SATCE is an emerging training technology used in flight simulation. It’s a synthetic environment in which air traffic control services and other traffic entities are simulated within the context of a real-time scenario using a flight simulator.
In short, Simulated ATC Environment (or SATCE, pronounced “sat-see”) is the automated simulation of air traffic control (ATC) and other traffic in flight simulators used for pilot training.
SATCE represents a significant advance in flight training technology and tools designed to enhance realism and better reproduce the challenges, complexity and threats that flight crews experience in real-world operations. Realistic other traffic and ATC communications form part of the environmental cues that are provided by the flight simulator in order to create a realistic high fidelity training environment within which piloting competencies can be trained and assessed.
SATCE involves the synthetic reproduction of realistic other traffic, both airborne and on the ground, and ATC Radio Telephone (R/T) and data communications between ATC service providers and traffic, including the aircraft being used for training (commonly referred to as the ‘ownship’).
“The simulation of other traffic entities within an airspace or ground environment, along with the associated ATC radio and data communications to other traffic and the ownship”.
Definition of SATCE from ICAO Document 9625, Vol 1, Edition 4, 2016.
In ICAO Document 9625 “Manual of Criteria for the Qualification of Flight Simulation Training Devices” (4th Edition, 2016), SATCE is defined as: “The simulation of other traffic entities within an airspace or ground environment, along with the associated ATC radio and data communications to other traffic and the ownship”.
The scope of simulated communications for a SATCE should be confined to air traffic related communications (ARINC Spec 439A). Flight crew communications with third parties such as company, operations, ground service providers, passenger address, cabin crew, etc., fall outside of the generally accepted scope of SATCE.
Approach and Technologies
The approach and technologies used to deliver SATCE in a flight simulation training device (FSTD) are generally not dictated by industry guidance. Arguably, SATCE could be delivered manually. However, in practice, it is a significant challenge to simulate multiple ATC services simultaneously, and nearly impossible to deliver radio communications to and from ATC to all traffic using traditional methods.
SATCE may be deployed in a range of different fidelity FSTDs, from lower-level Part Task Trainers (PTTs) up to Full Flight Simulators (FFSs). As such, the SATCE may exhibit a lower level of fidelity for lower level simulators, and a higher level for the highest level of flight training device.
The intent of any SATCE solution is not to faithfully reproduce a real world ATC and other traffic environment, but rather to create a synthetic environment that is adequate to meet the training requirements and support the delivery of more effective training.
Traditional ‘ATC Simulation’
Traditional ATC simulation in flight training excludes the representation of other traffic (other than perhaps airport clutter in the visual scene), so as a result, the simulated environment is an unrealistically quiet airspace or sterile airport scene. Clearly, this is not the case in real-world operations, where commercial flight crews are expected to operate in busy skies, complex airspace, and at major airports, where traffic is controlled by multiple ATC services.
Background radio traffic (commonly referred to as “radio chatter”) has formerly either been non-existent, or simulated using a pre-recorded uncorrelated script that may be played repeatedly looping in the FSTD cockpit to add noise. These early attempts at recreating a busy and distracting radio environment have largely resulted in negative training, as a tape can effectively be ignored by the flight crew during training. In contrast, the real-world radio environment needs to be filtered for information and perhaps even threats to the ownship flight.
ATC communications to the ownship have tended to be simulated on an ad hoc basis, and have been most commonly delivered by an instructor role-playing each ATC service. Some ATC simulation will be excellent, of course, but standards are likely to vary according to the instructor’s role-playing ability, operational experience and level of ATC training.
The low fidelity of ATC communications and widespread absence of other traffic in most simulators has resulted in an unnaturally light flight crew workload during synthetic training. In addition, as training scenarios increase in complexity, the instructor’s workload can be high and consumed with role-playing ATC, rather than observing the flight crew and adding valuable instruction.
The lack of SATCE in FSTDs is widely acknowledged as a significant training deficit. Although SATCE is not an entirely new concept, the wider adoption and integration of high fidelity automated simulated ATC and other traffic environment in to flight simulators has been called ‘a missing link’ in the flight simulation industry.
History of SATCE
Awareness of the lack of adequate fidelity concerning SATCE in flight simulators is not new – even 40 years ago, the flight simulation industry attempted to tackle this issue. Early systems were designed to reproduce background radio traffic, but with limited success due to technical limitations and lack of correlation between audio and visual cues.
In the late 1980s, Rediffusion Simulation Ltd developed and deployed a simulated ATC environment as an optional add-on for their flight simulators. The sub-system simulated the audio radio traffic for the airspace in which the ownship was operating. Other aircraft and vehicles, callsigns, navigation fixes, radio frequencies and ATC procedures and services were accurate for the airports and airspace being used for training.
Instructors were able to program events and radio communications to support their exercise. The crew under training heard radio traffic appropriate to the selected frequency – for example the approach or the ground sectors – at the correct time during the progress of the flight. However, the simulated radio environment was audio only and without interaction between the ownship and other traffic. Nonetheless, the subsystem reportedly enhanced overall realism and added training value for the pilots.
The lack of automated ATC and other traffic in flight simulators has been a widely recognised issue, and has remained for many years, despite varied efforts within the flight training industry to ‘close the gap’.