Simulation in the aviation industry conjures up images of commercial airline pilots clocking up hundreds of training hours in sophisticated flight simulators. However look behind the scenes into the world of air traffic control and you will find arguably some of the most highly advanced simulation technology in the world, used to train those who keep the world’s skies safe.
Air traffic control trainees and rated controllers use air traffic control simulators to hone and refresh their skills in a highly realistic representation of the real world. Scenarios played out in the simulator mimic real-world traffic, weather, physical environment, and conditions – helping trainees to learn faster and rate faster, significantly reducing their on-job training time.
At Airways New Zealand we use our highly realistic TotalControl air traffic simulators for every aspect of training, from the ab-initio (ATC trainee) stage through to senior operational levels. We developed our own state-of-the-art simulation technology from the ground up to meet Airways’ training needs, and our advanced simulators are now in use by ATC students and controllers around the globe, from South Africa to Spain to Lebanon.
The Journey to TotalControl Simulation
Airways New Zealand’s venture into the world of highly advanced air traffic control simulation started in 2005when the organisation began a global search for a simulation solution to meet its requirements. Our quest proved unsuccessful, so we partnered with 3D graphics experts Animation Research Ltd to develop our own customised ATC simulator to meet our needs and those of our international customers. The TotalControl simulator was born.
TotalControl is renowned globally as one of the most visually realistic ATC simulators on the market. Our simulator experts based in New Zealand continue to push the boundaries, as ATC simulation technology quickly develops and evolves – it’s certainly a far cry from the model aircraft used in the very early days of ATC simulation.
The Early Days
In the days before computer technology was able to provide anything of benefit in the training of new controllers, ATC simulation consisted of a series of model aircraft on strings and coat hangers, suspended over a model airfield on a table. There was a heavy reliance on the instructor’s ability to explain concepts and procedures, and students required a good degree of imagination.
Training by these methods had limited benefit, and on-the-job training (OJT) took many months longer than it does now. Controllers spent countless hours learning about every corner of their airspace and the various complexities within, during their on-job training time in an operational environment. The risks associated with training in an operational setting are vast and obvious, in an industry where the safety is of utmost priority.
The Critical Role of ATC Simulators Today
The information and technology boom of the last few decades has supported the advancement of ATC simulation – full system simulations and high fidelity environment and weather modelling have become the new standard.
OJT occurs much later in the training process, and the simulator plays a prominent and significant role in the training of new controllers.
Simulation allows instructors to create real-time traffic scenarios, helping students to develop the required skills, knowledge and experience they need to reduce their OJT time. Pause, rewind and playback functionality in simulators allow instructors to replay a complex scenario as many times as their students require. Simulators are also used to validate new procedures, evaluate airspace changes, and to conduct recurring training.
Tower (or Aerodrome) Simulation
Where a flight simulator imitates the view from a cockpit, an ATC tower simulator imitates the view from the air traffic control tower at an aerodrome. This includes replicating the environment as realistically as possible and includes:
- Weather modelling
- Night and day operations
- Aircraft modelling and flight performance
- Emulation of important systems such as lighting panels, communications displays and electronic flight strips.
To achieve a simulator that provides an “out the window” highly realistic view for ATC trainees, Airways’ TotalControl simulator utilises a combination of high fidelity panoramic photographs captured from the control tower. These graphics are then integrated with 3D terrain data to create 3D generated models of the entire aerodrome environment, complete with aircraft and dynamic local weather events.
When simulating for a radar control position, there are two options – simulated, or stimulated radar. With TotalControl we use simulated radar for our ab-initio (trainee) ATC students – this mimics the operational environment for the purposes of training, allowing for more control and customisation over the simulation.
When training our Airways operational staff in the simulator we use a stimulated radar system, where TotalControl generates all required simulated data (aircraft positions, weather etc.) and integrates that data with existing operational hardware. Students are then able to learn on the exact system they use in the operational environment, which has been a huge benefit for our operational staff at Airways.
Resolving Industry Challenges
Air traffic control simulators are helping to alleviate a number of aviation industry challenges – one of the most critical being a growing global shortage of ATCs amid the context of the significant cost of training. The message from our ANSP customers is clear – highly realistic simulation technology is important to them as they seek to reduce the time and cost of their training, and they’re looking for more choice in how ATC training is delivered.
By coupling TotalControl with other digital training tools such as AirBooks, our library of cloud-based interactive e-learning resources, we’re helping our students to learn faster and rate faster. New technology and simulation allows our students to learn anywhere, any time and at any pace.
Thanks to the flexibility and portability of TotalControl, we’re also able to resolve issues around delivering training to a dispersed workforce. TotalControl Mobile Simulators can now be deployed to each ATC tower to deliver training on location, significantly minimising the impact to the operational roster and reducing the cost of training. The operation and interfaces are the same, whether it’s run on a laptop of a full 360-degree projector simulator – so there’s no need for re-training when moving between different types of simulators.
What does the future look like for ATC simulation?
As the simulated representation of aerodromes and air traffic scenarios becomes more and more realistic, it’s not entirely inconceivable to think that air traffic controllers may one day be fully certified from simulator time alone. In the shorter term, we can certainly expect the required on-the-job training time to further reduce in comparison to time in the simulator.
As for our TotalControl experts at Airways, they’re always looking to the future. As digital towers technology gains momentum internationally, we’re keeping a close eye on developments so we can ensure our people – and our simulation technology – are ready to train the next generation of controllers.