Virtual reality (VR) is going to play an ever-greater role in many aspects of all our lives, and training in many industries is likely in the future to involve some degree of VR. The potential benefits in terms of ramp training are numerous, and have not been overlooked by some big players in the airside sector
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has taken a leading role in the development of VR technology in an area vital to efficient and safe operations on the apron – that of training those who work on the ramp.
“Training in this extremely active environment can be a challenge,” observes Frederic Leger, IATA’s director for airport, passenger, cargo and security products. But, he continues, IATA’s RampVR product “allows users to safely immerse themselves in ramp operations and experience a variety of scenarios in different operating conditions”.
IATA’s VR training platform, RampVR, was officially launched at the IATA Ground Handling Conference held in Bangkok in May this year, but the industry association had been interested in the technology long before that. Indeed, explains Leger: “We started to introduce VR to the aviation industry at an IATA human resources/training symposium in November 2014.
“At that time, the technology was not perfected and the industry was perhaps not ready for VR. So, the journey really started [for IATA] just over a year ago when we began engaging with airlines, airports and ground service providers in order to fully understand their training needs.”
IATA is an expert in training; indeed, it trains more than 100,000 students a year in various elements of aviation-related operations. Feedback has always been good from those that participate in the various IATA training courses, but one recommendation from the students has often been that they would like more on-the-ground-type training to supplement their classroom learning.
The cost – in time and money – to take students to an operational ramp is not inconsiderable. So, continues Leger, “We looked at different options, and VR was obviously attractive. It can complement our other training perfectly, so we began employing VR as part of our classroom training courses, whether that be at an IATA facility or the company’s own premises, where courses can also be taken.” As a third option, in May this year IATA began offering the RampVR product for sale to operators who train a large number of employees in ramp operations.
Other changes since 2014 have also helped to make RampVR what it is today – a viable tool for effective ramp training. “The technology is now mature and the price is affordable,” Leger observes. Specific challenges have been overcome: for example, the quality of image graphics is now much better than it was just a few years ago, while the issue of students suffering from motion sickness has been addressed – the lag time between a user turning his or her head and the picture he/she sees moving, the primary cause of the motion sickness, has been eradicated, Leger notes. The RampVR software also has helpful features such as the user’s virtual arms now being in shot, which provides a greater feeling of reality and ‘grounding’ for the student, while also helping to minimise brain confusion and the resultant motion sickness.
The platform features built-in metrics that track students’ performance, while trainers can see what the student is looking at and what he/she is doing, so they can assess and grade performance before providing a detailed debrief on what the student is doing right and what he/she is doing wrong.
As of August 2017, when Leger spoke to Airside International, two modules of RampVR were available, one relating to aircraft turnaround inspections and one to aircraft marshalling. IATA is currently considering several future module options, however. These include aircraft loading and unloading; airside driving; runway inspections; and runway construction.
Meanwhile, hardware improvements are also in the works. For example, a wireless version is expected soon to be made available, avoiding the need for a cable between headset and computer.
“We are currently processing various requests [for additions and improvements],” Leger says. “We are forming an industry working group to assess what steps we need to take going forward in relation to VR.” IATA will also be showcasing IATA’s VR capabilities at various industry events over the coming months, he confirms.
It’s about promoting the value of VR to the industry, as much as RampVR’s capabilities in particular. “It’s vital for IATA to engage with the aviation industry to explain the benefits of VR,” Leger insists. “Things are going to ramp up in terms of VR pretty quickly,” he believes, pointing out that its benefits for learning efficiency, cost-effectiveness and student approval are too great for that not to happen.
Already, employees from handlers, airport authorities and airlines have been trained at least in part by means of VR within IATA classes, while there has also been strong interest from some companies in buying the technology. “The appetite is there, we’re getting good feedback from students, and of course all our training is fully compliant with IATA Ground Operations Manual (IGOM) and Airport Handling Manual (AHM) globally recognised best practices,” Leger enthuses.
“It’s the closest thing we’ve got to reality, short of expensive training in congested and potentially dangerous ramp environments,” he continues. The aviation industry is not always quick on the uptake in terms of new technologies (electronic air waybills, or e-AWBs, may be a case in point here), but the momentum towards VR is unstoppable, he considers.
Leger’s thoughts are also echoed by Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security, who claims: “Innovative technology is the key. VR in the learning context increases knowledge retention by as much as four times while improving motivation and engagement. VR is here to stay.”
Getting on board
Ground service providers are beginning to see the potential benefits of VR training opportunities. One handler that has quickly jumped on board is Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd (Hactl), the largest independent handler at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA).
Hactl has introduced a VR training environment that it says will enable new staff to gain valuable experience of apron operations before actually going out to work in the busy and potentially dangerous ramp environment.
Hactl’s COSAC-VR provides users with what it describes as an “interactive, fully immersive, 360 degree, four-dimensional experience”. The first phase covers aircraft cargo compartment operations, and other areas of Hactl operations will be included in future modules, the service provider confirms.
COSAC-VR is not dependent on a high-tech, fixed-location training suite and is fully portable; it can be quickly set up in any location. Hactl expects COSAC-VR to speed up the learning process, enable trainees to experience a wider variety of scenarios such as handling odd-sized cargo pallets and special loads, and enhance safety awareness.
Simon Yap, Hactl’s senior manager – learning and development, informs: “In the past, newly recruited ground service staff had to undergo extensive classroom training before experiencing the real-life aircraft cargo handling environment. COSAC-VR has reduced the reliance on real aircraft availability and suitable weather conditions for training, and trainees meanwhile can undergo work simulations in a totally safe environment. We have greater flexibility in scheduling training, so trainees can spend more time in familiarisation before they face the real-life situation.”
Hactl chief executive Mark Whitehead adds: “Today’s young recruits are already well-versed in VR technology through their use of computer games. We believe this same technology can be employed to capture their interest and enthusiasm, and turn learning into an enjoyable experience.
“This is just the beginning: we will add progressively to COSAC-VR’s scope, and look at other ways to deploy VR, such as staff induction and internal communication. We are very interested in exploring collaboration with our airline customers on the VR training concept, for our mutual benefit.”