More capable simulators, speech recognition and accents. AI. VR. Remote towers. Drones. The air traffic community is challenged to prepare its next generation of controllers for competency in emerging developments. Group Editor Marty Kauchak reports.

Air traffic control (ATC) professionals are obtaining ever more effective and efficient learning technologies to learn and rehearse their skill sets. While the air traffic management community’s training systems and devices have improved speech recognition technology and other enablers, they are also on the cusp of integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and other future-learning capabilities.

At the same time, these training organizations face an expanding number of challenges across the community, including instructing accession and veteran air controllers to safely manage drones and possibly operate in remote virtual towers.

Air traffic control professionals share many of the learning attributes of their counterparts in the adjacent pilot, aircrew and maintenance communities. Younger air traffic controllers, in particular, are driving the demand for self-teaching tools and enhanced flexibility in training. Sharon Cooke, CEO at Airways International, affirmed this trend, noting disruptive technologies are reshaping and transforming the aviation world, so air traffic control training providers need to redefine their selection and training models to keep up with the pace of change. The Christchurch, New Zealand-based executive stated, “Our future air traffic controllers have grown up using smart technologies – they’re constantly connected and expect to gain instant access to information from a variety of sources. It’s what they now expect when it comes to learning and study – the ability to access that information from anywhere, any time and at their own pace. They also expect gamified, engaging selection processes that give them a taste of what their future career may feel like.”

Enhanced-Capability Sims

One outcome from these trends is that air traffic training organizations around the globe are taking delivery of more capable new simulators and other technologies at a quickening pace.

In one instance, Adacel (US, Canada, Australia), with a heritage of developing and offering advanced solutions in the ATC simulation space, is currently focused on enhancing its two primary products: its MaxSim air traffic simulator and Aurora air traffic management solution.

Mike Brady, Product Strategy Manager, said MaxSim “is the world’s most broadly used air traffic control training simulator.” With customers around the world, Adacel wants to give its customers even more flexibility in terms of customization options, self-paced training, and cloud-based options while reducing the burden placed on instructors in the classroom.

The company has recently delivered MaxSim in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Australia. These training systems range from fully immersive, room-scale 360-degree displays to mobile, suitcase-sized configurations. Brady pointed out that in all form factors, the company’s simulators feature Lexix, “one of the best speech recognition systems in the aviation industry, reducing the burden placed on instructors during training sessions.” In addition, Adacel customers are able to develop and customize their training scenarios, including time of day and complex weather conditions. “During training, the entire flight operations cycle can be simulated. This involves training in all ATC functions, from ramp and ground control to tower control, flight data, and radar control,” he explained

Brady said their Aurora air traffic management solution “delivers remarkable value. It is a great fit for island nations and emerging economies that are looking to upgrade their current systems with a robust, advanced, reliable solution.”

The system was specifically developed for the aviation industry, air traffic control, and command-and-control applications to provide high-accuracy recognition. “We have designed Lexix to give users maximum flexibility,” he pointed out, and added, “They can customize the software’s phraseology to support their specific operation. These customizations can range from spoken names, including aircraft callsigns, navigation beacons, and geographical locations all the way to local airport terminology for aircraft instructions.”

As Adacel has observed, most operators in the aviation industry are not native English speakers; the company has also evolved Lexix to support non-native English accents. “This results in superior training in English – the international language of aviation – and the ability to coach everyone, regardless of their native language. By minimizing false positives, Lexix showcases remarkable situational awareness, and has achieved a level of precision that rivals live radio communications between pilots and controllers,” Brady reported.

No discussion about training in high-risk communities would be complete without addressing the opportunities to harness artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) solutions. Indeed, Adacel’s Brady predicted that VR and the overall immersive experience, along with AI, will become more prevalent in this industry and emphasized, “It will be critical we stay abreast – and at the front – of these developments.” He revealed, “We are currently developing and testing prototypes to integrate VR and AI in ATC training simulation and look forward to introducing new capabilities to our products soon.”

UFA’s ATLive interactive tabletop training tool is part of a comprehensive ATC training complex, including aerodrome simulator, for the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. Image credit: UFA.
UFA’s ATLive interactive tabletop training tool is part of a comprehensive ATC training complex, including aerodrome simulator, for the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. Image credit: UFA.

Elsewhere in this sector, UFA, headquartered near Boston with five other offices around the world, observed the accelerating pace of adapting training solutions for the 21st century ATC trainee. UFA answered this requirement early on with ATCloud. The learning technology is reported by the company to allow “anywhere, anytime” voice recognition-enabled training without the need for large, expensive, fixed-site ATC labs.

Earlier this year, UFA introduced ATLive – branded as “a revolutionary airport and air traffic multi-touch, interactive training experience to learn, interact, visualize, and experience training like never before” – providing an alternative for the legacy tabletop training with tools including simply a table, airplane and stick. When combined with UFA’s ATVoice voice recognition and response technology, training is reported to become more flexible as the student can run exercises on their own or with an instructor. “From the perspectives of training, exercise monitoring, emergency drill training, and even as a debrief station, the changing workforce and technology often drive the product growth,” UFA’s President, Larry Pennett, observed, and noted “ATLive builds on our industry leading ATTower simulator and newest generation image generator to provide an intuitive and interactive dynamic training platform unique in the market. Our customers continue to find new use cases to leverage their systems.”

Airways International reported a flurry of activity around the globe during the last 12 months. This June the company deployed TotalControl ATC tower and surveillance training simulators for the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) Lebanon at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. The company’s CEO, Cooke, explained this project has enabled real-world training for DGCA and is helping to future-proof ATC training in Lebanon for decades to come. She added, “High-fidelity photo-real graphics imitate the full ATC flight information region, creating an immersive environment supporting DGCA to deliver a high standard of training for students and controller.”

Last September, Airways International partnered with the Australian College of Kuwait to establish an ATC training academy in Kuwait – including a TotalControl tower simulator and two surveillance simulators. The first cohort of students at the training academy graduated from their ATC training this August.

In a quest for innovation beyond technology, in the 12 months from July 2018, about 350 New Zealand and international students trained with Airways at its facilities in Christchurch and Palmerston North in New Zealand, and at their own facilities. “Two groups of Saudi Arabian students from the General Authority of Civil Aviation began their training with us as part of our successful partnership with GACA, and we welcomed students from the United Arab Emirates and the Pacific, Vietnam and Hong Kong during the year,” Cooke noted.

Airways International, contracted by ICAO, installed a TotalControl LCD tower simulator and two radar/non-radar simulators at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on behalf of DGCA Lebanon. Image credit: Airways International.

On the ATC Horizon

UFA CEO David Wolff commented, “One of the biggest strengths of UFA is our ability to listen to our customers – and do something about it instantly.” New developments such as enhancing ATVehicle, UFA’s airside driving simulator, with ramp training such as pushback and towing capabilities, next-generation voice recognition and response, and adding features to allow users to adjust their own course content, are planned for development in 2020. “Our customers are looking to keep costs low while still having the flexibility to create new content as the 21st-century trainee starts to filter into training programs,” Pennett added. “It’s amazing to see what our customers are able to create when using these tools, and it’s their use of our systems which helps drive new development.”

Beyond S&T products and other training trends is the attention-getting reality that ATC towers are expensive, anywhere from US$8 million to as much as $200 million, and many are in need of repair or replacement, according to Raytheon’s calculations. Chris Rogers, the company’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) Program Manager, offered the business case that a combination of cameras, radars and sensors feeding data from the airport to sophisticated displays monitored by controllers in remote locations can replicate all the capabilities of a physical tower. He pointed out; “These remote virtual towers, or RVTs, meet all the FAA and international requirements for management of the airspace while providing dramatic cost savings, greater flexibility, enhanced safety and other benefits, especially for small- to medium-size airports where a control tower is cost prohibitive. There are nearly 20,000 airstrips in the US currently lacking physical towers that could one day be serviced by RVTs.”

Raytheon has chosen to partner with Frequentis on remote virtual tower technology in the US, because of their experience both overseas and with the US Department of Defense. The Raytheon program manager revealed the industry team is actively working to get a few civil remote virtual tower sites certified by the FAA to conduct air traffic operations in the National Airspace System.

Training implications of this quick-moving program? Rogers replied that most air traffic controllers will find supporting an RVT construct is intuitive, but there are some important differences that will require training. “For example, currently controllers are limited by their human eyes out the view of a window. In any RVT solution set up, multiple, redundant cameras will provide 360-degree panoramic views. These views will reflect visual surveillance of the airport surface and surrounding area.” The biggest challenges will involve depth-perception issues, but Raytheon has solutions using its STARS system that will help the controllers visualize air traffic in and around the airport to ensure they can safely de-conflict that traffic like they do today in a traditional setting. “Overall, we think controllers are going to appreciate the many advantages of the system, especially when they get used to the advanced pan-tilt-zoom cameras and sensor technology on the market today.”  

The Drone Management Training Imperative

Drugs by drone - Walgreens will make over-the-counter medicines available "within minutes" to opt-in residents in Christiansburg, Virginia, in partnership with FedEx and Wing Aviation. Image credit: Wing Aviation.
Drugs by drone - Walgreens will make over-the-counter medicines available "within minutes" to opt-in residents in Christiansburg, Virginia, in partnership with FedEx and Wing Aviation. Image credit: Wing Aviation.

The plate tectonics of global air traffic management systems shifted a bit quicker this summer with developments in the commercial drone market space. While there is an increasing pace of deliveries of unmanned air systems to diverse end users, two watershed developments add urgency to strengthening the ability of air traffic control professionals to allow the safe operation of drones in commercial air space.

In Europe, Switzerland jumped to the forefront of drone traffic management by starting a data-exchange system for authorizing flights of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). In August, Swiss air navigation service provider Skyguide announced that it switched on a flight information management system (FIMS) to authorize drone flights in controlled airspace near Geneva and Lugano airports. The FIMS deployment was the start of a planned nationwide UAS Traffic Network.

In September, in the US, it was announced Wing Aviation, an Alphabet (aka Google) company, is collaborating with FedEx and Walgreens (a pharmacy store chain) to launch a first-of-its-kind drone delivery service in Christiansburg, Virginia this October. The pilot program will explore methods to enhance last-mile delivery service, improve access to health care products, and create a new avenue of growth for local businesses.

Heretofore, drone delivery in the US has been limited to carefully scripted scenarios – small-scale demonstrations on designated sites, or extremely short flights along pre-planned, fixed routes – all within the visual line-of-sight of the drone operator. But earlier this year, Wing became the first drone operator to be certified as an air carrier by the FAA. The action allows Wing to deliver commercial goods to recipients that may be miles away. Wing’s pilot program in Virginia will be conducted as part of the US Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP).

Of no coincidence, Chris Rogers, Raytheon’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System Program Manager, told CAT that UASs are being addressed in his industry team’s rapidly evolving remote virtual tower program. He pointed out the transformation of the airspace with the advent of air taxis and increasing drone traffic will only make the skies more crowded. “In order to command the airspace safely and efficiently in communities both large and small, we’re going to need tower services at the 20,000 airstrips today across America that currently have nothing. Having RVT services at those airstrips will dramatically increase our ability to move drones and air taxis across the US. From there, the possibilities are endless.”

Sharon Cooke, CEO at Airways International, observed that with an average of two unauthorized drone sightings currently reported per week in New Zealand controlled airspace, it is critical that Airways has the ability to detect and track drones – particularly in the vicinity of major airports.

AirShare, a UAV traffic management system for New Zealand, is now being further developed to ensure the safe passage of aircraft in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Cooke said AirShare is a one-stop shop for drone pilots to plan flights, gain approvals, learn how to operate safely and access airspace maps – and in the future will provide real-time tracking and management of UAV activity and detection of UAVs in and around aerodrome control zones. As part of this development, in October 2018, Airways trialed two drone detection systems at Auckland International Airport to analyze and gain a deeper understanding of the technology.

Adacel’s MaxSim ATC simulation system comes complete with over 700 aircraft models, including drones. Mike Brady, Adacel’s Product Strategy Manager, noted MaxSim can simulate drone traffic in and around the airports and each customer can customize the lessons on how to manage drones in their airport’s airspace based on federal and local regulations. “This is particularly important with an increase in drone activity while trying to maintain safety in the air,” he concluded. – Marty Kauchak

Published in CAT issue 5/2019