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2020/10/19

LARA Magazine | Sensing Reality

By Michael Doran
LARA - Vol 37 No 5 October / November 2020

Back in 2019, when Airbus forecast a demand for 550,000 new pilots by 2038, the flight simulation business looked like a happy place to be. Then the pandemic arrived. Michael Doran talks to major simulator players – CAE, MPS and SIMLOC – and discovers it’s still a happy place to be as they continue to develop exciting technologies to make pilot training more immersive and effective. 

While industry debates which flight simulation training devices produce the best outcomes, Montreal-based CAE’s portfolio of a suite of simulators gives it a good overview of what technology is proving most effective.

In the past few years CAE has seen increased demand for flight training devices (FTD) from customers who had traditionally focused on full-flight simulators (FFS) which CAE’s Director of Product Management, Stephane Selim, says was driven by the increased demand for pilot training and the need to get new cadets into the system.

“There were not enough full-flight simulators or the room for new ones, so the FTD was a good compromise to conduct part of the initial training on procedures, cockpit familiarisation and preparing for the full-flight session,” he tells LARA.

“If we look at our XR suite we have the 7000XR for full-flight, the 400, 500 and 600XR FTDs and the Virtual Trainer used in classroom training,” he explains. “They are complementary so the mix of devices can be adapted to the reality of an airline’s training programme and the way they like to train.”

Selim, who has been with CAE since 1997, says that there was a time when customers wanted to have an FTD with the same design and features as the full-flight simulator but without the motion, in effect ‘to have the legs cut-off’.

“We used to do that, but it was a really expensive offer to have an FFS designed to go into motion but never going into motion,” he says. “Today, the FTD 600XR is offering an exact replica of the cockpit and the same simulation fidelity as the FFS but can perform around 80% of all the events that we can do on the FFS as you don’t have motion.”

A challenge for simulator makers is to keep their devices current by incorporating new technology advancements as they emerge, and CAE has done that by basing its system around a modular framework. 

“I would say this is why the 7000XR FFS still has a lot of capacity to bring the simulation to another level towards the limits of what we can do with simulation,” Selim says. 

Because it’s so advanced we can develop new simulations with the same technology for new aircraft types, such as the 777X, and these are always more demanding in terms of computing power and fidelity.”

CAE believes the big difference will come from using data analytics and artificial intelligence to understand what the pilot is doing in the simulator to make feedback and training more objective.

Analysing the data from a session will help the pilot see exactly the reasons why, for example, they were close to having a tail strike or why they deviated so much from the centre line rather than just telling them that they did those things, which can then become a subjective evaluation.

“We can see what they were looking at, what controls they were using or how hard are they pushing the rudder, and all these things are picked up and analysed by the system so the instructor can tell the pilot ‘this is why you deviated so much from the centre line’."

With a full suite of products, CAE is well-positioned to take advantage of any opportunities post-pandemic but there is still the spectre of pilot layoffs and apprehensive students pushing down demand to contend with.

"We know the demand for training equipment is really intricately linked to aircraft deliveries and we see airlines changing aircraft types now, for example the A220 is getting more popular,” says Selim. “We also see air traffic is recovering and we have statistics that show that the number of pilots training in simulators is closely connected to passenger traffic.”

 

NO-MOTION SOLUTION

Multi Pilot Simulations (MPS) produces a range of fixed-base simulators, including the A320 and B737 and an advanced generic jet used for multi-crew cooperation training and transitioning to airline operations.

MPS describes its FTD as a full-flight simulator without motion for a fraction of the cost and all but 16 hours of type-rating credits can be trained on the device.

MPS CEO Philip Adrian, formerly a 737 Captain and Chief Pilot Regulatory Strategy at Boeing, is passionate about pilot training and tells LARA that the starting point has to be the training objective you want to reach to then identify the requirements the tool must meet, not allow the tools to drive the task.

“I come from the training side and what we’re looking at is providing the highest level of training credits and flexibility we can give,” he says. “We use an actual airplane cockpit so everything for us is about the proper location, proper hand-eye coordination and we achieved that through using Airbus and Boeing material that was originally in an airplane.”

MPS initially aimed its simulators at training organisations and, while they are still important, Adrian says MPS is increasing its presence at airlines. “Ryanair is a customer and we have recent sales to Jet2 and Norwegian and we are very close to signing a major US carrier on the 737 MAX simulator.”

The Middle East is also a growing market, and this year MPS announced the sale of an A320 FTD-2 to Alpha Aviation Academy UAE for its training centre at Sharjah International Airport. This order supplements the previously installed A320 FTD at Alpha Aviation Group in Clark, Philippines.

Oman Aviation Academy, the first academy for civil and military aviation training in the country, has ordered a 737 MAX device to conduct programmes including the fully integrated EASA Airline Transport Pilot Training Program.

While the FTD simulators are mostly used for type-rating training, more customers are using it for re-qualification training for pilots who have lost currency due to the lack of flying duties.

 

JUST MY TYPE

A lot of our devices are now used for those pilots that have lost their currency and, before they go into a recurrent check, they use our device to get more comfortable and get their competency up,” he explains. “So, it’s used for a variety of training but the main reason for many organisations to purchase these devices is for type-rating support.”

It is not long ago that shortages of instructors was an issue in pilot training and, in response, MPS developed its ‘instructor-less’ training initiative, which Adrian says is not available on a full-flight simulator.

“What we have invented is a training device that can provide pre-set training and through a level of artificial intelligence we can actually have that training graded by the system where two pilots go in there without an instructor,” he says. “We’re also integrating eye-tracking technology into our simulator to ensure the instructor, who normally looks at it from behind the heads of the students, also has an insight into what the students are actually doing, touching and feeling.”.

Extra capabilities like these are not represented in the regulator certifications so this approach enables MPS to equip its simulators with extra capabilities within the same certification level.

At Ryanair, the instructorless training has become a motivating force where pilots can take part in challenges, like the best engine-out departure, that the system grades their performance on.

“You see that 98% of the Ryanair pilots that have done the remote instructorless training want to do it again and the simulator is used not as a compliance tool but more an option for pilots to improve themselves and that’s a game changer right there.” 

 

MORE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

Spanish company Simloc specialises in the fixed-base simulator market and produces both cockpit and cabin simulators from its base in Madrid. The simulators can be used for training from cadet to MPL and ATPL levels, including type-rating and recurrent training.

Currently, it produces an A320 simulator and its CEO, Carlos Pérez Ramírez, is planning to add 737 and Regional Jet types to his range, as he believes the regional market has big potential.

“Simloc is a company that likes to innovate, to see the future differently and that’s why our approach to the FTD is unique, where we have created our own technology to have full control,” he explains to LARA. 

“Training is going to be focused more on real life, so we want the real experience in the simulator to give evidence-based training, that’s the future of training.”

Because no two customers are the same, Simloc prides itself on its willingness to adapt products, and Ramírez says it can do this because it is not relying on any third-party for hardware or software.

“We have a standard but normally prefer to adapt solutions and because we have a great group of engineers, we are continually increasing the technology level of the simulator,” he explains. “We always try to partner somehow with our customers because their feedback is key to product evolution.”

What stands out is Ramírez’s vision to build more situational awareness into simulation training and create a realistic, fully immersive space in the cockpit. He wants Simloc to provide better ground training for students starting out by removing all the typical PC systems used today and replacing them with immersive technology.

“This connectivity is really important for the future so you can mix the real-life with the simulated life and this is where we are going more and more. We are investing in eye-tracking, artificial intelligence, and better solutions for debriefing, so we are continuing to grow the product."

“We will have dynamic ATC so you speak directly to the simulator, you switch the frequency, get your clearances, declare Mayday and so on, so it’s really immersive, which is something unique in this level of simulator,” he says. “We want eye-tracking to show where the student is looking, so we are going to surround the simulator with effective tools to make a very realistic experience."

“When I first tried this, it was very different and you feel your brain shrink when you need to keep attention to someone that is talking to you in real traffic, so you feel uncomfortable because it’s more realistic. So, the focus in Simloc is the training, not just the machine but the outcome that you’re going to have.”

Looking beyond COVID, Ramírez expects that once flights start to increase, the demand on simulator training will increase – in the short term – as pilots will use them to get their regulatory and licence status back into shape.

“Maybe FFS demand will reduce in the future but the FTD is an efficient solution and we have an opportunity now in the market to face that,” he says. “I also expect demand for our Flight Simulation as a Service (FlightSaaS) to grow, because of the [stretched] financial situation that all the companies are facing makes investment difficult.”

Simloc’s FlightSaaS programme gives customers flexible options for acquiring a simulator, either through a periodic payment by earning income through the sale of hours or through a collaborative partnership with everis ADS (an NTT Data company) sharing both ownership and operations.
 


IF THE CAP FITS – FFS or FTD?

A full-flight simulator costs around US$15 million while a flight training device that is virtually the same, minus the motion, costs around $1.5 million. Today, an FTD can do around 90-95% of an airline’s training needs and there is a lively debate that the training outcomes can be met by either device.

Stephane Selim from CAE says it’s a debate of philosophies and that some believe the FFS motion brings much value and others think because it does not replicate motion 100% accurately it is not worth having at all. “I believe the motion system is required and all these years have proven that the motion cues increase the immersion experience and I think having the maximum level of immersion really helps the pilot increase the effectiveness of the training.”

Although Philip Adrian of MPS believes strongly that the FTD can deliver all the training effectively, he is quick to point out the debate is not about undermining the FFS to favour the FTD. “We’re trying to open the regulatory framework to allow better training to take place, whether it takes place in an FFS, FTD or by tapping you on the head with a teaspoon three times! If you can prove it leads to an acceptable or better result, the regulatory framework should let you do that. It should look at a competency achievement and however that competency is achieved should become a training tool.

As a former F18 pilot, Carlos Pérez Ramírez of Simloc understands the value of immersive training and believes a fixed-base simulator can provide more efficient and cheaper training with almost the same quality as a full-flight simulator. “In the end, you are losing some realism of the movement but when you are training you need to learn how to navigate some behaviours and that’s our concept,” he illustrates. “For a fraction of the cost, you have 90-95% of the training because that final 5% of accuracy normally adds another figure to the right.”