Business & GA, Commercial, Embedded Avionics

New Research Examines Behavior to Improve Avionics Design, Regulation

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | May 8, 2014
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[Avionics Today May 8, 2014] Human factors involved in major commercial aviation accidents over the last decade could hold the key to safety enhancement for avionics design and regulation for next generation cockpit technology, according to a public-private team currently researching pilot response to displays during unexpected in-flight occurrences, such as an aircraft entering a phase that is outside of its normal envelope.  

Researcher Kyle Ellis demonstrates crew state monitoring technology, including eye tracking, electroencephalography and physiological measurement devices, in the Research Flight Deck Simulator at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Credit: NASA Langley/Sandie Gibbs

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is collaborating with the FAA, Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), University of Iowa, Georgia Tech, Boeing, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins for the three-year project that focusing on a 2010 report by CAST’s Airplane State Awareness analysis group that has studied and analyzed patterns in aircraft accidents around the globe over the last decade. 
Data extracted from the research of the project shows civil aviation authorities and avionics designers how pilots will respond to modern cockpit technology during high stress times while in-flight. 
Tom Schnell, the director of the Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) at the University of Iowa, is currently preparing to launch an innovative aspect of the second year, flight-test phase of this project. Over the past year, Schnell and a team including Rockwell Collins and Boeing, converted a tandem-seat L-29 military jet training aircraft into an airborne laboratory.
The aircraft will be used during summer flight tests from the University of Iowa, with the team having the ability to immerse pilots in the back seat into airspace with different environment and terrain layouts. Their performance during in-flight upsets is measured with eye tracking and heart monitoring devices built into the aircraft technology, and later analyzed by the team to learn exactly how the pilot was responding to various displays. Avionics companies can then consider results of these tests into future designs, Schnell said. 
“So the pilot in the back [seat] basically lives in a flight simulator except [the] flight simulator is inside of an actual airplane,” said Schnell. “We can then teleport that pilot into a part of the world that he’s not at…We can also use instruments that look like the Primary Flight Display (PFD) of a 787, or we can make that become an F-18 with a flight control radar and weapons display. You can fail these instruments at will, without risk, because the pilot in the front seat has certified instruments.”

Researchers Kyle Ellis (left) and Chad Stephens (right) are part of a NASA effort to study how flight crews interact with cockpit technologies, especially as those technologies become more complex and automated. The two are demonstrating how they will monitor pilots using eye tracking, electroencephalography and physiological measurement devices in the Research Flight Deck Simulator at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Credit: NASA Langley/Sandie Gibbs
The pilots chosen to react to these upsets in flight tests are regional airline pilots with no military or aerobatic flying history. The results of the tests are slated to help  avionics companies and regulators improve the design and certification on open architecture, man-machine interfaces and customizability cockpit features.
CAST recommended this type of research in its report covering 18 loss of control flight accidents between 2001 and 2010, after discovering common causes of in-flight loss of situational awareness due to unintentional occurrences such as false instrument readings, high levels of airframe ice accumulation or a loss of engine power due to engine icing.
At NASA’s Langley Research Academy, Kyle Ellis, a research engineer, and Chad Stephens, an aerospace research scientist are using a flight simulator that will also feature eye tracking, and heart monitoring devices for pilots. One focus for Ellis and Stephens is channelized attention, and discovering what causes a pilot to become fixated on one activity or another during a flight, resulting in loss of overall situational awareness.
Stephens said that their research would look to “to understand what’s happening to the individual state while they’re performing the flight simulation task. So when we use heart rate measures we can actually get a sense or an idea of the person’s state with regards to their stress levels. Heart rate is a pretty good indicator of stress in and of itself.” 
“The CAST or Commercial Aviation Safety Team, who has been studying spatial disorientation and loss of energy state awareness in commercial operations–they’ve identified several specific precursors that they think are responsible for these ETC and LESA accidents. So channelized attention is one of those precursors. We’re trying to identify that state in the test subjects when they’re in the flight simulation. And so if we can characterize that state, we can create mitigations to prevent that state from occurring or if it does occur how to get out of that state in a safe fashion,” Stephens said. 
Synthetic vision, and its ability to enhance situational awareness will also be a focus for NASA, according to Ellis. 
“One of the primary things that we’re focused on particularly (is) looking at the safety enhancements. One of them is looking at synthetic vision displays and developing minimum requirements specifically in regard to how they better improve situational awareness and their potential for preventing spatial disorientation and Loss of Energy State Awareness [LESA], so that would be something that provided directly to OEMs in terms of how they make their avionics and what’s required by the FAA when they’re doing so,” said Stephens.
The research being performed by Schnell, Ellis, Stephens and others from the government-industry three-year project is similar to research that CAST has done in the past. Between 1998 and 2008, work performed by CAST helped to produce new aircraft, regulations and other activities that reduced the fatality risk for commercial aviation in the United States by 83 percent. 

Currently, research projects such as this, are under way to achieve the group’s goal of reducing the commercial fatality risk by 50 percent between 2010 and 2025. 

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