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Brainstorming safe flight's futureBrainstorming safe flight’s future

A company that provides a broad spectrum of information technology and other support services to the FAA is testing ways to include the pilot’s perspective in the solutions it develops.

In September, Falls Church, Virginia-headquartered CSRA, one of the FAA’s two direct user access terminal service (DUATS) contractors, hosted the Liftoff Design Thinking Challenge, a daylong session in which teams composed of general aviation pilots, human experience professionals, technologists, and solution architects explored “pilot-centered opportunities for innovation in how general aviation pilots prepare for and conduct their flights and in their interactions with key FAA systems and processes.”

It was a scenario-based exercise, with several pilots of various experience levels serving as “subject matter experts,” as teams of CSRA human experience professionals, technologists, and solution architects worked to develop approaches to how pilots could harness systems and information during a flight.

The challenge the teams tackled envisioned a scenario in which two pilots—one very experienced and the other a relative novice—fly from separate airports to rendezvous at a third field, each facing the need to react to information and make decisions to deal with changing conditions along the way.

Three teams approached the project from a variety of perspectives, using automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to varying degrees to help the pilot manage the decision making.

One of three teams examined ways “to utilize AI and existing government datasets to provide better fact-based decision support and situation awareness.” Such a system would “recognize the phase of flight and provide relevant information,” and would “push” information to the pilot, respond to verbal commands, keep track of traffic, and “reduce cognitive decision making,” among other functions. It would interact differently with different pilots, depending on their experience. (It also could inform a pilot of any deficiencies in training for the proposed flight.)

Another team envisioned a system to “reduce pilot cognitive load by consolidating and automating available information,” gathering the data from multiple sources and pushing it to the pilot, and automating some routine interactions with air traffic control. A fitness-watch feature would monitor the pilot’s condition and make safety recommendations. “An example: The pilot is dehydrated and their fitness watch would integrate with the system to recommend that the pilot should drink water.”

A third team worked with a concept in which the information system stored the pilot’s profile and preferences, “allowing a lot of the decision making to be automated. The pilot has the ability to consult with an online automated assistant to make safer decisions,” CSRA said. In such a consultation, the system “will give the pilot visual and audible rerouting suggestions while inflight.”

If it sounds a bit futuristic, with the idea of reducing a pilot’s “cognitive load” somewhat outside the decision-making models most pilots trained under, the challenge’s goal was “proving the process out,” said Richard Kitchen, CSRA human experience director.

He noted that the context and insights the pilots provided “was absolutely invaluable” as they worked in partnership with the user-experience team members, and the method would shape future semi-regular efforts to use the design thinking process to improve how pilots and aviation information systems work together for flight safety.

“This was the first step away from a more traditional hackathon, where we have developers creating code,” he said.

Topics: Technology, ATC

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