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Air Traffic Controller Education Using Training Simulator

Various aspects of air traffic control technical systems are discussed, in particular the eCoach training simulator and how it can be utilized.

Using an Existing ATC System for Training


For a lot of reasons, it is important that the air traffic control simulation environment is as close to the operational environment as possible. The ultimate solution is therefore to actually use the same ATC system for operations and training. The architecture of eCoach allows this to happen.
 
eCoach ATC Simulator Overview
Figure 1: eCoach ATC Simulator Overview
 

Background

Sometimes an operational ATC system comes with its own air traffic data generator (ATG) for simulation use. If the data produced is close to reality, and the piloting interface is efficient and with enough functionality, this will be a useful solution. However, it might also lack important features:
  1. Tower simulation – can the data from the ATG be used for graphic presentation in order to replicate the view from a tower working position?
  2. Is it efficient to produce and maintain training scenarios?  Also considering that the airspace changes from time to time?
If any of the above represent a problem, it is in fact possible to use a plain copy of the operational system in a simulator installation, and attach an eCoach simulator for exercise preparations, simulated data production (ATG), piloting, and 3D tower presentations – 3D tower presentation is a part of the simulator system even if it is located together with the ATCO, ref. the figure above. The following explains how this is possible.

Interfaces

With reference to the blog article What is an eCoach ATC Simulator, where the overview drawing is repeated above for convenience: Observe the connection between the green Simulator System to the left and the red ATC System to the right; This connection is of vital importance. It represents the data traffic between the ATC System and its surroundings. In an operational installation, the data come from radars and other sources which are there to report on the real world situation. The ATC system’s task is to present these data to the air traffic controller. The key point is that if the Simulator System (i.e. the Air Traffic Data Generator) follows the same data formats as the operational equipment, the ATC System will not be able to distinguish between real world data and simulated data.
Vital interfaces are:
  1. ASTERIX – protocols for surveillance information exchange.
  2. AFTN – for flight plans, weather reports, weather forecasts, and more.
  3. OLDI – for electronic transfer of flights from one ATC unit to the next.
  4. Timing information, handled by e.g. NTP.
The interfaces need to be clean, i.e. as used operationally, otherwise the communication will not work. For example, if the ATC system is really a simulator system based on an existing ATC system, the interfaces to the traffic data generator might have been altered for special purposes. In this case, the operational version of the software needs to be used instead. This might in turn take away the possibility to run several exercises in parallel without special arrangements.

Databases

Two collections of data are mandatory for the system to work:
  1. Aeronautical information, like SIDs, STARs, point names, routes, airspace borders, and a lot more.
  2. Flight plan data.
Both the simulator side and the ATC system side needs to work against these data, so they need to be synchronized:
Aeronautical Information
If two separate systems are put together – again, consider the illustration above and that the Simulator System and the ATC System are from different suppliers – they will not work against the same database. This creates a need for synchronizing so that the aeronautical information at the two sides are equal at all times. “Equal” meaning similar contents even though the data can be organized differently. This can be achieved by using the AIXM if both sides support it. It will of course be a maintenance task to keep the two sides equal and up to date at all times, but AIXM can make this task a lot easier.
Flight Plan Data
Flight plan data processing (FDPS) follows a lot of rules. For example, a new flight plan will be rejected by the ATC FDPS if it exists in the database already. This will be a problem if e.g. an exercise is stopped and started again – the simulator side will send flight plans over simulated AFTN, but the ATC side FDPS database might still keep them from the previous run. This introduces needs for ways to e.g. clear the FDPS database at the ATC side before an exercise is started. In summary: The two sides need to be compatible regarding flight plan data processing. The same will apply to e.g. TAF messages, if relevant for the simulations.

Timing

The time is an important parameter in ATC and needs to be under strict control. This applies to two levels:
  1. Each computer in the system should have its clock synchronized with the other computers in the system. Both the simulator side and the ATC system side should all follow the same master clock. As described above, this can be achieved by using NTP.
  2. The mentioned clock needs to correspond to the exercise data, e.g. flight plans; As mentioned above, ATC FDPS follows a lot of rules and many of them involves time. Thus, the simulator side should keep the master clock and all computers should synchronize against it.
This is not necessarily the final solution for a specific installation, but the key point is that timing control is mandatory for both sides of the interface, and that the ATC system needs to adapt to timing as dictated by the simulator side.

VCS

The eCoach ATC simulator can be delivered with an optional eCoach Voice Communication System, as shown in yellow in the figure above. This can run integrated with or independent from the rest of the system. It can also be omitted completely and replaced with a VCS system already available at the premises. If so, both the ATC System and the VCS system will be the same as in the operational situation.
eCoach Simulator Solution
As a summary, we can see that eCoach can be used in a wide variety of installations; Available operational components can be used, or the eCoach counterpart is available as an option. Note that this implies a solution to at least two more areas of great concern to many ANSPs:
  1. Testing of new operational software: If a copy of the operational ATC system (with a minimum of working positions) are installed as shown in the figure above, new software releases can be tested against simulator exercises specially made for test cases. A high degree of test automation can be achieved. 
  2. Replacement of the operational ATC system: The new ATC system can be tested against the same simulator exercises for verification that data formats and functionality are working in the new system. When all is tested OK, controllers can start training in the new system while the current system is still in operation. Possibly while incrementally adding more working positions.
 
However, if the installation is for sole training purposes, be aware that for reasons explained in How to Acquire an ATC Training Simulator, it might in fact be more cost-efficient to purchase the whole package, including the ATC part. The ATC work environment of the COTS simulator might be adaptable to become close enough to the operational environment.

 
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Tuesday, 17 October 2017