MCC device located at AFTA, Cork, Ireland. Image credit: Quandrant Group.
Quadrant INTERACT in trials in Europe. Image from MPS-built B737 fixed-base FNPT-II MCC device located at AFTA, Cork, Ireland. Image credit: Quandrant Group.

Elsewhere in this sector, Quadrant Group has developed a fully automated SATCE solution called Quadrant INTERACT™, suitable for all levels of flight simulation training device.

The company’s Goodman noted Quadrant INTERACT is a dynamic interactive ATC environment for flight simulators where crews are fully immersed in a populated managed air traffic environment and experience the pressure and realism of having other traffic ahead and behind their flight. “It is now in active trial in Europe with an established ATO, proving the technology is mature and demonstrating training value,” he added.

Quadrant INTERACT has been a multi-year and multi-site development program across the Quadrant Group, and involved collaboration across industry with airlines, training organizations, device manufactures, and visual system suppliers.

Goodman concluded, “In 2016 Quadrant INTERACT was integrated with a CAE-built B737 FFS at Quadrant Systems’ own facilities in Burgess Hill, UK. A professional flight crew, both TRE/TRI qualified, were invited to test the system as a proof-of-concept with positive results.”

A fourth company in this space, Advanced Simulation Technology inc. (ASTi), has focused exclusively on digital sound and communications systems for use in training simulators, and, in particular, flight simulators. To date, ASTi has delivered 9,000-plus systems, the vast majority of which are integral elements of some of the world's most sophisticated flight training devices, both commercial and military.

Neil Waterman, the company’s commercial aviation director, emphasized what differentiates his business model from other companies, initially pointing out, while it seems logical that an ATC tower training provider might think they understand the problem, the reality is that SATCE for an aircraft simulator is remarkably different.

“In a tower simulator, artificial intelligence controls relatively straightforward aircraft responses to expert human controller problem-solving and voiced commands. Moreover, ATC controller phraseology is tightly constrained, and human controllers are carefully trained to only use that precise phraseology, so the requisite automated speech recognizer can be built to handle a simple fixed grammar,” he explained and added, “The SATCE environment presents a complete 180° shift from this design space, such that its AI must not only respond to ATC commands as in the tower ATC simulator, but must furthermore replicate the expert behavior of multiple highly-trained ATC controllers acting in concert with each other.”

The industry veteran declared ASTi is the only provider of such a “ground up” SATCE system. He continued, “Our Simulated Environment for Realistic ATC (SERA) was designed from inception to solve the requirements of an ATC environment looking out of a cockpit window from the pilot’s seat, not from the controller’s office chair.”

SERA’s technology underpinnings include Automatic Speech Recognition and Text-To-Speech dynamic speech generation. Waterman added, “We do not use any recordings.”

The speech recognition solution is optimized to handle “pilot speak” in a noisy aircraft cockpit, based on ASTi proprietary knowledge accumulated from thousands of flight simulators. “Furthermore, our Level D full flight simulator exposure gives us direct access to many hours of aircraft recordings to further assist in our efforts to minimize the impact of cockpit sound on the speech recognition process,” Waterman concluded.

Rockwell Collins offers accurate airport simulation for ground maneuvering as well as approach and departure ATC procedures. Image credit: Rockwell Collins.
Rockwell Collins offers accurate airport simulation for ground maneuvering as well as approach and departure ATC procedures. Image credit: Rockwell Collins.

More Than Talk – the Visual Perspective

Rockwell Collins has been fully engaged in development and community-wide deliberations for this technology thrust and with good reasons – as the company can support the introduction of simulation of air traffic control by supplying visual systems which offer full correlation with SATCE.

Dennis Hartley, the principle system engineer for Rockwell Collins, noted this underlying visual technology is currently available to support simulating the air traffic control environment for pilot training. The company’s fully-featured airports, which are very accurate as well as current, are essential to providing effective training for ground maneuvering as well as approach and departure ATC procedures.

He pointed out, “With our comprehensive airport library, and full complement of aircraft models with the appropriate liveries we can support the Simulated Air Traffic Control Environment training worldwide,” and emphasized, “Rockwell Collins has successfully worked with several SATCE vendors to date to integrate our visual systems on simulators equipped with SATCE capability.”

Of significance, Rockwell Collins has been involved in the development of the SATCE standards through the FSEMC [Flight Simulator Engineering and Maintenance Committee] working groups over the past several years. Rockwell Collins, along with other industry leaders, worked to publish the ARINC Specification 439A. In addition, Rockwell Collins participates in the ICAO 9625 Working Group which included the addition of the Simulated Air Traffic Control Environment in the latest version - Edition 4.

Beyond Technology – Pedagogical Consequences

There are two areas that UFA focuses on when working with a customer on the introduction of SATCE or expand use of SATCE in their training environment, with the first being technical integration. UFA’s second focus, which appears to differentiate it from others in the sector, is on pedagogical consequences.

UFA’s Taylor explained that in the military flight simulator environment technical integration is greatly eased due to the mature simulator interconnection and interoperability standards. He continued, “While some of these same standards are prevalent in the civil flight simulator market, there are in addition, proprietary interfaces that must be catered to. While this may add effort to the integration of SATCE, it is a solvable problem. It has been suggested that the next step in SATCE requirements focus on a set of standard interfaces so that the flight simulator providers can have more flexibility in the integration of a SATCE solution.”

Yet, far more challenging are the consequences and impact of introducing this capability into the training curriculum. UFA has observed it is most important that the training organization identifies the specific training objectives that SATCE will address.

“Those objectives can be different for each organization. We have found that after experiencing SATCE in operations, organizations begin to understand the tremendous training opportunities but also the implications in integrating SATCE with an existing or new training program,” Taylor concluded.

Technology Dynamics

Training organization customers and their learners will continue to receive more capable and diverse ATC simulation and like-products for their training scenarios.

Adacel is currently working to enhance the level of realism by means of new speech recognition technologies and higher levels of artificial intelligence. To that end, the company has recently introduced a speech recognition and phraseology manager/editor called Lexix which enables the user to adjust the phraseologies. The two Adacel subject matter experts concluded, “The advanced speech and AI technologies are all being developed in-house.”

Looking further into the future, Quadrant’s Dr. Goodman, forecasted some exciting possibilities using SATCE for introducing much more varied and challenging scenario-based training. “SATCE introduces ATC and other traffic synthetic agents, and these entities can be controlled. The instructor is therefore able to trigger or plan all manner of new and varied challenges to the ownship flight. For example, a traffic ahead could land and fail to vacate, or undertake a surprising maneuver, or ATC may issue a challenging or delayed clearance.”

With this technology, evidence-based training scenarios can be designed that reflect the common threats faced by crews in line operations. “Airlines will be better able to match real-world threats to those experienced by crews in training. Much of these commonly experienced challenges from the environment are onerous or impossible for the instructor to replicate without SATCE,” the community expert concluded. 

Published in CAT issue 5/2018