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Human Factors Students Ready to Keep NextGen Avionics Grounded in Reality

By Woodrow Bellamy III | September 16, 2014
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[Avionics Today 09-16-2014] As new aviation technology and capabilities such as touchscreen displays, Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) and Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS) become more commonplace in fixed and rotary wing cockpits over the next 10 years, avionics companies will remain committed to designing these new capabilities around pilot-machine interaction. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), realizing this need for a focus on human factors in NextGen cockpit design, has introduced a new Ph.D. in Human Factors degree program.

Embry Riddle University Florida campus
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Photo: Embry Riddle Aeronautical University

"In the United States and around the world, there are very few programs anymore that offer a pure aviation human factors type degree," said Scott Shappell, department chair of the Human Factors and Systems department at ERAU. Shappell brings a wealth of experience to ERAU's Human Factors program too, having a Ph.D. in neuroscience and 20 years of experience in the U.S. Navy as a pilot, aerospace psychologist and human factors aviation accident investigation consultant for the Joint Service Safety Chiefs.

Shappell believes human factors will always remain a central aspect to developing avionics systems.

"It’s very important, when you think about it, the way we design avionics — everything from developing the cockpit in a car to the cockpit in an aircraft, you have to look at the human that’s going to operate it," said Shappell. "We’re presenting so much information in so many different ways to our pilots. If you don’t understand how humans function you can overwhelm them. No matter how smart the person is. When I look at human factors I look at it in terms of the worst pilot possible. If we design for that worst-case scenario, we probably design a pretty good aircraft cockpit for avionics."

Graduates from ERAU's Human Factors program will assist avionics companies with understanding how to design the cockpit of the future around the environment that flight crews find themselves in. One of the newer forms of avionics technology that will continue to be discussed at all levels of the program will be the introduction of more touch screens in the cockpit. Thales, for example, is currently developing its Avionics 2020 cockpit, which integrates a large display area associated with several reconfigurable means of control including multi-touchscreen capabilities, head-up and head-down controls. Shappell's experience as a Navy pilot brings a unique perspective to developing university curriculums around training professionals that help companies perfect the human interaction aspect of that concept.

"I flew in F/A-18s and other aircraft and if you’re pulling a lot of Gs, or you have gloves on, imagine how upset you would be — you’re in an emergency situation you go to press the touchscreen but its not functioning because your fingers are sweaty or you have a glove on or for whatever reason it doesn’t recognize your print? That’s scary," said Shappell. "Now that doesn’t mean we can’t overcome that, that doesn’t mean that excellent companies like Thales and others won’t figure that out and won’t fix that … I think that’s where your human factors people start to come in and start to question the engineers who can engineer anything and try to bring the human back into the loop. Companies like Thales, Boeing, Honeywell and others hire our people out of Embry Riddle to do just that."

Students will also learn about the growing capabilities of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), as civil aviation authorities in the United States and other countries continue to integrate them into commercial airspace. Shappell said the Human factors department has an area of research currently focusing on how many unmanned aircraft an operator can actually manage, looking at the difference between being in the cockpit versus being on the ground.

"There’s more to just flying an aircraft; there’s a feel. You don’t have that sense in UAVs, because you’re not in the cockpit. So there’s this disconnect and we want to study that disconnect," said Shappell. "There’s a whole branch in the field of human factors that’s evolving in this UAV field focusing on how to integrate the human when they’re detached. We’re so used to using technology hands on. Now you’re operating it and it could be halfway across the world. That’s a scary proposition, but it’s going to happen."

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