Talk Devices Train Air-Traffic Controllers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

COMPUTERIZED aircraft simulators have saved dollars and lives by training pilots in a wide range of flight situations. But air-traffic controllers have not had similar success with computer-based training because of their profession's reliance on oral communication. Although computers are used in air-traffic control training today, the systems require an operator called a pseudo-pilot to listen to the trainee's commands and tell the computer how to update the heading of each aircraft.

``That's manpower intensive,'' says Robert Wesson, a researcher who studies the application of artificial intelligence to air-traffic control. ``You have to take a trained controller off the line and put him in the back room [to run the trainer]. They're already dramatically understaffed. That translates directly into time, dollars, and safety.''

Because of developments in computerized speech processing, the operator can now be replaced with a voice-recognition system. ``What you want is a stand-alone training device, where a controller can turn on the machine, strap on a headset, and go,'' says Dr. Wesson.

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In 1988, Wesson was selling a $49.95 computer game that let a person step into the shoes of an air-traffic controller, route flights around the country, and deal with pilots.

``The controllers discovered it and commented, `if you put voice recognition on the thing ... it could be used as a professional-level training device,''' says Wesson. With a little work, he got a Dragon Systems speech recognizer to operate with his game.

Then Wesson International, Wesson's software development firm in Austin, Texas, was given a US Air Force Small Business Innovative Research Contract to develop the professional simulator. Ten systems have already been sold for research and evaluation.

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