Paired with advanced technology, the human-centred activity of air traffic controller training can lead to an increase in air operations safety. Mario Pierobon examines current thinking on simulated and stimulated controller training.

In the context of ever-growing aircraft movement numbers, technology is increasingly used to support air traffic controllers (ATCOs) in the conduct of their profession. As the training syllabi aim to prepare ATCOs for the operational environment, the technology used in training must keep up with operational system capabilities, or even be ahead of current capabilities to prepare them for emerging technologies.

From Practical to Theoretical

At air traffic services (ATS) academy Entry Point North, technology has for a long time played a major role in ATCO training. “We have been using computer-based simulators for training students for work in a surveillance environment for many years. However, technology in the past has mostly been used during the practical training of ATCOs. Today we have as well implemented technical solutions into theoretical training by using e-learning tools,” said Kerstin Sjöbeck, Development Director.

In many cases, air traffic control (ATC) technology includes ATC simulators and the tools and applications supported by the simulators. “A personal computer-based training tool that is designed to help progress a trainee from initial training, including basic and rating, through to continuation training covering refresher and conversion training is normally the most cost-effective solution,” said Shane Hannam, Head of Sales and Marketing at Micro Nav, a developer and supplier of air traffic control and air defence simulators and training systems. “At the basic level, an ATC simulator will replicate the working environment of an air traffic controller in a non-operational environment. This typically covers every aspect of an operational system, including radar consoles, communications, meteorology and information display systems, airfield lighting control panels, surface movement radar and, for tower control, a simulated and visually realistic 3D tower view.”

Depending on the complexity of the technology and operations involved, simulators tend to cover all the functionality of the live operational equipment, although they will not necessarily be a replica of what the prospective ATCOs will be using.

“The simulated training environment can range from a relatively simple training capability on a set of generic workstations and displays to a fully emulated simulator that has the complete look and feel of the operational environment. In the case of a high-end training simulator, the use of operational workstations and displays that are stimulated by a training device, but in a non-operational environment, dramatically increase the realism for the trainees and in most cases reduce the amount of subsequent on-the-job training, where familiarity has to be gained on the operational equipment,” said Hannam. “Technology and its application are constantly evolving and, as such, we are seeing how speech recognition is playing an increasing role in training ATCOs. Speech recognition technology reduces the reliance on a pseudo-pilot supporting the training of an ATCO, who is a skilled and costly person and needs to be available at the times training is required. Using speech recognition technology enables controllers to be trained without full reliance on this additional resource, to train on their own and increase their time on honing and practising their skills using the simulator.”

Remote air traffic control towers using high-resolution cameras and other digital situation awareness tools are gaining in popularity and lend themselves to realistic simulation. Image credit: Micro Nav

In recent times, remote and digital tower technology has been one of the strongest trends in the ATC industry. “Although the concept has been around for some time, due to the technological advances and recent regulatory certifications at key locations, its implementation will increase pace, replacing a meaningful number of control towers around the world. The removal of a physical control tower will provide airports with additional space that can be monetised by using it for aircraft stands or other apron and terminal area needs,” said Hannam. “The high-resolution cameras used for digital towers, and additional features such as overlays and tracking systems, offer ATCOs additional information that make them more efficient and increase the amount of traffic they can manage. We are seeing AI being used to enhance digital tower functionality by recognising patterns and providing the controllers information that was not available before. Solutions involving VR technology are being tested in the simulation environment in order to identify a feasible application that can have a positive impact in the operational environment.”

Training at the Point of Operations

While there are several training academies offering ATCO training at their premises to deliver training year-round, increasingly air navigation service providers (ANSP) and airports are investing in ATC simulation equipment.

“Our experience has shown that each one of them has areas of commonality, but crucially they also have unique needs when it comes to training and the use of the ATC simulator. We also see universities investing in simulation systems for research purposes. The needs of each type of customer will differ, so simulators need to be highly capable, customisable and flexible to meet the multitudes of variation present in the user community,” said Hannam. “Training academies need reliable, flexible and scalable systems that can work around the clock to provide a different range of training from ab initio to refresher training. Additional functionality such as speech recognition technology and automated adjacent sectorisation provides a significant commercial benefit to these types of organisations by reducing their operating costs, particularly in reducing manpower requirements.”

One specific area where simulators can provide value to ATCO training is that of real-time simulation of airspace design changes, including cross-border operations. These can be in either the pure en-route environment or in a combined en-route/terminal control/airport control environment. “There are several worldwide facilities that provide real-time simulation facilities, but these can be expensive to use and difficult to logistically support for busy operational air traffic units. The ability to use spare capacity within an ATC training simulator for this dual purpose, leaning on the technological advances currently available and in development, can be more cost-effective for the end user,” said Hannam.

Indeed, cost considerations are important in ATCO training. Often the most expensive element of

ATCO training is the cost of the instructors and the pseudo-pilots. “One of the challenges that ATCO training providers face today, to meet market demand, is the recruitment of high-calibre personnel who can deliver both classroom and simulator training. Today we still use human resources in training, but we enhance it with technological solutions and tools in order to inspire students and improve the result of learning,” said Sjöbeck.

Speech recognition technology may contribute to reduce the reliance on pseudo-pilots. “This is a skilled person supporting the training of an ATCO. Using speech recognition technology enables controllers to be trained without this additional resource, thereby representing a cost-saving opportunity,” said Hannam. “Another way of reducing cost is by sharing resources and data between different sites belonging to the same organisation, or even different organisations that choose to collaborate. Using remote technology to link the simulator locations at different sites, one can run joint simulations using different personnel from each location and share the data.”

Simulation or Stimulation?

At one time a nice-to-have, simulation technology is increasingly a core part of ATCO training. An ATC simulator will replicate the working environment of an ATCO in a non-operational environment, covering the functionality of the live equipment, but without being identical to the operational equipment the future ATCO will be using. In the case of stimulation, the future ATCO is trained using the operational equipment but in a non-operational environment.

“Over the years it has been proven that using high-fidelity simulators to emulate the operational environment is critical for acquiring the complex and specialised skills needed on the job. It has also been proven to significantly reduce the amount of on-the-job training required. In addition, the simulation technology offers the ability to utilise all or most operational features and functions which can be structured around specific traffic scenarios on demand,” said Hannam. “Operationally, it may not be realistic to expect all scenarios to be experienced for each trainee within a given timeframe but, using a high-fidelity system, events such as Medium Term Conflict Detection (MTCD) or Short Term Conflict Alert (STCA) can be choreographed in order for the training objective to be achieved consistently and on demand, with the same visual cues and interactions as the live system.”

Simulation technology is of great importance to ATCO training. “Previously, mostly the simulation of a surveillance environment could be done to mimic the real world to a high level. Today, the simulation of the tower environment has caught up and is on par with the radar simulations in terms of reflecting the real-world working environment. With the introduction of remote tower systems, tower simulations move one step further into the realms of the real world,” said Sjöbeck.

A simulated British Airways flight takes off, representative of the high-end simulation available today for training controllers. Image credit: Micro Nav

Additional technologies such as speech recognition are also very useful, in particular as part of initial training as it generates an environment appropriate for skill development, it promotes self-paced independent learning, promotes standard ATC phraseology and contributes to reduced costs by removing the need for pseudo-pilots.

“We see training and service providers starting to increasingly use their simulator for more than just training. The nature of modern air traffic management (ATM) systems allows for an increased rate of delivery of updates and scope of possible changes. These changes and updates cannot always be tested at the source with the same fidelity as they can by the end user using operationally representative scenarios. Using a stimulated system gives the end user the ability to demonstrate and test changes in a representative environment; this presents a significant benefit from a risk mitigation and efficiency perspective,” said Hannam. “Not only can the specific changes be exhaustively tested but normal operational scenarios can be conducted through regular training, to the satisfaction of the end-users and regulators, in advance of the operational application of these updates.”

When new interfaces are introduced, it may be required that associated updates are made to the software. “The ability to test both the new software and the additional interfaces in an environment that does not impact the operation has significant benefits in terms of risk mitigation and validation testing. In some cases, the new interface may be related to a new procurement such as additional surveillance. In these instances, it is beneficial to be able to conduct the test and acceptance phase of such a procurement in a sterile but representative environment to facilitate project milestones without impacting the operation,” said Hannam.

Following the Operational Concept

Human factors play a critical role in air traffic control and are given important consideration in the design of ATCO training technology. At Entry Point North, human factors play a permanent part of all its training in the context of continuous technology development. “We believe that human factors should be always at the centre when developing and designing technology for ATCO training,” said Sjöbeck.

In terms of human machine interface (HMI) development, the use of high-fidelity simulators with an associated HMI toolbox capability can be far more cost-effective than making transitory changes to the operational equipment. In these circumstances, the full human factors considerations of HMI design can be brought to bear. There are several controller human factor models that are generally used for the design of training systems.

“The technology used in the ATCO training industry has to either follow the same concept and rules as the operational one very closely, or it can be used to prove new concepts and approaches to human factors,” said Hannam.

The overall realism of any simulated training environment can have a major impact on the eventual success of a trainee in the real-world environment. “It is therefore important that the training environment is as close to the operational environment as possible, subject to end-user constraints. Whilst a fully stimulated training environment, using operational displays, workstations and ancillary equipment may be the optimum solution for an ANSP, if this is financially not viable, there are a range of solutions to achieve maximum realism to achieve the desired ATCO training successes,” concluded Hannam.

Published in CAT issue 1/2020