The pandemic impact means that the worldwide shortage of air traffic controllers – in the near term at least – is no longer the industry hurdle it once was. Aimee Turner monitors ATC training developments.

The challenge now is keeping controllers current to ensure safe and continuous service and enabling them to continue their training in a safe environment. As many air navigation service providers (ANSP) turn to remote training approaches, tools are coming to the fore that provide a realistic imitation of the ATC environment from ab initio through to rating and conversion.

While the concept of remote interaction with students and distance learning have been around for some time, Greg Pile, managing director at UK-based ATC simulator specialist Micro Nav, points out that these delivery methodologies were often considered to be lacking. Attitudes are changing on the back of necessity, however.

Pile said he believes the renewed level of interest in the virtual training option is allowing solution providers to demonstrate that “done in the right way with the right kind of instructors and the right kind of course, it is very effective. In the current Covid era”, Pile noted, “the technology is catching up. It's also going to change our thinking for the future. We're no longer being constrained by geographical barriers, we're no longer constrained by political barriers and with the speed of the internet and the speed of technology development, I think it's just going to get better and better.”

Micro Nav offers advanced simulator applications, including testing, airspace research, procedure development and evaluations of any component of the flight service lifecycle, from gate to gate. Its BEST ATC simulation software is Micro Nav’s flagship product (Beginning to End for Simulation and Training). All its applications are built into a suite of tools which deliver the ability to train air traffic controllers for en route, approach and terminal surveillance, and all aspects of tower and apron. Capabilities feature voice communications, meteorological and information displays, airfield equipment monitoring, paper/electronic flight progress strips, speech recognition, and bespoke best-in-class 3D rendering.

Micro Nav’s BEST Remote supports collaboration by connecting multiple BEST ATC systems for remote training or joint simulation. It does so by taking all the features of BEST and extending the capabilities to allow simulations to run seamlessly, regardless of geographic location.

Micro Nav has successfully trialled and tested its capabilities on larger, commercially available Cloud platforms which means air traffic control training can be conducted without the need for the student and instructor to be at the same location. “There are different commercial models, but you could go with a simple pay-as-you-go model all the way to an organization setting up its own full private cloud,” said Pile.

These options mean a training provider could have its controllers working in the operations room, but have its pseudo-pilots and instructors anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. “They could be in the same country or in an adjacent continent. It doesn't really matter”, according to Pile.

New Zealand Virtual Classroom

Sharon Cooke said Covid-19 has brought the remote training approach into sharp focus. “We’ve been involved in e-learning for a number of years now, but I guess the specific difference during the pandemic is that we’ve defined the use case and the training outcomes that we’re looking for and then matching this vision to fit”.

Cooke is chief executive of Airways International, the training organisation within Airways New Zealand, the nation’s ANSP. Airways has been training its own air traffic controllers since 1950 and has worked with international ANSPs throughout the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, Europe and North America for more than 30 years, delivering consultancy services, training, courseware, instructors and student support.

TotalControl ATC Simulation delivers a real-world photographic visual environment, modern surveillance display and functions, geographically correct 3D terrain and a 3D pseudo-pilot interface. Airways International and Animation Research Ltd., New Zealand, first deployed TotalControl at the Airways training facility in Christchurch in 2006. Image credit: Airways International.

Alongside its Airways’ suite of eBooks, which focus on self-directed study where people can work at their own pace at any time, the other end of the spectrum is Airways’ virtual classroom system with its blended approach of independent and supervised activities.

Cooke says the advent of Covid-19 has meant a far greater reliance on the blended approach and detects a tangible culture shift within what is a highly regulated industry. “In terms of remote training and e-learning, tertiary education is 30 years ahead as they’ve been doing it for a long time. What has changed is the fact that we have opened our minds to it, we’ve become receptive to the possibilities. And we’ve probably surprised ourselves in terms of what we can do, how effective it has been because we have had to. We’ve had customers come in and engage with our virtual training academy. At the outset they were anxious and nervous but by the end they loved it”.

Remote and Immersive

Both Pile and Cooke note that remote training approaches have yet to address the valued immersive element outside the classroom which has always been a feature enjoyed by ATC students sent to English-language-speaking countries for their training. “I do wonder how we get over that challenge”, mulled Pile. Added Cooke, “You can't take away the socialisation aspect of face-to-face and engaging with people”.

Both remote training approaches may receive a boost; industry providers would need to address the sustainability agenda and justify the dispatch of cohorts of students overseas when remote alternatives have become a more accepted alternative.

“Remote training will evolve”, said Cooke, “and we will keep doing it if we get successful training outcomes and the results we want. I think the future will be blended where we’ll still have some face-to-face even though it’s really expensive bringing people off the roster and sending them somewhere to the training academy, even for a couple of hours”.

Cooke said she believes remote training is here to stay and that its advent will challenge providers in identifying potential use cases and applying remote alternatives where they fit. “In terms of the changes, I think we’ll see more live training on mobile devices. I think we’ll see more flexibility. People will be able to do it anytime, anywhere. It won’t have to be so structured”.

For Pile, the greatest barrier to this training method is not a technology barrier. “Actually, it’s about challenging the established mindset about how secure systems are. The ATM industry has air gap systems which means that some systems are not connected to the internet while, for example, across the global banking industry the technology and security standards are fairly standardised and common”.

He said he believes the ATM world is definitely catching up as the global pandemic has forced it to move forward: “We have definitely seen people become more open-minded to the use of the technology and they have been changing their policies in the short term to get over the security hurdle. Now that they’ve done that and the world has proved that things do continue to operate and things have not stopped, it is becoming normal”.

But what are the factors that could impact the quality of a virtual training experience, bearing in mind the need for safety? And what about human factors? How do training providers judge the success of the quality of this type of training?

Cooke says a training provider has to ask what is its vision for teaching and learning and what is the problem it has to solve? It is only then that they can start thinking about the platform, tools and applications that will be required in addition to what sort of evaluation methods are to be used.

Then there is the governance structure, integration with other systems, the human factors, how will you train your instructors to develop and deliver online courses? And what about the technical support that you will need?  “Trust me”, Cooke insisted, “it doesn’t take long before you need some help and technical support”.

And then what about your instructional design methodology? What kind of experience do you want to provide? What’s a good fit for your audience? Is it self-directed? Is it an online, any time or is it structured, is it instructor-led?

“And then how do you go about building the course sites? How do you get your interactive content? How do you make sure that you’ve got all the elements and the components that you need for this e-learning experience?” asked Cooke.

“Then you’ve got to think about the governance and the quality assurance requirements. So how do you protect your IP, your permissions, do you need user acceptance testing before you go live? Again, what’s your assessment methodology? How can you look the regulator in the eye and tell them that you can authenticate the results and that this person is competent and thus safe”?

While the menu of design requirements is exhaustive, both Pile and Cooke are convinced that the way forward for the industry is to not forget the mistakes that have been made through this process. “It’s not been a perfect journey”, Pile pointed out, “but we have to consider that the world has changed, and people have taken advantage of the ability to do things differently. It doesn’t mean that those different methodologies, be it the technology or process or even the way that we engage with each other is only specific to Covid. Coming out of Covid, we're still looking to implement more and more of this methodology going forward”.

Cooke agreed: “The way forward is to grab with both hands the things that worked really well and make the cultural change because we know we can. It doesn’t mean that we can’t reach back and take the things from the past that we missed and loved, but bring it together for the future and, you know, we should never waste a crisis to make a step change. Right”?