Dynamic training safeguarding ATM


Micro Nav explores how innovation in ATM training is ensuring the industry remains safe and efficient.

Importance of training

Safety in air traffic management is the be all and end all. It is maintained through the skill and expertise of individuals controlling air traffic, from push back to stand arrival.

The importance of training in this process is undeniable, and it continues through to ensuring highly skilled controllers maintain these skills, their competence and confidence, to be able to deal with any situation from routine to abnormal and emergency situations. This provides the best base to ensure an efficient air traffic control (ATC) operation, offering airlines a smooth and safe service.

Training an individual from ab initio through to operational controller takes time and resources, and not every trainee will have the required skill and disposition to complete their journey. Classroom training, plus real-world immersion through shadowing and working under supervision, is an effective method of training, but takes a considerable amount of time, putting pressure on operational resources. It does not offer the opportunity to train for unusual and emergency situations, times when the skills and character of a controller are put to the test, and practice and experience in handling these situations will support the best management of such a situation.

This is where simulation capabilities offer an effective tool, to address training challenges in a cost-efficient way.

Air traffic control (ATC) simulators have been providing air navigation service providers (ANSPs), airports, academic establishments and the military with a high-fidelity training tool for decades, replicating real world scenarios, including a range of unusual and emergency scenarios, in a safe environment. These tools have been used in ab initio training, as well as ensuring validated controllers maintain their skills and familiarity with procedures and situations rarely required in their day-to-day operation, as well as assessing ongoing competencies.

Overcoming challenges

Until recently, there was a global shortage of air traffic controllers (ATCO), with ANSPs under increasing pressure to have enough valid controllers to keep up with the existing, and indeed growing, demand. Resources were tight across the board, with controllers on operational rota, supporting students through on-the-job training (OJT), whilst under the ever-present cost pressures. ANSPs with ATC simulation capabilities were not always able to fully utilise the technology available to them due to staffing constraints, with other ANSPs lacking in funding to invest in simulation technology and equipment.

The arrival of the global pandemic has had a hugely detrimental impact on many industries, including aviation. With the unprecedented drop in air traffic, the shortage of controllers of late is no longer the immediate challenge.

Instead, with traffic having reduced worldwide 80-90% a new challenge has presented itself. Training is paramount to maintain the controllers’ skills, and their ability to deal with the usual amount of traffic. With the traffic radically reduced, controllers have been operating what would be considered less than a typical night shift of traffic for months, meaning there is a real and acute danger of skill fade, including reduction in competence, throughout the controller community. This will undoubtedly negatively affect trainee ATCOs working through their OJT, coupled with the challenge of social distancing requirements.

As traffic starts picking up again, a question of when not if, demand for controllers will once again increase. At this time, many controllers will not have been on rota at the same levels as before. With traffic, once recovered, at around 50% of their pre-COVID capacity at the time of writing this article, it will be essential to ensure controllers being brought back into operation do so at the right level of competence and confidence in order to deliver safely.

In addition to the human challenge, ANSPs are facing huge financial pressures. The reduction in air traffic impacted revenue, and much, if not most training was immediately suspended, with licence validity periods extended by regulators.

Technology and solutions

Access to ATC simulation could be a key to success and survival for ANSPs during these times. In the current environment, with the traffic levels we are seeing, it is very difficult to train and maintain skills outside a simulated environment, where scenarios can be created replicating more ‘normal’ traffic situations, including a variety of different scenarios, including ABES.

Keeping controllers current, confident and competent is one challenge, ensuring trainees continue their journey to becoming operational controllers, whilst business is under huge financial strain and pandemic related restrictions, is another.

The importance and role that technology plays in ATC training has been widely covered. ATC simulators, for many, play a major role in training controllers from ab initio through to validation, rating, refresher and abnormal and emergency situations.

Although the value of technology is widely acknowledged, its importance has taken a new dimension during these times. Furthermore, remote working has taken on a new dimension. Not just within aviation, most organisations around the world are making use of our global connectivity and moving to remote working where possible.

As it becomes apparent that working remotely, or distanced from one another, will be a necessary method of working for the immediate future, technology is being increasingly utilised to support training. A range of providers are offering online training from courses to simulation access, including state-of-the-art air traffic control simulators that can replicate the pre-COVID environment.

Adapting to support the industry

At the start of the pandemic, remote working was quickly adopted by everyone at Micro Nav. Not only did our staff transition to a cloud-based environment in matter of days, but the company’s ATC simulation software was quickly adapted to suit the online environment. This external event became the catalyst for change within the business, and forced us to bring forward our planned product update to greatly improve the existing remote simulator functions.

Micro Nav’s BEST (Beginning to End for Simulation and Training) ATC simulation software had been available on a private cloud to support its customers wanting to share resources, including remote piloting, for many years. Realising the need to be able to access simulation capabilities remotely at a larger scale led to the quick turnaround of making the BEST simulation software available on commercial cloud platforms, e.g. Azure, thus only requiring basic off the shelf PC hardware and an internet connection to be able to access full ATC training functionality any time, from anywhere.

To support its customers, Micro Nav issued free licences to customers as part of their support package, enabling them to continue their work on data preparation and exercise creation but from home.

In partnership with CANSO, Micro Nav offered free access to member ANSPs, enabling them to use simulation capability to conduct proficiency, emergency and refresher training. The consequent feedback showed ANSPs focusing primarily on upper airspace and approach sectors, and some pre-OJT training, with smaller usage of the tower features. The feedback received so far has been positive, with ANSPs normally unfamiliar with Micro Nav’s ATC simulation software, commenting on its realism, flexibility, user friendly interface and ease of use.

Considerations for the future

The pandemic has caused a great shift in the way people work, including delivering training, with a move to online and remote learning seen across many industries. Although the benefits of face-to-face teaching are undeniable, advances in technology enabling secure, fast, cost effective remote training, provides a new era of flexible training delivery that is likely to continue long after the need to socially distance has passed. The increased accessibility to cloud-based tools, including Micro Nav’s ATC simulation capabilities, means that training can be accessed from anywhere at any time.

With the pandemic forcing these changes in working practices, the benefits of these will highlight the range of possibilities. This includes the realisation that face-to-face is not always needed, whether this is for meetings, presentations, or training, removing the additional cost and time otherwise spent on travel, accommodation, subsistence, and time off operational duty in order to participate in training courses. This will have a positive impact on the drive for more sustainable working, lessening the environmental impact.

Another area that is being more widely considered, is looking at the business models used in the aviation industry. It has become evident that ANSPs provide a critical service which should not be dependent on income from air traffic, as this would leave it vulnerable in times of crisis without government support.

The ATM industry is dependent on highly skilled people. Fluctuations in demand create an unstable environment and challenges in providing a reliable and safe service. If dynamic training tools can be utilised to support the demand for controllers, whilst at the same time looking into a greater level of automation, this could ultimately result in a lower dependency on skilled professionals, and thus provide a more robust solution for a volatile environment. Key to this could be ANSPs being prepared to invest in such enabling technology, such as a the cloud-based ATC simulation tool, in order to be able to scale up or down provisions of training, ensuring the availability of ATCOs to meet a less unpredictable demand due to external factors.

Making a difference

Making a positive difference to the world through simulation is Micro Nav’s mission. Following some rapid changes to Micro Nav’s ATC simulation software, it was made available via the Cloud, and, in partnership with CANSO, was offered free of charge to CANSO’s ANSP members. Having access to a dynamic training tool, providing the flexible options of face-to-face or remote training, will help safeguard the ATM industry to meet the demands in challenging situations.

In times of crisis, we must be resilient and flexible to survive, and the ATM industry has shown a great camaraderie which Micro Nav has had the privilege to play a small part in supporting.