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Virtual Contrails: Modeling Air Traffic Control Over the Internet
"Cal Air 101 is cleared to San Francisco via the FMG6 departure, FMG transition, then as filed. Climb and maintain 12,000, expect FL310 in 10 minutes, departure frequency 118.60, squawk 5510."
"Cal Air 101 cleared to San Fran via FMG6 departure, FMG transition, then as filed, 12k then FL310 in 10, departure 118.60, squawking 5510."
"Cal Air 101, readback is correct. Contact ground on 121.40 for taxi."
"We'll call ground. Good day, Cal Air 101."
You might expect to overhear a conversation like this one between a pilot and an air traffic controller if you were to tap into a transmission from the local airport. But this exchange actually took place between two participants in a computer game played over the Internet. Both players are members of VATSIM (Virtual Air Traffic Simulation), a community of aviation enthusiasts who use the Internet to simulate real-life air travel. Though they sound like aviation professionals, neither player may have ever flown a plane or peered down from an air traffic control tower. Rather, they are hobbyists acting out their dreams of flying through the use of specially modified flight simulation programs and VATSIM's online servers.
Now, thanks to a new partnership with MITRE, VATSIM members will no longer be simply recreating air traffic procedures in a virtual airspace. By participating in online simulations that test new aviation procedures and technologies, they will contribute to making our nation's real airspace a safer and more efficient place to fly.
The Virtual Blue Yonder
VATSIM first came to MITRE's attention when a prospective employee mentioned his participation in the community. "When those of us involved in aviation testing and simulation heard about VATSIM," says Frank Sogandares, the software systems engineer leading the collaboration with VATSIM, "our first thought was 'We should be able to harness this as a research tool somehow.' So we made a research proposal, and it was accepted."
In researching the group, Sogandares learned that VATSIM is made up of more than 100,000 registered members. Using the modified software, each VATSIM member plays the role of pilot or air traffic controller. Adhering as closely as possible to Federal Aviation Administration regulations and procedures, VATSIM pilots fly the same routes as their real-world counterparts. Meanwhile, VATSIM air traffic controllers guide them along the way using authentic procedures and vernacular.
Even VATSIM's websites for each virtual air traffic control region strive for authenticity. "I was talking to a coworker who said, 'I came across a VATSIM website, and it had me snookered for a few minutes.'" say Sogandares. "It wasn't until he read the disclaimer in the bottom corner saying that the site was for simulation only that he caught on."
Play Is Hard Work
To achieve the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the virtual skies, VATSIM pilots log many hours on commercially available flight simulation programs to become sure hands at their chosen aircraft. They spend additional time studying training material available at the VATSIM website to learn how to file flight plans, read navigation charts, and employ the correct terminology when communicating with air traffic control.
VATSIM air traffic controllers make an equal if not greater commitment to learning their craft than the virtual pilots do. Controllers have to undergo training in their assigned real-world air traffic control regions. Only after 30 or 40 hours of training on their region's procedures, terrain, navigational aids, and routes is a fledging controller allowed to monitor a radar screen. And training is a continuous obligation. "As soon as the new aviation data comes out, VATSIM quickly makes it available to the community to study," Sogandares says.
In fact, the training to become a full-fledged VATSIM air traffic controller is rigorous enough to open up career opportunities. "A few VATSIM members have earned their VATSIM air traffic controller credentials and then decided to make a career change into air traffic control," he says. "And from what I hear, they've done quite well in the profession."
A Real Partnership in Simulation
It was this in-depth knowledge of contemporary aviation and enthusiasm for authenticity that convinced Sogandares that VATSIM could prove a novel simulation and modeling resource tool. As the operator of the federally funded research and development center for the FAA, MITRE develops, tests, and refines new air traffic management procedures and equipment. Our Air Traffic Management Laboratory plays host to much of this important work. We enlist air traffic controllers, traffic management specialists, airline pilots, and FAA personnel to employ the laboratory's state-of-the-art simulation equipment in testing the latest in aviation innovations.
The data from these simulations is invaluable, but only so much data can be generated by a single team of volunteers running a single simulation. Sogandares realized that through a partnership with VATSIM, he could have thousands of volunteers running hundreds of simulations, increasing both the amount and quality of the data generated. "We can push new technologies and procedures out there and get lots of eyeballs on it, get lots of comments," he says.
Eager to contribute to the aviation industry that had inspired their hobby, the VATSIM community agreed to participate in MITRE's simulation events. "They realized that the knowledge they have, the skills they've learned, and the tools they use might be well-suited to research purposes. It would be great if it could eventually prove useful to the real world." The community threw itself into the collaboration, spending many hours preparing for each simulation by poring over training materials, mastering phraseology, and learning pre-testing parameters.
The first joint MITRE/VATSIM event, designed to test pre-departure procedures, took place in January 2008. At MITRE's invitation, hundreds of VATSIM pilots and air traffic controllers simulated arrivals to and departures from Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports. A similar number of participants took part in the second and third events a month later. Set at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, these two events assessed conformance with standard terminal arrival routes and familiarity with new additions to air traffic control phraseology.
A fourth event set in virtual Atlanta this past September saw dozens of virtual pilots evaluate a new type of arrival procedure designed to minimize environmental impacts. Through use of the procedure, pilots can reduce the amount of time they spend flying at a level attitude, allowing them to descend more steadily and at lower power settings. Flights following this procedure not only use less fuel, but also require fewer clearances from the controller, reducing the congestion on busy air traffic control radio frequencies. Procedures such as this will play an integral role as MITRE helps guide the implementation of NextGen, the FAA's vision for the future of air transportation.
Like the one between the pilot and air traffic controller conversing at the beginning of the article, the collaboration between MITRE and VATSIM, though taking place in a virtual space, is built upon real-world information—information that's vital to the FAA's vision for the evolution of our nation's airspace. Through such creative partnerships in the virtual world, MITRE plans to help make the FAA's vision a reality.
—by Christopher Lockheardt
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Page last updated: February 26, 2009 | Top of page
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