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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 5, 2007

UI Engineers Net $887,628 NASA Grant To Develop Pilot-Avionics Interface

Safer air travel is the goal of a new University of Iowa engineering study that is funded by a five-year, $887,628 grant from NASA.

The project is designed to investigate concepts that will give aircraft avionics systems an awareness of the pilot's state of mind -- based on physiological measures, aircraft state, and flight mission parameters -- and the ability to take appropriate action.

For example, if a pilot undergoes very high levels of workload, the avionics system may sense it and provide different information to mitigate the adverse effects of the high workload. Similarly, on long and boring flights, the avionics system could be alerted to possible pilot drowsiness, based on physiological patterns in the pilot induced by very low workload levels. In this case, the reaction of the avionics system could range from issuing audible warnings to automatically activating the autopilot.

This natural pilot-avionics interface will shape the behavior of future flight decks and has the potential to simplify pilot interaction with avionics, says principal investigator Tom Schnell, associate professor of industrial and mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Computer Aided Design's (CCAD) Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) in the UI College of Engineering.

"We will perform pilot-in-the-loop simulator-based tests and airborne flight tests with scenarios that can safely introduce different levels of workload and situation awareness with the associated resulting effects," Schnell says. "We will collect pilot physiological state data to design a human-to-avionics interface safety system that can be used to trigger mitigations such as tactile displays, verbal warnings, warning tones or visual warnings to encourage corrective and beneficial pilot behavior. The model and connected countermeasures will then be evaluated in a real test flight."

The project will make use of OPL's flight simulators to study pilot performance and situation awareness, as well as OPL/CCAD's Computerized Airborne Research Platform (CARP), a 1978 Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft equipped as a flying neural-imaging and physiological performance assessment laboratory. CARP will be used to collect a wide range of in-flight pilot physiological, aircraft, and environmental data using specific scenarios.

Pilot physiological data will include: dense array electroencephalogram (EEG), electrocardiogram (EKG), electromyogram (EMG), facial feature points, facial temperature changes, eye movements, respiration frequency and amplitude.

Schnell, a commercial pilot, says that pilots often respond differently to simulated stimuli than they do to real flight situations, thereby creating the need for real flight testing.

Some of the factors involved in pilot error are: an unnoticed disconnection of the autopilot system, a sudden loss of outside visibility caused by fog or precipitation, instrument failure and situations of very high or very low workload leading to less than optimal performance. Schnell plans to address not only those factors, but also NASA's concern that pilots and crews may be reaching their cognitive limits as they receive advanced cockpit technologies and ever-increasing amounts of information.

"With additional layers of automation being introduced, crew alertness under low levels of workload becomes just as much of a concern as it does with high levels of workload," Schnell says. "Tools and methodologies are needed to improve aircraft safety and enable full realization of the Next Generation Air Transport System (NGATS). NGATS is the government's plan to make the U.S. air transportation system more efficient, secure, flexible, resilient, and highly automated so that it can meet up to two to three times its current demand by 2025. Our project will contribute to the development of these safety tools, methods and technology components.

"We will use the collected data to develop algorithms that synchronize and fuse the data from many sensors that monitor pilot state, remove such artifacts as eye blinks on EEG data, perform data processing, and predict pilot state. This will make the avionics systems more aware of hazardous states or deteriorating performance," he added. "One goal of this research is to determine optimal characteristics of operator state prediction and feedback in order to avoid negative effects, such as surprise or frustration. Of particular interest is to determine if a non-contact array of sensors would be sufficient for a fielded system. A working system is scheduled to be delivered in September 2011 to NASA with interim prototypes demonstrated throughout the five-year study."

So far, work on the project, combined with related research, has garnered the research team a best paper award from the October 2006 Augmented Cognition International Conference held in San Francisco. Also, the Discovery Channel produced a documentary of the work when the OPL team deployed the neural imaging technology on a Bell 412 helicopter at Canada's National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, Canada, during December 2006. The documentary of this joint research with NRC is called "Brains on a Plane" and aired as part of a Discovery Channel show called the "Daily Planet" in Canada.

Co-investigators on the project include Carlton Richey, Mike Keller, Pieter Poolman, Nicholas Lorch, Blaze Michael Keller, and Andrej Lenert.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Research: Tom Schnell, principal investigator, 319-631-4445,; Media: Gary Galluzzo, writer, 319-384-0009,