Bird’s Eye View

David Hughes outlines the FAA Tech Center’s cockpit simulation advantage

Researchers are using aircraft cockpit simulators here at the FAA William J Hughes Technical Center to explore the role of flight deck automation in NextGen in addition to other types of human factors and air traffic control system studies.

In the NextGen era, the flight deck is already playing a more prominent flight operations role in the National Airspace System (NAS) with everything from automated cockpits flying Optimized Profile Descents on RNAV Standard Terminal Arrivals to the use of Data Communications (Datacomm).

The Cockpit Simulation Facility (CSF), located at the WJHTC, offers a fully integrated laboratory for research and testing of safety and modernisation programmes for the NAS. With a diverse fleet of commercial and general aviation flight deck simulators, the facility provides a full suite of resources and services to research and development teams interested in studying human-in-the-loop flight deck technologies and procedures.

The CSF has played an important role in pioneering research by the FAA in the display of weather information in the cockpit, the use of data communications and even how pilots make decisions based on lighting and signage on the airport surface. FAA weather researchers have collaborated with Rockwell Collins and with MIT Lincoln Laboratory on some of this research.

The CSF can also support companies under cooperative research and development agreements or other transaction agreements. American Airlines, for example, has performed human factors research at the WJHTC facility to design an interface for data link communications on existing aircraft avionics. And the CSF has collaborated with Boeing on technical exchanges and on distributed simulation exercises.

Specifically, the facility has a simulation environment that can be fully customised to meet the individual research needs of its clients – including FAA programme offices testing out developmental systems and procedures and new concepts of operation. The FAA programmes often form partnerships with organisations such as the MIT Lincoln Laboratory or various universities to develop and perform research studies in the CSF cockpits. Most of the work of the CSF is done for FAA organisations.

The ability to customise simulators within the facility and develop unique in-house software and new capabilities for each client sets the facility apart. New avionics can be integrated into the simulated flight decks, new procedures can be tested and explored, custom flight crew displays can be designed and implemented, and flight environments including changing weather conditions and radio messages can be constructed from the ground up – all with on-site federal and contract engineers.

The CSF is also linked to the WJHTC comprehensive ATC simulation capability for end-to-end testing of new FAA ATC modernisation operational capabilities. The facility provides a wide range of options for researchers to use as they explore everything from the human factors aspects of modernisation efforts to safety issues.

The CSF has extensive audiovisual recording capabilities, detailed data collection systems, in-house simulated air traffic control stations with high-fidelity cockpit radio software, access to certified air traffic controllers, and an established method for recruiting pilots for use as subjects in cockpit studies. Some studies include more than 100 pilots flying flight profiles designed for a particular type of inquiry.

The CSF assists research clients throughout the full lifecycle of their research projects. The first phase is working with research teams to help develop and define their simulation and cockpit requirements. The second phase is to customise the hardware and software of the simulators as needed and to develop the desired scenario with custom graphics, weather patterns, and radio events to meet those requirements. The final phase includes performing data collection and providing support as needed after the study has been completed.

The simulators emulate aircraft communications with controllers by using specialised software. Multiple simulators and control stations can communicate across numerous simulated frequencies just like as aircraft and controllers do in the real world. Researchers can also inject automated airport status and weather messages on specific frequencies such as Automatic Terminal Information Service, Automated Weather Observing System or Automated Surface Observing System.

Simulators from A to Z

The types of aircraft simulated at the CSF range from light general aviation aircraft to transport category aircraft including:

  • Boeing 737
  • Airbus 320
  • Embraer 175
  • Boeing 777
  • two RedBird FMX general aviation simulators; one simulator can be configured as a Piper PA44 or Cessna C172, and the other is a King Air C90GTx aircraft
  • two custom-built general aviation simulators reconfigurable to different aircraft models

The latest capability will be a new rotorcraft simulator built from the frame of a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. This simulator is being constructed now at the facility for helicopter safety research. It is being built from the cockpit cut away from a real helicopter that was written off after a hard landing.

The fidelity of each of the simulators is appropriate for specific client needs, with most of the facility’s large commercial flight simulators having medium-high fidelity. What this means is that the Airbus, Boeing and Embraer simulators have high fidelity in the areas needed for research but not in other areas where added equipment would just add expense. For example, the CSF focuses on providing genuine avionics and display graphics for extremely high-fidelity internal cockpit functionality, but excludes motion bases from most cockpits due to the substantial additional expense they add, which are typically not required by research teams.

The CSF focuses on keeping costs low for researchers, who have limited budgets, while providing the same avionics flying on aircraft, true-feel yokes and control devices, high-fidelity flight characteristics, and some top-of-the-line collimated visual systems. Collimated means that the light rays are parallel by the time they reach the eyes of the flight crew to provide realistic depth perception with minimal visual distortion. The majority of the CSF commercial simulators are fixed-base, but several of the general aviation simulators have motion platforms.

The CSF’s Boeing 737 fixed-base simulator, for example, has a collimated wrap-around seamless visual system, flight qualified avionics throughout the center console for high fidelity operation, and an active force load system to provide a realistic force profile on the yokes and other flight controls. The 737 simulator is integrated with the CSF’s in-house ATC and researcher stations, and it also has a multi-frequency simulated radio system and a full suite of cameras, microphones, and data recording technology.

Ongoing enhancements at the CSF include incorporating advanced Datacomm, Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, and Interval Management technologies into the simulators, including upgrades to the Flight Management Systems (FMS), multimode VHF receivers and the communications management units to support research on Data Comm and Trajectory Based Operations (TBO). Datacomm allows a pilot to accept a new clearance digitally and load it into the FMS at the touch of a button. TBO will involve a whole new level of coordination between pilots and controllers that the Tech Center will be simulating.

Cockpit studies linked to ATC

All simulators at the CSF can be run to support a standalone study or linked to the Tech Center’s main ATC simulation capability where they can tie into En Route Automation Modernization, Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System or Advanced Technologies & Oceanic Procedures field support laboratories.

“The interaction between the ATC and cockpit simulation capabilities at the Tech Center is unique because we have laboratories here that can tie in almost every automation system at work in the NAS today,” says Shelley Yak, director of the Technical Center.

The CSF is fully integrated so each simulator can portray other traffic in its window visual system and on its traffic alert and collision avoidance system. Weather is also depicted in the correct position based on its location relative to the cockpit.

The simulators take advantage of the Target Generation Facility at the WJHTC main laboratory building. This is a dynamic, real-time air traffic simulation capability designed to generate realistic aircraft trajectories and associated surveillance messages for aircraft in a simulated airspace environment.

“All these pieces add up to a simulation capability that is exceptional,” says manager Scott Doucett. “We can mix pseudo piloted targets with aircraft simulators here with simulators at other facilities for distributed simulations – with for example the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center MMAC, Department of Defense, NASA or Boeing – and drive a complete ATC exercise in a simulated end-to-end environment.”  The MMAC cockpit simulation capability is used for testing and validation of FAA published instrument procedures.

This system interaction helps establish a real world feeling to simulator exercises.

“Our facility was designed with an emphasis on the overall system interaction, and we believe it brings us closer to reality,” said Al Rehmann, an Air Traffic Engineering Company engineer who supports the FAA’s Tech Center simulation capability.  The real world feeling pays off in a number of ways. Rehmann recalls one session where an airline flight crew was on the third run simulating a flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Miami and it had been struggling to use Datacomm for the first time. “About midway through the flight, something clicked and the crew began to use Datacomm like it was second nature. At the end of the flight, the pilots actually preferred Datacomm to voice communication and wanted to know when it would be deployed. It was rewarding to see the shift in the attitudes of the end users,” says Rehmann.

Weather technology in the cockpit

A large part of the simulation centre’s general aviation work involves standalone studies funded by the FAA Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC) programme. This is part of a major FAA initiative to improve general aviation safety and reduce the rate of accidents.

WTIC studies focus on the reaction of a general aviation pilot as weather information is presented and how weather symbols affect pilot performance and decision making. Specifically, the studies evaluate how well pilots notice weather conditions are changing based on cockpit displays. Pilot performance is affected by how prominent symbols are that highlight changing conditions. The overarching goal is to reduce the frequency with which general aviation pilots fly into dangerous weather conditions.

WTIC cockpit researchers using the CSF have found that general aviation aircraft pilots don’t always understand the shortcomings of weather information displayed to them. Once a study identifies gaps in pilot knowledge, WTIC researchers work on finding ways to improve displays.

The FAA WTIC research team has completed more than 30 studies and experiments on pilot errors in interpreting cockpit weather information or understanding its limitations. Based on these findings, the researchers publish guidelines that educate cockpit instrument designers on which display symbols and techniques best convey critical weather information. Improved displays may help save lives.

It’s all in a day’s work for Doucett and his colleagues, including FAA engineering research psychologist Ulf Ahlstrom, Rehmann and FAA researchers and programme managers from FAA headquarters who use the facility. Ahlstrom has published the FAA findings from more than a dozen WTIC studies as FAA technical papers and as articles in independent research journals. The WTIC work is supervised by FAA NextGen WTIC programme manager Gary Pokodner and engineering psychologist Ian Johnson.

Partners include PEGASUS and MIT Lincoln Laboratory

The most recent study completed at the CSF was a Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety Accessibility and Sustainability (PEGASAS) weather research project. PEGASAS, an FAA Center of Excellence, is led by Purdue University, The Ohio State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The core team also includes the Florida Institute of Technology, Iowa State University and Texas A&M University.

The PEGASAS study evaluated simulator flights by three dozen pilots to determine if technological interventions (such as a vibrating smartwatch), or immersive educational training methods (such as desktop simulator trainers) would improve pilot recognition and avoidance of deteriorating weather conditions.

In addition, the WTIC programme and the CSF partnered with MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 2015 to study how new information from communication channels and weather displays in Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 cockpits can result in earlier and more optimal re-routing around problematic weather.

The facility’s Airbus A320 cockpit simulator was also used by an FAA programme office in two studies in 2014 and 2015. These inquiries determined how different airport lighting and signage configurations affect pilot decision making, awareness of aircraft locations on the airport surface, ease of navigation in dusk/night conditions in complex surface environments and overall workload.

Posted in Features, Training and Simulation

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