In education circles, it is understood that an intense experience teaches more than a boring one. John E. Ostrom can see the principle in action every time he watches the reaction of one of his drivers as the truck's windshield fills with the hulking mass of an airliner about to ruin everyone's day. "I call it the 'Oh (expletive) factor,' " he says. "I guarantee they'll remember that."
In education circles, it is understood that an intense experience teaches more than a boring one. John E. Ostrom can see the principle in action every time he watches the reaction of one of his drivers as the truck's windshield fills with the hulking mass of an airliner about to ruin everyone's day. "I call it the 'Oh (expletive) factor,' " he says. "I guarantee they'll remember that." Ostrom, manager of airside operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, gets to see the wide-eyed panic often, and at no time is the vehicle operator or aircraft in any actual danger. That's because the training is taking place in a full immersion simulator, a tool airports like MSP increasingly are employing to teach airport vehicle drivers how to navigate a host of virtual but realistic operations scenarios. MSP's $430,000 Driver Training Simulator, built by Pennsylvania-based Environmental Tectonics Corp., features the fully functional cab of an Oshkosh T-3000 aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle surrounded by video screens and speakers. The environment plunges a driver into a 360-deg. virtual airport world built from airport schematics, Geographic Information System databases, satellite and ground-based photographs and airport sound bytes. The system, which uses up to 14 PCs for its visual channels, also can simulate the dynamics of 11 different kinds of machines from snowplows to catering vans to baggage carts, as well as pre-planned actions from up to 80 other vehicles. Besides the cab, there can be as many as six other drivers interacting in the same exercise using remote computer consoles, typically with three monitors each and video game-type steering wheels and accelerator and brake pedals. A separate instructor's station acts as a command center at which airport officials or trainers can develop scenarios and control various aspects of the training session, including weather and visibility, in real time. Christine Stephenson, business unit manager for ETC's Orlando, Fla.-based simulation division, says airports can replay events and set triggers that record occurrences of speeding, collisions, runway incursions or even passing up foreign object debris during a simulated runway check. MSP began looking at the tech- nology in 1999 after a spate of vehicle/ pedestrian deviationsthe close calls between vehicles and aircraft better known as runway incursions. "We were having rashes of VPDs with authorized and unauthorized drivers," says Ostrom. The airport decided it needed a tool to help train its 400-plus operators how to avoid runways without actually driving around the airport to do so. As it turns out, Toronto Pearson International Airport at that time was using a modified truck-driving simulator built by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based FAAC Inc. to train its drivers; FAAC has a system in place at Detroit Metropolitan Airport as well. MSP Systems Administrator Kyle Scapple and others checked out Toronto's simulator and were convinced the technology could help their airport. Scapple and Ostrom put out a request for bids for a system with a driver's station and three "canned" scenarios for the actual environment at MSP. Around the same time, ETC had entered the driver simulator market after being asked by Chicago Airport System if a disaster management simulator the company had built for O'Hare could be modified to allow drivers to respond to a simulated disaster scene in their vehicles. What resulted was a standalone driver simulator based on ETC's Advanced Disaster Management Simulator, a training tool airports use to coordinate first-responder actions in a simulated airport environment complete with modeled behavior for fires and victims. Like the driving simulator, the ADMS database included a 3D virtual model of the airport generated by compiling photorealistic satellite imagery and local features like trucks and cars that might be found on the tarmac. MSP ultimately selected ETC to build its driver simulator, choosing many of the options developed for O'Hare including the T-3000 cab. According to Stephenson, the MSP simulation database took six months to build, starting with satellite photography and CAD drawings of the layout. For photorealism and data quality checks, the company sent a photography expert to the airport for three weeks to take pictures of vehicles, the tarmac, signs, markings and various other details like the position of instrument landing system equipment. The double-checking paid off: MSP found that its signs in some cases were not in the actual locations called out by its official sign plan, says Stephenson. "It's to the inch," says Ostrom of the simulator's visual and dynamic accuracy. "Theoretically, if you had a fire truck responding to a simulated accident it could accelerate, make turns, even roll over if the driver turned too fast." Like most pathfinder products, the Minneapolis simulator was not without its growing pains. Ostrom originally planned to use it to teach runway safety and disaster response to drivers authorized to operate in the aircraft movement area. With the 22-ft.-diameter curved screen delivered with the simulator in January 2004, however, he found that drivers couldn't read the signage on the runway edges well enough to be able to make turns, a problem linked to insufficient resolution of the scene on the screen. Screen issues also contributed to what Ostrom calls "simulator sickness," a phenomenon that makes as many as three out of 10 people feel motion sickness due to the inconsistency between differences in visual and motion cues. The problem at MSP was amplified by the screen resolution, brightness, contrast and frame refresh rate, he says. This was fixed by upgrading video cards and incorporating display screens that are closer to the cabin, enhancements developed for a new simulator ETC is building for Nashville International Airport. ETC says other advanced options developed for Nashville's simulator include forward-looking infrared radar and two joysticks in the cab that are used to spray simulated fire suppressant on an accident scene. To make accommodations for those who may continue to get sick, MSP added a remote driver station with three 22-in. monitors in an office environment. Ostrom says limiting the length of the simulations may help as well. With his display upgrades in place, Ostrom currently is working to train the airport's 400-plus drivers by July in low-visibility operations and communications protocols, and dreaming up grand plans for the simulator after that. Ideas include teaching airport police officers how to perform vehicle chases on the airfield, recreating accident and incident chains of events, practicing snowplowing operations with multiple vehicles, scouring a runway for FOD and training airline mechanics how to tow aircraft around the airport. "There's the potential for revenue as well," he adds. Stephenson says prices for simulators typically range from $750,000 to $800,000 and adds that ETC will take on the job of maintaining an airport's database after delivery under a maintenance contract. From a training perspective, the value of MSP's simulator as a tool of intense learning is limited only by the imagination of the teacher, says Ostrom. "Before, there wasn't much of an ability to do live trainingit was classroom-based. This is just the tip of the iceberg."