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Learning About Electronics Electronically

By George Marsh | May 1, 2003

Although the classroom and instructor are not about to exit aviation training, the traditional methods of instruction are increasingly being supplemented by computer-based training (CBT)–or computer-assisted learning from the student’s point of view. And it is well suited for training avionics technicians.

CBT can enrich the conventional classroom experience or free students to learn at their own pace. It can deliver course material to aircraft operators’ training departments, so that technicians can learn near their jobs. CBT also offers interactive distance learning in real time–or "e-learning"–as broadband Internet and personal computers bring students and instructors together on a virtual campus. Better established is the use of computers for equipment or whole aircraft system simulations and part-task trainers.

Training by CD

For self-paced study, technicians can buy, at little expense, compact disc (CD) packages that can run on a PC or laptop. More than electronic lecture notes, these CDs present graphics, animated demonstrations, built-in help files, and computer-marked tests. Technicians preparing for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) knowledge exams can study CD-based packages such as the ASA Interactive Prepware series (developed primarily for pilots but with technician content also) at home, in hotel rooms, or at work between shifts.

At the same time, they can view equipment manufacturers’ CDs, rapidly becoming a standard delivery method for familiarization courses and technical manuals. Some modules enable users to practice faultfinding routines on screen. Prepware test discs include an online user manual with access to quizzes or FAA questions, together with assessments and graphical depictions of student performance.

One of several avionic original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) offering CD-based instructional material is Honeywell Aerospace Electronic Systems. Self-paced training modules for the Phoenix-based company’s systems typically provide a functionality overview, detailed instruction and simulated practice for testing and fault diagnosis. One package is designed to prepare avionics bench technicians for troubleshooting microprocessor circuits, using a microprocessor emulator and other testing tools. This course takes the student through an overall description of the X86 microprocessor, operational descriptions of random access memory (RAM), read only memory (ROM), decoders, debuggers and input/output devices. It also provides troubleshooting instruction, using probable circuits and a software emulation of a commercial troubleshooter. Students can interact with the material, seeking help on particular points, exercising faultfinding choices, and completing tests. Course packages have to be purchased.

Distance Learning

Many students find that the lack of structure and minimal feedback of self-paced, "package-based" learning does not suit them, and favor more of a classroom environment–without actually having to go to school. For them distance learning offers communication with tutors, either in real time or asynchronously, along with external evaluations of progress. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, for one, has long had distance learning programs and, with the advent of the Internet, has transitioned from audio and video tapes to on-line instruction.

For this accredited university, distance learning classes must be just as rigorous as classes on campus. It’s the quality of the class that matters most, asserts a spokesman.

Once logged on to the university’s Web site, technicians taking an extended-campus/distance learning program, such as Aircraft Maintenance Technician (type 65), can access materials, assigned tutors and a learning management system (LMS). The LMS guides the student through the training modules, keeps test scores and tracks progress.

Embry-Riddle has used CBT to extend aeronautical education to more than 100 teaching sites in the United States and around the world. For example, at Al Salam Aircraft Co., a Saudi Arabian maintenance firm partly owned by Boeing, CBT helps 25 Saudi technicians to complete training under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 147. The university’s Aviation and Space Technology Academy at the Daytona Beach, Fla., campus uses CBT to support a number of non-degree distance learning courses, including FAA airframe and powerplant mechanic (A&P) certification, within which an avionics line maintenance specialization leads to U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) certification.

While there is still far less avionics than A&P license CBT material, the volume is increasing. Among commercial courseware developers are ElectronicFlight Solutions Inc. (EFSI), which points to CBT’s multimedia capability as a major strength. According to EFSI’s Paul Novacek, using several methods–text, animations, three-dimensional "fly-throughs" and video, for example–helps students understand a topic more fully. Portable software also enables users to learn at home, at work or even in a hotel room. Loading it into multiple computers at the workplace allows collaborative learning. Training material can be used for quick reviews or detailed studies. Quizzes reinforce learning.

Better than a Manual

There are management benefits, too. Good CBT material can help technicians learn faster, more thoroughly and with greater interest, compared with studying maintenance manuals. Shop managers can employ "just-in-time" training, enabling technicians to refresh their knowledge of particular systems just before the arrival of a key customer or of an installation procedure during waiting time.

ElectronicFlight Solutions and other vendors provide, via their Web sites, learning management systems that can monitor an individual technician’s progress and provide periodic reports for managers. Suggesting that an entire CBT library, sufficient to train many technicians for several years, can be acquired for the cost of sending a single technician to a week-long factory course, Novecek says, "CBT helps in the endless struggle to gain the most training from a limited budget."

Training specialist Flight Safety Inc. offers on-line maintenance courses that include avionics. Its Centra 99 software runs on Pentium-class computers with Internet Explorer 4.01 or higher browsers. Students who log on for about two hours a day can access a virtual campus and interact with tutors in real time. LearnLinc software provides features such as an instructor photograph, list of fellow students, a "raise hand" button for attracting the instructor’s attention, and a facility for asking, via the computer’s microphone, questions that the whole class can hear.

By pushing a "private" button, students can send messages on a chat board that only the instructor can see. Instructors can, via a feedback facility, pace quiz sections to the individual student’s needs and modify response choices if necessary. Students can complete exercises on their own time, or while logged on–in which case they can ask questions if they face difficulty. A whiteboard on the right-hand side of the screen can display diagrams and charts.

Training in Europe

Europe, too, embraces computer-assisted learning. Distance learning, already well-established among mobile seafarers in the maritime community, is evolving towards e-campus level, thanks to the emergence of broadband Internet.

Aviation training provider VEGA Group PLC in the UK says that one of the most useful tools for maintainers is system emulation, implemented either in computer courseware or in a combination of hardware and software. Emulators range from simple, single-system models to sophisticated trainers in which software drives an aircraft’s integrated systems. Ian Govier, VEGA’s government and defense solutions director, likens this to a Microsoft flight simulator for technicians.

"Students can operate system controls, practice all the procedures, bring test equipment to bear, and rehearse faultfinding," says Govier. "A team of maintainers can collaborate on a problem, with an instructor seeding faults and providing guidance."

Instructors can inject single or multiple faults, even replicating the tendency in today’s highly integrated glass cockpit environments for initial faults to trigger a cascading series of consequential events. Such capability is part of the maintenance training system VEGA provides to support the new Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft. Working with EADS and other multinational program participants, VEGA has developed a complete CBT infrastructure. This task has been complicated by the need to support all the national variants, different hardware and software standards, user languages and procedures, plus the need to update software as new issues become available.

VEGA uses CBT to support full training colleges, including the commercial Lulea College and establishments for the Swedish and Norwegian armed forces. The Aviation College of Sweden became an early customer for VEGA’s Joint Airworthiness Requirement (JAR) 66-compliant avionics program. (JAR 66 is Europe’s equivalent to FAR 145 and is increasingly adhered to in military as well as civil circles.) Among the airlines on the company’s client list are China Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Cargolux International.

VEGA distance learning courses can back up technicians’ academic training. For instance, four modules of a comprehensive (35-ATA module) Jet Aircraft Maintenance Fundamentals course, developed with Lufthansa Technical Training, provide a grounding in generic navigation, communications, instruments and autoflight (autopilots, stability augmentation etc.) equipment. A computer-marked, multiple-choice quiz at the end of each half-hour- to hour-long module helps self-study students assess their progress. Basic simulations of, say, a flight management system or head-up display can be run on a laptop. But more complex scenarios–an entire glass cockpit perhaps–may require multiple screens or networked PCs, so that several instrumentation displays can be viewed at once without overcrowding the PC screen. Once students progress to type- and equipment-specific training, emulations become more significant.

VEGA has supplied LMS but is equally happy to integrate with commercially available systems, such as Lotus LearningSpace, Docent or Saba, or with systems that clients have developed for themselves.

Near-Reality

Educators agree that, useful though CBT and computer simulations are, maintainers eventually must come to grips with the reality of the wires and circuits. An interesting example of a general-purpose avionics emulator is the C-MATS-2 computer-managed avionics maintenance training simulator system from EdTec Associates of California. Designed for the initial training of flight-line aviation maintenance technicians, C-MATS-2 supports instruction in avionic fundamentals and logical troubleshooting. A bench top unit resembles an avionics "stack" in an aircraft panel with VOR and ADF directional indicators, an intercom and a full power bus with circuit breakers. Pulling the strings within this real hardware is a computer that interfaces to microcontrollers within the avionics radios and power circuits.

Rear-panel access provides for circuit tracing, testing and troubleshooting of the power bus, antenna cables and wiring harness–along with the system’s operating circuits, terminals and connectors. Instructors can use C-MATS-2 for classroom tutorials and demonstrations, but the simulator system can be run with instructional software, enabling students to familiarize themselves with the equipment, while learning at their own pace under CBT guidance. When faults applied to the system under software control have been correctly diagnosed, the software validates the students’ repair actions and returns the units to full operational status.

Emulating in hardware may have disadvantages. To cite one example, operators of U.S. Navy E-6 Sentry aircraft have found that it can cost millions of dollars to send multiple panel trainers back to equipment manufacturers for refurbishment whenever there is an upgrade, and the panels are unavailable for training in the meantime. But in helping students transition from CBT to reality, driving physical equipment by computer to simulate flight and fault responses can be effective.

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