FSExpo 2024

Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]

BeyondATC claims to bring a revolutionary AI-powered Air Traffic Control system, but is it ready for primetime?

Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]

Say goodbye to the frustrations of default Microsoft Flight Simulator ATC and the complexities of VATSIM – or at least that’s the hope. Newcomer to the Flight Simulation scene, BeyondATC, claims to bring a revolutionary AI-powered Air Traffic Control system, which it aims to redefine the way we interact with virtual airspace. It has entered Early Access, but is it ready for primetime?

Setup

Setting up this product is straightforward. I easily mapped the microphone button on my Honeycomb Alpha and connected the microphone from my webcam to BeyondATC, and everything worked as expected. There is also a voice test feature to verify that the system understands your voice. If you’re concerned about system compatibility, you can complete all of this setup within the application before purchasing BeyondATC. If you have run into any difficulties through the setup process, Easyjetsimpilot made a nice tutorial video.

One concern I had with using this app on my personal setup was that I only have one monitor. I didn’t want to have to navigate communicating with ATC while Alt+Tab to open the BeyondATC application. The developer considered this use case and implemented the ability to map a key to toggle viewing the application. It’s an acceptable solution, but I personally would prefer an in-game interface that I could toggle through the toolbar. The developers of BeyondATC have told FSElite that “For VR users this is the number one requested feature, so most likely [an in-game interface will be developed], we just have to fix the other issues first.”

Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]
Options

After mapping the key buttons, you input your Simbrief ID, and you are off and running with your flight. One very important requirement for using this application is that it requires a Simbrief flight plan to start communicating with Air Traffic Control.

Jumping into the sim and being able to use push to talk, and have the controller understand what you are saying, is a real game-changing experience in terms of immersion (a feeling I’m sure many VATSIM users will remember). If you aren’t interested in using push to talk, or don’t feel confident in your understanding of proper phraseology, the application does give you the option to select Auto Respond, and your co-pilot will communicate for you.

Air Traffic Controlling

As an Air Traffic Control program – the first objective that you are looking for the program to execute is good Air Traffic Control-ing. It works as advertised on that front, most of the time. When things are going smoothly, the program provides logical and effective control commands to the user. It even effectively vectors you onto the final approach from the end of a STAR—no more deleting the route discontinuity in your FMC (you know who you are).

Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]
A well communicated vectors that were given to me to join final approach at MSP from the MUSCL3 STAR – featuring a successful Continuous Descent

The problem is that it doesn’t always run smoothly. I’ve been held at altitudes during my descent for several minutes and then been given an impossible descent onto final approach, received taxi clearances that don’t recognize active runways, been told that gates I’m looking to taxi to don’t exist, and have been vectored to do a 360 turn into a mountain while following a STAR (thank you, TAWS…). These issues haven’t plagued me on every flight, but I’ve encountered at least one illogical ATC command every other flight.

Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]
An interesting vectored route I got for Sangster Airport approach – featuring a near miss with a mountain.
Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]
Was inexplicably vectored into a loop on approach into Bergen.

The developer claims that these issues are based on bad data it pulls from the simulator. The program computes a 3-dimensional route map that the ATC will direct you through, and computes taxi routes, SIDs, STARs, and Approaches based on airport data stored within MSFS. The developer claims that for various airports, this data isn’t accurate or readable by the program. As a result, it’s going to direct you illogically. We reached out to the developer to ask them how they are looking to fix the bad airport data, and they stated “For the major airports yes [we are manually fixing the data], for everything else we’re doing our best. The hope is that as time passes, the demand for good data will be so high scenery devs will go in and fix the broken stuff. This will affect all programs as well, GSX, SI, etc, so there’s a large incentive to do it not just for BATC.”

Taken at their word, hopefully this issue is not something that plagues the program forever. I would imagine there is a giant mountain of bad data they have to deal with, and hopefully they will be able to clear it at some point. There was an interesting analogy made at the end of the article to GSX, which makes me wonder how the community will drive things. It is becoming somewhat an expectation of the community that any scenery product releases and is fully compatible with GSX, if not having a .ini file – I do wonder if a similar expectation of compatibility will be put on BeyondATC, time will tell.

The ATC experience feels very much on rails, as the developer has stated is intentional. Unfortunately, deviating from these rails can be met with confusion from the program. The controller is unable to accommodate requests for a hold, an alternate Runway, SID, STAR, or approach. The only real flight plan modifications I’ve been able to make are to request a direct-to or altitude change.

Changeovers between frequencies are well executed. Ground passes me over to Tower right before I reach the hold short line, and in-flight frequency changes happen at realistic times. A really nice touch here is that when you are cruising and a long distance away from the radio tower, the program adds in radio “noise”—this is especially noticeable on oceanic flights. One useful feature is the auto-tune function, which automatically updates the frequency every time ATC hands you off to the next controller. You do have the option to turn this off, though. However, I have 2 complaints:

  1. The challenge of collecting the ATIS readout when on descent—the program currently doesn’t enable the user to listen to 2 frequencies at once, which means you have to leave the active frequency to collect weather information. You can do this externally to the app though in your airplane by managing the COM2 frequency, although that is a manual process.
  2. The handover from tower to ground after landing—I’ve encountered significant difficulty trying to request a gate through my microphone, due to the aforementioned data issues. For example, when requesting access to gate D54 at an airport, the controller kept telling me the gate didn’t exist. Upon opening the UI, I found that the application had the gate stored as 54 Delta. This whole process took 2 minutes, and I was just sitting on the taxiway trying to figure this out, unable to continue my taxi. In an ideal world, BeyondATC would pull the gate assignment from GSX, which I select well before landing. Note – this issue may have been resolved by update 1.0.30.EA

If you don’t want to handle air traffic communications yourself, BeyondATC has an “auto-respond” feature, acting like a virtual co-pilot. This is especially useful in high workload situations like Departure and Arrival or in cruise if you need to step away from your computer. In my testing with the PMDG 737, I had no issue utilizing the “auto-respond” feature with the Auto Cruise feature activated.

Voices

One of the most anticipated features of this product is the inclusion of AI-Generated voices. These voices encompass both country-specific accents and male/female variations. I’ve found these accents to sound authentic, and there is a real sense of immersion you get from traveling across Europe and encountering a different accent every 20 minutes.

These accents are generated at two different qualities—Basic and Premium—with the difference being how much computing power it takes to generate them. The basic voices sound fine, in my opinion. Occasionally, there are some weird pronunciation choices, but they are fully understandable. The great thing about the basic voices is that they are provided at no additional cost to the user. So, once you spend the $30 on the base product, you can continue using it with the basic voices at no extra cost, even though it utilizes server computing resources.

The premium voices offer high-quality options that sound fantastic and are perfectly legible. However, I do find that sometimes the pace of the voice transmission is way too fast to write down, especially when copying long taxi instructions – or difficulties understanding taxi instructions when a taxiway is multi-letter (See the video below). It would be better if there was a bit of a “breath” taken by the controller between taxiways. I personally struggle to write these commands down, and am only able to readback the taxi instructions if I am looking at the UI and seeing the controller commands written out.

These higher-quality voices come at a cost, charging per character of voice generation. The base product includes 50,000 characters, and my testing has shown that each flight consumes around 6,000 characters (based on 2-hour flights). So, with your purchase, you should have enough characters to try out the premium voices for several flights or, in my case, become hooked and unable to go back to the lower-quality basic voices. Once you run out of credits, you can top up with 250,000 characters for $10, which, at the rate I’m going, should last me about 40 flights, averaging about $0.25 per flight—well worth it for me. If you have more questions about the pricing or want to hear samples of the voices, BeyondATC has a page on their website for just that.

You also have the ability to choose the voice for your copilot. There are generic US/UK voices available, or you can opt for some guest voices, including well-known YouTubers, to communicate with ATC if you choose to use the “Auto Respond” feature or the in-application interface. It’s a bit “Uncanny Valley” to hear an AI voice of a real person you’ve listened to for years. However, if you can get over that aspect, the voices sound like the real people and add a fun novelty to the experience.

Last, but certainly not least, is your own voice! Through the Push-To-Talk feature, you are able to provide your own voice to the application when communicating with ATC. Not having to point and click on a UI significantly enhances the immersion. I personally haven’t had any issues with it understanding my voice, and you can test out if it can understand your voice prior to purchasing the product.

Upcoming Features

With this product in Early Access, the Developer doesn’t view it as complete. They’re actively addressing numerous bugs (and seem dedicated, releasing patches once a day since release).

Review: BeyondATC [Early Access]

Additionally, there are numerous features slated for future updates. Traffic Injection is the most hotly anticipated feature. BeyondATC estimates that this feature is still 4-6 months away, as they still need to fix the bad airport data issue first.

With traffic coming in 4-6 months, that does raise some concerns for me about when they will view this product as being “complete” and out of the early access phase. There are 9 phases of features that they are looking to add to this product, I would imagine not all of them will take 4-6 months, but this is likely going to be a multi-year project. Additionally, as with all Early Access products, there is no guarantee that ultimately all of these features will be implemented—just something to keep in mind. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the Early Access price will be the final release price.

Closing

BeyondATC has single-handedly transformed my simulation experience, rivaling the immersion enhancement I get from using TrackIR. Conversing with lifelike, region-specific air traffic controllers is nothing short of revolutionary. Yet, like many Early Access releases, it grapples with bugs and feature gaps. Despite these hiccups, its $30 price tag still represents a worthwhile investment for any enthusiast eager to elevate their experience.

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Spencer te Wildt
Spencer is a huge aviation geek and living in Seattle means he has the ability to see aircraft be born at Boeing Field. A lover of all things aviation.

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