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Pilots distracted by laptops? Not in cockpits of the future.

Automated flight controls under research may be able to sense how alert pilots are. It’s one way science could help prevent mistakes like the one made by the Northwest pilots who overflew Minneapolis by 150 miles.

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As two Northwest pilots ponder their futures – minus their pilot licenses – researchers are developing new approaches for keeping pilots on their toes on long flights.

It’s part of a larger effort to improve air safety over the next decade or two with the US Federal Aviation Administration’s “NextGen” air-traffic control system.

NextGen draws on a range of high-tech approaches to give pilots more accurate information, about terrain and weather conditions, for instance. More aircraft flight-control systems will be automated. And air traffic controllers will receive more frequent and precise data, allowing them to pack more airliners along routes.

“There are lots of pieces to the puzzle, but I think there’s a general recognition that it’s time to move to the next-generation system,” says R. John Hansman Jr., a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

A vital element of this research involves devising ways to keep pilots engaged when the trip is long and on autopilot.

The buzz phrase is “situational awareness,” something the National Transportation Safety Board said the two pilots of Northwest Airlines Airbus 320 lost when they overshot the Minneapolis airport on Oct. 21 and traveled another 150 miles before they realized what had happened.

For the passengers, if not the pilots, the incident had a happy ending. But that’s not always the case. One study of accidents involving major airlines found that 88 percent of incidents involving pilot error hinged on a lack of situational awareness rather than flying skills, according to Mica Endsley, who heads SA technologies in Marietta, Ga. The company focuses on research on situational awareness.

The concept appears simple – pay attention. The Northwest pilots said they were deep in crew scheduling discussions, “flying” their laptop computers instead of the airplane. In an emergency, specialists say, pilots who haven’t been paying attention have to play catch-up, burning up valuable response time.

But problems also can arise when pilots are presented with too much information.

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North Carolina State University engineering professor David Kaber recently explored the effect of two budding technologies – infrared nose cameras and computer-generated 3-D maps – on pilots having to land under instrument-only conditions, typically when visibility is poor. Each approach had its advantage and disadvantage, but taken together, the two systems undercut the pilots’ performance. The problem: too much visual clutter on the display the two systems shared.

As the level of automation increases, pilots can also become more complacent, Dr. Kaber says.

To help offset this effect, some researchers are exploring ways to have automated flight controls “sense” how alert the flight crew is, and adjust the level of automation. The idea, Kaber says, is to increase levels of automation when a pilot is alert and decrease automation when it appears that a pilot is losing long-term focus.

Alertness cues can come from physical traits such as heart rate or the electrical conductivity of skin, which can change with perspiration levels.

Beyond helping pilots stay on their toes, this approach can keep a pilot’s workload at a level that keeps him or her engaged – without the stress that can come from trying to assimilate and respond to too much information.

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Click here to read more about the larger questions around the Northwest incident.

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