Skip to page content

The Air Up There Podcast

Simulators and How They're Making Aviation Safer

Season 2, Episode 7
Published: Friday, April 2, 2021

Simulators — they're sort of like video games for training, research and skill enhancement. Flight and other types of aviation simulators help pilots, air traffic controllers, drone operators and more to gain proficiency and get certified faster, all in a virtual environment.

In this episode, we'll hear from multiple aviation professionals about the work that they're doing to ensure aviation safety with the use of simulators and virtual reality.

Disclaimer: Reference in this podcast to any specific commercial product, process, service, manufacturer, company, or trademark does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. government, DOT, or FAA. As an agency of the U.S. government, FAA cannot endorse or appear to endorse any specific product or service.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Simulators and How They're Making Aviation Safer

Simulators and How They're Making Aviation Safer

Transcript

Allen Kenitzer:
Welcome to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace. I'm Allen Kenitzer.

Dominique Gebru:
And I'm Dominique Gebru. Today we're going to look at aviation in the virtual world through simulators. It's a really exciting time for digital natives like me. Virtual reality technology is on a whole other level right now. Aviators have been tapping into VR for years now. And while using technology to simulate flight is super fun, simulators have the power to further aviation safety.

Allen Kenitzer:
In today's episode, we're talking about simulators that can make flight safer along with the research behind them. While many simulators recreate aircraft flight and are important for pilot training, the FAA and other aviation groups use simulators in other ways too. Today we'll hear how air traffic controllers get trained in mock tower caps and learn how some research psychologists at the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, or CAMI use simulators to conduct human factors research.

Dominique Gebru:
And before we get to those interviews, we're going to take a quick detour to the newest and fastest growing aviation sector, drones. Let's go to our field reporter, Chris Troxell for an interview with drone racing league on their drone simulator and how it makes flying safer for drone racing pilots.

Allen Kenitzer:
We have a quick disclaimer to read before we play that interview though. Reference in this podcast to any specific commercial product, process, service, manufacturer, company, or trademark does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. government, DOT, or the FAA. As an agency of the U.S. government, the FAA cannot endorse or appear to endorse any specific product or service.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks Allen. Now for the interview. Chris spoke with drone racing league, COO Ashley Ellefson and Simulator Cup champion, Christian Van Sloan, a.k.a. Amari, to learn how they're bringing virtual drone racing to the masses via video game consoles.

Chris Troxell:
Ashley, can you tell us a little bit about the league and the league's mission?

Ashley Ellefson:
Yeah, for sure. So DRL started in 2015, all with the aspiration of creating a global professional sport from drone racing. So it was inspired by a video that at the time was going viral with two drones kind of racing through a forest in France. We looked at that and said, there's something here. We really want to turn this into a global sport.

Ashley Ellefson:
So set off on the mission to do exactly that. Since then, we have done events all over the world from Singapore to France, to the U.K., to all over the U.S. and we've raced in palaces, we've raised in the likes of Dolphin Stadium. We have been at ball parks and a host of different venues from kind of abandoned malls to places that are really established.

Ashley Ellefson:
We are watched by millions of viewers across the globe with our global broadcast partners. And we also have a simulator that we have designed and built ourselves all with the effort to kind of increase the pool of people that are interested in drones and kind of teach everyone how they can fly themselves.

Chris Troxell:
You mentioned the simulator, an exciting new thing. How long has that been around now?

Ashley Ellefson:
The sim has really been around since we started. From day one, we very quickly realized that there's a high barrier to entry, to racing drones. A lot of our pilots who fly FPV or first person view, they build their own drones. If you crash it and you don't know how to repair it yourself, you're out of luck.

Ashley Ellefson:
And so we really set out to create a platform that would not only teach people how to fly drones and kind of develop the muscle memory on the sticks, but would also provide kind of a low risk environment so that you can go out and crash countless infinite numbers of times on the sim and you never have to worry about the fact that you've crashed your drone into a tree or flown it into a pool and that you can't use it any longer. So it really was about how do we get more people involved in flying and seeing that as an avenue and a way for people to get them more involved in the racing part of drones.

Chris Troxell:
I don't know how to fly a real drone or fix a drone. So the same would be great for me, I think.

Ashley Ellefson:
It was a great learning environment. Definitely.

Chris Troxell:
So what do you hope that the players gain from this and that maybe this is a question for both Ashley and Amari.

Ashley Ellefson:
So I think from my perspective, it's really about gaining skill. There is a lot of muscle memory involved with flying. And I think when we take our DRL pilots and we put them on our courses, they almost have to memorize the feel of the course line so that they can get through it because they're going really quickly. We have different lighting. It is dark. It's not something that just anyone can kind of, who knows how to fly a drone can hop in off the street and do.

Ashley Ellefson:
And so I think it's about developing those skillsets. Additionally, with our sim people who have no clue how to fly, we have a series of missions that really take you from knowing absolutely nothing about how to fly a drone. And I am in this camp 100% and have kind of learned through the sim as well that it takes you, you learn to hover, you learn about the science behind it.

Ashley Ellefson:
You can build your own drone and it is intended to be as kind of real to life physics and reflect what you would experience if you're flying a real drone just on your computer or on a console in the comfort of your own home.

Chris Troxell:
That's really cool. I want to try this now.

Christian Van Sloan:
It's a great tool. And I think my favorite things about it is that we can our own radios that we use in real life when we're practicing and when we are racing on the league in real life, we use those same exact radios to input everything we're doing when we're flying. And it definitely lends another level of, I just say, increased realism to it, for sure. And it makes it, so you really do get that muscle memory.

Christian Van Sloan:
That's the biggest thing it taught me for sure, was having that extra half second lapse in judgment when you try to remember, okay, which one of these two sticks here moves me forward. That's really critical to make sure you have down and not have to think about before you start flying was definitely something that saved me a lot of repair time and a lot of learning.

Chris Troxell:
That's really cool. It sounds like a very high fidelity sim. And on that Amari, do you feel like the sim has helped you fly safer?

Christian Van Sloan:
Certainly. Going back to before I flew my very first drone, as anxious as I was it took me a while to get my first one in the air just between saving enough money to buy my first drone and then figuring out from a bunch of different online resources, how to actually put it together and soldering and the whole nine yards. I definitely was anxious to get in the air, but just having that little bit of extra discipline and then also having access to the sim.

Christian Van Sloan:
I'm laughing because I've been a part of the sim for a really long time. I remember before it was even on Steam, it was just released free to play. It was pretty awesome. It was a very basic sim, but I loved it and it definitely helped give me a bunch of the muscle memory I needed before I go out there. And I was blessed and I have a very large backyard. So if I made a mistake, it wasn't a big deal. I just do some cartwheels.

Christian Van Sloan:
If our houses were much closer together, I certainly wanted to avoid causing any damage to anyone else. And the additional time and practice I had given myself on the sim definitely helped me both fly safer and keep me from repair.

Chris Troxell:
What benefits do you see coming from the widespread use of this simulator on gaming consoles? And this is a question for you, Ashley, as well.

Ashley Ellefson:
It's teaching people how to fly. Drone racing is a really fun and exciting way to connect to technology and STEM and all of this incredibly innovative stuff that is going on in that world. I always look at drone racing like, it's a sport at its core. It's exciting to watch, you can get involved. And it kind of is a really easily accessible way to peel back those layers, to talk about things that are really important and are kind of going to become more and more prevalent in society over the next decades.

Ashley Ellefson:
I think if DRL can offer a way for more people to get involved in that by increasing the availability of our simulator to different console games, to releasing on more online platforms that you can play from your computer, that eventually parlays into more people flying drones and knowing how to do that safely. I think certainly one of the things that I don't like to see is people going out and not knowing what they're doing or not understanding kind of the rules of the road.

Ashley Ellefson:
And if we can help play a role in ensuring that more people are educated and excited about flying and about different types of aviation, then I think that's really cool and exciting. And we have a fun sport that is just an easy way to access that.

Chris Troxell:
You've convinced me to give it a try.

Ashley Ellefson:
Yeah, definitely. We'll see you next season.

Dominique Gebru:
While drone racing league is reaching across the world to help drone pilots fly safer through its simulator, the FAA is training and certifying air traffic controllers at an accelerated rate with a simulator of a different kind.

Allen Kenitzer:
At the FAA Academy in Oklahoma city and in about 100 facilities across the country, mock control towers of various sizes, how it's connected wraparound LED screens, giving student controllers a cab window view of airport setups. This is important because air traffic controllers need rigorous training and the simulators recreate a realistic training environment. The simulated towers also come equipped with mock radar scopes and other air traffic control equipment offering high fidelity simulation to trainees.

Dominique Gebru:
We're going to hear from Chris again in this next interview with Susan O'Hara of the FAA's technical training program at the academy, that's where controllers are trained. Susan is going to tell us about the effectiveness and agility of the simulators, how they're being leveraged in remote learning applications and more.

Chris Troxell:
With this episode being about simulators, various simulators, flight air traffic control simulators enhancing safety, can you tell me about how simulators tie in to what you do in the training technologies group?

Susan O'Hara:
Yeah, absolutely. So we actually use simulation in a lot of areas in technical training. Starting at the academy right now we have multiple different platforms that we use that are simulation based and what they do is, and I know you guys can't see it here listening to the podcast, but on my Zoom screen in my background, I have an example of a tower simulation system that it's a large fixed system that we have out in the field.

Susan O'Hara:
I'm going to paint the picture for you so you can sort of imagine it. It's a whole bunch of monitors that basically go around half of the room and it's like you're standing in an air traffic control tower and you're looking out the window. So you can see the full landscape. You can see the airport, you can see the runway, you can even see some aircraft parked on the tarmac and stuff like that, right?

Susan O'Hara:
And this gives somebody who's not in the real world, the feeling and the actual experience of looking around 360 and being able to see what it's like being in the tower. We start folks out at the academy and they use a couple of tools that we have that are designed for the classroom specifically to sort of help them learn about the tasking that they have to do when they're up in the tower and also to learn about the procedures and the phraseology, there's special phraseology that controllers use when they're out in the workforce as well.

Susan O'Hara:
So they're just kind of getting used to what it's like to be up in the tower. So that first time that they really go up in the tower, they're like, I've been here for a thousand hours already. I know what this feels like. I know where the equipment is. That kind of stuff. One of the things that people don't think about though is like, so we have 313-ish facilities right in our air traffic facilities and if you're in tower in Oklahoma City versus the tower at LaGuardia, when you look out the window, you're going to see two very dramatically different things, right?

Susan O'Hara:
Lots more aircraft at LaGuardia, birds, that's a big deal at LaGuardia, for example. There's a whole database of information that has to go into these simulators. We actually build the topography of what it looks like to be in the Oklahoma city tower. And in addition to that, we have scenarios that go on top of that too. This gives the students an opportunity to practice and see, this is what it would be like in Oklahoma city with the weather in X conditions, with a lot of aircraft on the tarmac, with all different kinds of things where the planes are in different positions and stuff like that. And so each one of those is a layer of the database that we have to add. So we have multiple scenarios for each facility and then obviously typography for all of the facilities.

Chris Troxell:
Susan, what do you see as the latest and greatest right now in a simulation in training technologies group?

Susan O'Hara:
So, I have a couple of things that are really exciting that we're working on right now. One of them is, I talked earlier that we're giving these mobile learning platforms to students right now. We have multiple different simulation technologies that we give them over the course of their career. We're now looking at and actively working on bringing in one unified simulation product.

Susan O'Hara:
It'll be the same branded and same sort of simulation experience that they get when they come to the academy as when they're out in the field, also on their iPad. When they come home, they're wanting to do some skills enhancement without maybe the pressure of someone watching behind them in the simulator, in the actual office or whatever, they can go in and they can do some touch screen type exercises to go over scenarios and to look at air spaces and stuff like that.

Susan O'Hara:
Being able to one, create a consistent simulation experience across the hire to retire the full career is going to be really helpful because there's not that learning curve all the time. They're just having to go with a new product, right? Like, oh, product X functions this way and product Y functions this way. I've got to remember that. No, we want them to have the same experience.

Chris Troxell:
What's next for your group? Is there anything that you'd like to talk about that's on the horizon?

Susan O'Hara:
We're also continuing to expand our mobile learning application platform. Right now, we have more than 10 applications out there that are still enhancing for our air traffic students. We're looking at the needs of air traffic students to see what a mobile device helped them with. And we've got about a list of 10 or 15 that we're thinking of working on, but three this year, specifically that we'll build.

Susan O'Hara:
And we're just going to keep adding to that portfolio of apps to go on the iPads for the students. So, that's a big thing that we're going to be doing. Completing the integration of the simulation program, which we already talked about that's going to give us the consistent and shareable simulation experience from hire to retire is huge. And it's going to be a huge multi-year project, but that's a big one for us. And then making sure that we work with IT to have all of the air traffic facilities that need Wi-Fi coverage, they're working on that project, a multi-year project.

Susan O'Hara:
We're coordinating with them to make sure that they understand where the biggest training need is and where the biggest impact for getting Wi-Fi in the facility is. And then continuing to evolve our tower simulation system is another big one that we're working on. So we've got a lot of stuff to just keep us busy until we retire.

Chris Troxell:
I can tell. Well, thanks so much for sharing that, Susan. Is there anything else that you'd like our listeners to know about before we close?

Susan O'Hara:
So I think what I'm going to tell you again, is what I started out with, which is never stop learning. Anytime that you take the time to learn something new doors will open. It doesn't matter where you came from. Education is the great equalizer and can make a huge difference in your life, help other people learn, spend your time in your career building other people up and sharing what you know so that's when you leave the agency, you can feel like you've left a really good legacy and help somebody elevate their lives.

Allen Kenitzer:
As the mock tower cabs at the Academy are helping train and certify our controller workforce, FAA psychologists are using simulators to conduct human factors research, put simply, human factors research studies how people interact with machines and technology. The FAA researchers we're going to hear from are using simulators to learn how emerging flight tech technologies and various flying conditions influence pilots' performance.

Dominique Gebru:
At the FAA's Civil Aeronautical Medical Institute, doctors, Terry King, and Daniela Kratchounova lead studies in the Flight Deck Human Factors Research Laboratory, equipped with high tech high fidelity flight simulators. In an interview with our reporter, Liz Cory, Terry and Daniela talk about their projects, including an exciting recent study for enabling more low visibility takeoff and landing operations through the use of virtual reality headsets.

Liz Cory:
Let's talk about the simulators that you use in your studies, because these are fascinating. These are much more than what I can order on the internet, or you can find in a store. I mean, it's really incredibly tactical what you use, and I realized that you can use them to replicate just about any event in flight. Daniela, would you like to tell us about how you use these simulators?

Daniela Kratchounova:
Simulators are fascinating devices. They are mostly used for training and the benefits from using simulators in training are very well-documented. So I'm not going to go into that. Whoever I would like to give you an insight of how we use those very same simulators to conduct research, and to be able to produce data that tells us about how pilots perform with different technologies on the flight deck, how they perform in different conditions outside, for example, different weather conditions, low visibility conditions, high crosswind conditions, just different weather phenomena, as well as how they recover from failures.

Liz Cory:
What kind of responses are you looking for? And how do you get them out of these folks?

Daniela Kratchounova:
That is a really great question. So what we do is usually we extract certain data from all the parameters associated with the flight conditions, or simply put, we record the altitude, for example, the attitude of the airplane, the speed, and many other parameters that are really too technical to go into, but they are recorded on the back end. When pilots come, they emerge themselves into a cockpit that really does replicate a real cockpit.

Liz Cory:
What uses do you see for the simulators of the future? What's the world ahead, especially since so many of our listeners may be thinking of going into careers with simulators, what do you think is ahead for this technology?

Daniela Kratchounova:
I'm glad you're asking me this question because it is really very timely and very relevant to the younger generation that is used to using different gaming devices or virtual reality or augmented reality. The future is exactly that. In addition to having these real devices that are quite expensive, we can supplement or even substitute for training and for research by using something that may not be as expensive and maybe a little bit more available in the future and that is virtual reality devices, augmented reality devices, mixed reality devices, and more recently scientists and the press has been referring to all these different types of extended reality.

Terry King:
To add to what Daniela said there, one of the things that came to my mind also when you asked about other types of simulators and new types of simulators in the future, we've also seen some usage of this for aircraft maintainers. So to train maintenance folks on maintenance procedures and whatnot. We've seen some development in that area and also for head-worn displays and head up displays, we've also seen some applications where originally equipment manufacturers have designed a virtual reality training to train pilots how to use a HUD in flight, for example, in low visibility conditions. I don't know. I think the virtual reality potential is huge out there.

Liz Cory:
If somebody is at home listening and they're thinking this work was simulators sounds so awesome because I like to, I love video games, I love technology, I am really interested in flight, what do I need to do as a student to prepare myself to follow in your footsteps, to become a researcher or somebody like you, who can work with these awesome things all the time?

Daniela Kratchounova:
Find your passion and look for mentors. Look for schools that can provide you that basic education and learn to fly and see how it feels to be a pilot. And then maybe you would like to be more on the technology side, on the engineering side, go explore different schools that will give you this fundamental knowledge to allow you to build on it and learn about aviation technologies and the art of flying in general.

Liz Cory:
And Terry, I know you're a pilot too, how do you feel? What is your advice?

Terry King:
We spend a lot of time in life at our job, and I think it's extremely important to love your job and love what you do. For a young person looking to blaze a path in life I think it's extremely important to figure out what it is that you're really interested in, what it is that you really like to do. I just encourage young people to get on a road, make sure you love it and do it, and don't let anybody dissuade you from it.

Liz Cory:
Those are inspirational words from two very inspirational women. We are so honored to have you both with us today. We want to thank you for being role models and for the important work that you're doing to ensure safety for all the people who are using aviation to fly or move cargo or just enjoy a day in the sunshine. We really thank you for being with us today.

Daniela Kratchounova:
My pleasure.

Allen Kenitzer:
It's a far cry from just a video game and pretty incredible to learn how technology can really move the needle on aviation safety. Whether you're an airline pilot, a drone operator, or an air traffic controller, there's a simulator out there to help you enhance your skills. And the FAA continues working with its stakeholders to leverage simulators for safety.

Dominique Gebru:
And Allen, this topic is so much more expansive than we could fit into just this episode. We've packed some other fun things into this week's show notes, including a few videos and some really great images. This is one of those things that you really have to see.

Allen Kenitzer:
And that's our show for today. The Air Up There was a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you liked today's episode, remember to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and at @FAAnews on Twitter and YouTube.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks for listening.