VATSIM: New Realities in Virtual R&D

September 2009
Topics: Air Traffic Management, Modeling and Simulation
By taking simulation experiments out of the laboratory and onto the Internet, MITRE is hoping to expand the available avenues for aviation research and development.
aviation lab

Flight Simulation Online

For three hours on the night of September 27, 2008, air traffic controllers guided dozens of pilots down onto the runways of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to demonstrate a new procedure designed to conserve fuel and reduce emissions. Safety was never a concern, and despite the number of participants, the expense was minimal. The reason: The test was conducted online in a simulated aviation environment staffed by the members of VATSIM (Virtual Air Traffic Simulation).

VATSIM comprises over 100,000 registered users invested in flight simulation and air traffic control. Using easily available software, a VATSIM member can play the role of pilot or air traffic controller. Adhering as closely as possible to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and procedures, VATSIM pilots fly routes to real-world airports while VATSIM air traffic controllers guide them along the way. MITRE is exploring ways to put the knowledge and dedication of this community to novel use in testing and refining new air traffic management procedures and equipment.

Virtual Flying, Real Training

To participate in VATSIM events, virtual pilots have to be sure hands at their chosen aircraft, be able to file flight plans and read navigation charts, and use the correct terminology when communicating with air traffic control.

VATSIM also includes a significant number of participants who perform the job of air traffic controllers. To qualify as an air traffic controller in VATSIM, a member has to undergo training in one of the many air traffic control regions. Only after 30 to 40 hours of training on their region's procedures, terrain, navigational aids, and routes are fledgling controllers allowed to operate their radar screens.

New Heights in R&D

Once made aware of the VATSIM community, MITRE realized that such a collection of expertise and experience could prove a unique simulation and modeling resource. In managing a research and development center for the FAA, MITRE evaluates new air traffic procedures and automation in its high-fidelity simulation laboratories. However, while much can be learned by having a researcher put a proposed innovation through its paces in a laboratory setting, having tens of thousands of experienced pilots from around the world take the new concept for a ride can offer up additional insights. MITRE is hoping that simulating concepts in the VATSIM environment will lead to improved experimental realism, as well as broader exposure to and constructive feedback on new concepts and capabilities. The goal of the research is to explore the possibilities of tapping into online communities in large-scale modeling and simulation efforts.

After MITRE's initial introduction and inquiries into forming a partnership were met with enthusiasm from the VATSIM community, MITRE set out to learn how best to employ this new resource; the strategy was to pose problems to the community and assess the community's solutions. The first step involved four collaborative events in 2008.

Maiden Flights

The first event, conducted in January 2008, invited pilots to fly in and out of the virtual versions of Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports in order to test pre-departure procedures. That event was designed for about 250 online participants, but drew many more, including many from the international community. The second and third events were set at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas the following month. The objective in those two events was to assess conformance with several published standard terminal arrival routes and familiarity with new additions to air traffic control phraseology.

The fourth event, held in September 2008 in virtual Atlanta, was designed to evaluate the ability of the VATSIM community to use a new type of arrival procedure designed to minimize environmental impacts. The new procedure relies more heavily on flight deck automation and plays an integral part of the FAA's redesign of air transportation control, called NextGen.

Efficiency is one key to success. The procedure used in the event attempts to reduce the amount of time flown in a level attitude by prompting the pilot to descend more continuously and at lower power settings. Aircraft cleared for landings in this way generally use their flight management computers to calculate and fly the optimal descent to the runway. Flights following this procedure not only can use less fuel, but also require fewer clearances from the controller, reducing the congestion on busy air traffic control radio frequencies.

For each event, participants were required to familiarize themselves with training materials, phraseology, and pretesting parameters. MITRE was pleased by both the number of event participants and their willingness to undertake the training process. The experiments provided MITRE with a stronger sense of what could be accomplished through virtual aviation simulation and how best to accomplish it.

Through continued collaboration with VATSIM and other virtual communities, MITRE hopes to lift research and development methods to new altitudes.

——by Frank Sogandares

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