Technology is pervasive throughout the flight experience — so why not use it to analyze pilots' brainwaves to understand how they respond to stress and thus mitigate pilot error?
In a bid to understand just how their brains function while flying, scientists in France, the U.S., and Japan are working together to test pilots as they fly.
Taking a cue from neuroscience, nodes are attached to a pilot's head in order to measure brain responses throughout the flight cycle.
The first phase was carried out on a simulator, rather than an actual real-world test, and also measures heart rate and perspiration while tracking eye movements to determine emotional states.
The next phase involved forced landings on actual flights. Pilots wore caps embedded with sensors — including an eye tracker —and then took to the sky in a light aircraft.
A forced landing then allowed the scientists to track how the pilot responds to a stressful situation.
The data of the pilots' psychological and neurological states can then be used for a deeper understanding of the real challenges that a pilot faces during flight.
Of course, it cannot replicate every type of stress that a pilot may experience and there is certainly a difference between flying a simulated light aircraft and actually piloting a commercial jet liner.
Nonetheless, it's interesting to see technology applied in such a human way — especially as the cockpit has become laden with technology that in many ways removes much of the human physicality from the pilot experience.
In the Euronews segment below, one of the suggested solutions to stress for pilots is to limit the amount of information that could overload the pilot:
The scientists can watch as a highly stressed pilot’s brain literally shuts down many of its critical faculties and shifts from rational decision to emotional reaction, to a state of so-called “inattentional deafness”, where audible alarms and spoken instructions are ignored.
With emerging cockpit technologies such as synthetic vision, it may be a challenge to limit information. Daniel Callan, senior researcher at the NICT, told Euronews that more is not necessarily better when it comes to information in the cockpit:
So the future cockpit is, hopefully, a non-invasive, brain machine interface, that would be able to monitor the pilot’s attentional workload use countermeasures, through technology, perhaps a heads-up display, to present information to the pilot in the most optimal way and reduce the amount of information to the pilot optimally.
Under high workload conditions, it’s only the situation that they need to deal with, (that’s all) they need to attend to.
The full segment outlining these experiments is below.