Is the flight instructor of the future a simulator?

March 22, 2019 / Comments (0)

AFSBI Pro Feature

/ By Editorial Staff

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can do a lot. IBM’s Watson can analyze trillions of data elements to predict event outcomes, diagnose medical problems and have a go at looking into the crystal ball of the future, given a large enough dataset to chew on, that is. Conversely, what is it that a flight instructor does? They analyze the student’s maneuver, compare it against the golden standard for that maneuver, embedded in his or her experience, draw the difference, and impart to the student the knowledge needed to match it. Repeat and repeat, until the lesson is learned and a new challenge is presented. Then repeat again.

There are a lot of variables in this picture, including the experience and alertness of the instructor, environmental and other factors that may affect decision-making, and the personality and attitude of the student, among many others. These are the reasons why, for primary flight training, you want someone to sit next to you while you are learning. Thus far, at least. NAFI, the National Association of Flight Instructors, would agree with that.

Increasingly, simulators have taken a role in getting students to learn – faster than previously thought. From the story reported by AINonline of a student who soloed after 6.7 hours of “focused training,” to a Facebook simulator group participant who took the controls of a friend’s helicopter and flew it around, to the infamous case of the Seattle Horizon Airline employee who stole a Dash 8 he learned to fly on Microsoft Flight Simulator and flew it to his death. Whatever the case, what is it that AI is changing in terms of instruction? A few days ago, NAFI presented a seminar featuring Brandon Seltz, a game designer, simulation software developer, and all around genius kind of guy who started his own company after working for Microsoft and RedBird simulation.

His company, TakeFlight Interactive brings a new level of learning and knowledge sharing to student pilots. We interviewed him (here) a few weeks ago. What he showed at the seminar was essentially the gamification of flight instructions. The student loads the lesson on the simulator and starts flying. The AI behind his system rates the performance, suggests changes, rates the repeat until a successful outcome is achieved. The data to chew on, is readily available through the simulator. Every change of control input, power settings, external conditions is sensed and processed. The system knows the parameters of a poor, mediocre, good, great and excellent performance and advises the student. A six-pack lesson is already available, and very affordable, while other lessons are in the works.  A  “golden seal” flight instructor and a team of gamers are behind this software.

Seltz says: “Like any game you have to keep it challenging otherwise it gets boring, but it still needs to be achievable, otherwise it gets too frustrating. So the system administers what you can absorb and internalize, while preparing for the next level with infinite patience, undisturbed by any reaction you may have. Seltz also looks at the “Interest Curve”, defined as a “Structure of variable tension to maintain and build interest.”  He argues that gaming keeps the attention level high, while some classroom-based traditional lessons, especially theory, are more likely to make a student lose interest.

Seltz is not alone. Last year at I/ITSEC we sat in on a presentation by simulator giant CAE which showed their solution, called RISE, live. A simulator on stage had a pilot flying a lesson, while the computer was processing and analyzing his performance live. Speed, altitude, pitch and bank angle deviations from ideal were all displayed while the pilot was getting the airplane on the ground (yes it was a landing lesson). The pilot did well, and the system looked fair in its judgment and great in its suggestions. The criteria used by the underlying AI were shown on a large screen.

The system can not only rate your performance, but also make sure that you are up to grade with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), corporate standards, and other operator-based requirements that may be lost in a standard book-based curriculum.

In this space, Community Aviation, was one of the pioneers. Their video showed legendary CFI Doug Stewart on a desktop simulator flying a flawless approach and explaining how he does it, from planning to touch down. No AI there but just clear, solid airmanship. The course is so good that the FAA included as a credit for its Wings proficiency program. A popular service, PilotEdge, provides Air Traffic Control advisory services and employs actual controllers. It makes it all more realistic when you train. Along those lines, YouTube is full of simulator-based primary flight lessons. Channel FlightTrajectory has almost 10,000 subscribers and 13 lessons, some of them really good. Can you fly an airplane after practicing all of them? We are quite sure you can.

This is really good news for all. Students accelerate their training and instructors lessen their training load. The aviation industry is desperate to fill the gaps older retiring pilots have created with new recruits. As AI technology is getting better, we can expect regulators to start recognizing how much of the human flight instructor duties can be transferred to the machine. The FAA has already relaxed its grip on currency requirements by allowing time to be logged on a simulator rather than on an aircraft. Simulators can be used for part of the primary training, with a CFI present. In the not so distant future, even this may change. Who knows, maybe all that will be required is a report from your sim computer that shows exactly how you did on your landings.


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