After two years of mostly virtual meetings, virtual training capabilities were all around the WATS live exhibit floor. Halldale writer Ken Storey checked out some of the new showcases. 

The return to normalcy at WATS is a welcome sign for Thor Paulli Andersen. In late 2019, Andersen co-founded a new virtual reality pilot training studio, VRpilot, in Lystrup, Denmark. Reflecting back on everything that has occurred since launching the company, Andersen remained optimistic. “It's been good and bad, honestly. Of course, it's been a challenge because the industry has been suffering. It's been difficult to get out and meet customers. But on the other hand, the pandemic has really opened the eyes of the industries to alternative solutions, and really changed the mindset of everyone when it comes to remote work.” 

Thor isn’t alone in his optimism regarding new avenues for connectivity and virtual training. The crash course in virtual connectivity of the past two years is now opening new doors to improved learning options while also staying relevant with the demands of a shifting workforce. VR headsets, flight simulators, and work-from-home options have dramatically reshaped aviation training programs. With specialized hardware, each of these tools often sat disconnected from one another, but a new wave of interoperability between technology platforms is allowing a level of collaboration that was unattainable until very recently. 

Even as the world moves to more digital connectivity, a fusion of technologies is needed to ensure users can easily navigate between their various smart devices. “We realize that VR is a great technology, AR is a great technology, and then computer applications, in general, have been a great technology. However, we needed a way to bring all of those together because each one has unique features that help a student learn,” explains Dolores Garcia Lowe, a Senior Systems Architect at Cole Engineering Services, Inc. (CESI). The Orlando, Florida-based company has nearly two decades of experience in simulation and training, but with improvements in technology and growing demands for more virtual options, CESI is now looking for ways to merge previously siloed platforms while meeting the new demands for virtual options. “Our commercial aviation augmented reality toolkit brings all of them together; you can have a student in VR, you can have a student on a desktop on an application, you can have a student sitting in his dorm room in Google, and then you can have a student actually out in the field.” 

This connectivity from the moment a student begins their training is something that Garcia Lowe thinks will stick with the student throughout their career. “If they get stuck, even out in the field, they can phone a friend through the augmented reality.” She added, “The AR technology allows you not only to work on something and be able to reach back [through the learning materials], if you encounter something unfamiliar you have the ability to reach out to someone more experienced than you or someone else who knows what you're working on and help you.” 

The rise in digital tools also opens up new opportunities for data tracking. After becoming a leader in data analytics for the entertainment industry, one Nashville, Tennessee company is now looking to use its research tools on the aviation training industry. “We've been around 16 years; we started in the entertainment space. We're in Nashville and have an office in LA,” explains Gamma Blast Studios Chief Opportunity and Happiness Officer, Liz Denning. “What's interesting is that a lot of the movie studios have been doing this sort of content gathering for years. So we had some folks that were well versed in that. We then applied that to aviation.” Denning continued, “We think that is what's missing in terms of aviation. Companies can direct their training into specific areas. You don't have to train blanket wide. Everyone’s moving away from this whole blanket approach. You can say this group of pros doesn't understand something; we can go in and focus on that area specifically. It's very targeted, pinpointed.” 

With nearly real-time processing and feedback, another first-time exhibitor to WATS founded in the months prior to the pandemic showcased how technology can allow for training in ways unattainable not that long ago. “PlaneEnglish [West Lafayette, Indiana] is a relatively new company. We’ve been around for about three years. This is our first time at an event of this size. We have developed an aviation radio simulator. It is a simulator dedicated to training pilots how to communicate with air traffic control,” explains PlaneEnglish President and Co-founder Muharrem Mane. Through real-time feedback, the app trains users on aviation radio communication. “We provide them enough visual information and scenario description to enable them to press the mic, talk to air traffic control, make their request, or request their clearance. We score that and provide immediate feedback on how they did. It's a simulator with a built-in training curriculum and dashboard learning management system.” While there are more extensive options for training schools, the company began with a smartphone app that remains its primary offering. Working with training schools, the company developed a dashboard where instructors can track student performance, allowing for more precise and timely data.

The shift isn’t just on the software side: Epic Games, the studio behind the revolutionary Unreal Engine 3D environment creation tool, showed how the rapid evolution occurring on the software side is mirrored on the hardware side. The Antoinette Project is Epic’s move to bring more open access to the flight simulator and aviation training industries. With the release of Unreal Engine 5, Epic believes they have a real-time 3D creation tool able to meet the intense demands of the aviation training industry. Using their signature open access, Epic launched the Antoinette Project as a way to bridge the gulf between the gaming industries they’re more known for and traditional aviation training. The Antoinette Project is a set of tools for flight simulator developers to use in their development. It includes a DIY handbook for those interested in building a flight simulator, a JSBSim plugin for Unreal Engine, and Trends and Analysis report. With a proof-of-concept flight simulator on display at WATS, Epic showed how even what was once one of the most expensive aspects of training is now being impacted by new virtual tools.

This fusion between physical and virtual training was seen throughout the show. Manchester, UK-based EDM has a history in physical training. That heritage was seen with one of their latest offerings, a physical fire training kit that’s a mock-up of commercial aircraft. “It's a containerized real fire trainer using LPG-fed fires. It can do overhead bin, under seat, galley, and lavatory fires; all controlled from a central instructor-operated station and a tablet,” explains James Bird, Head of Civil Aviation Sales at EDM. But alongside the physical training tools sat a slew of VR training offerings. “We can do aircraft door trainer, fire and smoke trainer. Then these will push an email PDF report to the instructors and see how well the trainees did whether they passed or failed, and what they need to work on.” 

This mix of proven physical training alongside digital training tools is one that Thor Paulli Andersen acknowledges is here to stay. “VR is good for certain things and bad for other things. There is no doubt that there will be a need for the physical in the future. But we believe that you can move a lot of the training objectives into cost-effective devices like VR. While also maintaining more flexibility with your training.” Like many at WATS, Anderson believes these alternative solutions can help address issues facing the industry as it moves ahead. “We're experiencing a big ramp up in the hiring of new pilots, and we have a huge need for training. That's what we're here to support with these new efficient training tools.”