Iowa Lab Studies Pilot Behavior and Safety

Research focuses on determining a pilot’s “breaking point.”

The University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Laboratory, an aircraft simulation and flight testing organization, wants to better understand the workload level a pilot can handle before they become truly overwhelmed.

OPL director Tom Schnell noted that pilots today, both military and civilian, push a great many buttons in the cockpit, efforts that take their eyes away from the horizon to monitor a screen.

“All of these technologies require more headwork, more coordination and more multitasking. We’re providing an academic research environment that allows for rigorous testing of new technology, as well as the study of pilot behavior. The degradation from a situation where all is well to where aircraft control is lost can be a few seconds,” Schnell says. “Tracking cockpit automation takes an analytic mind and is a task that must be learned in order to be mastered.”

OPL researchers recently partnered with Rockwell Collins to equip one of the lab’s two jet fighter training aircraft with an additional computer and touch screen to virtually augment pilot workload in flight. NeuroTracker software by CogniSens Inc., a Canadian firm that uses neurological technologies to enhance cognitive capabilities, produces images of spheres, each with an ID number, that move across the screen before the pilot’s eyes.

For the actual testing, Schnell recruited low-time pilots from a local flight school, while others simply volunteered. Researchers wanted pilots with minimal flying skills because high-time aviators have already proven capable at juggling numerous activities. OPL then measured how quickly pilots became overwhelmed. As study participants performed flight maneuvers of varying difficulty at approximately 10,000 feet—from an easy 30-degree right turn to a timed, 1,000-foot descent with 360-degree turn—they were required to also keep track of a number of moving spheres.

Although test participants practice on the NeuroTracker software for weeks before takeoff, it’s much more difficult to track the moving spheres while actually flying an aircraft. These high-pressure multitasking moments are exactly what Schnell and his team want to observe. A camera attached to the pilot’s helmet recorded eye movement while another monitored pilot heart rate. The information is combined with other physiological data using OPL-created software known as the Cognitive Avionics Tool Set.

Aerospace companies like Rockwell Collins want to develop better flight training and simulation technology, including the use of biometrics and cognitive elements, Schnell says. He is hopeful that the pilot workload research OPL’s conducting in the cockpit will help bring enhanced simulation and training tools to the commercial market.


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