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Studends at computers

The Sky's the Limit


f you think the amount of air traffic is stretching its limits now, you haven’t seen anything yet, as least if the Next Generation Air Traffic System (NGATS) achieves its goals.

The obvious question is how many more airplanes can be in the sky at one time? According to CSULB psychology Professor Tom Strybel, NGATS would like to triple air traffic—without building new airports—by the year 2025.

“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) forecasts that the demand for flying will increase significantly over the next two decades,” said Strybel, “and it hopes to increase airspace capacity and put more airplanes in the sky by getting them closer together without sacrificing safety.”

Whether it’s possible will be determined in part by findings of a CSULB-led consortium, which received a $3 million National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) award. The universities and private industries—Cal State Northridge, San Jose State and Purdue University along with the Boeing Company—will collaborate on the project titled “Metrics for Operator Situation Awareness, Workload, and Performance in Automated Separation Assurance Systems.”

Strybel serves as a co-principal investigator for this project along with Kim Vu, a CSULB assistant professor of psychology and 1999 alumna.

“NGATS expects new technology will allow greater efficiency,” Strybel pointed out, “but it has been my experience that even when technology works, it is not always the panacea we expect. Sometimes the introduction of new technology creates more work.”

Currently, planes must have a cushion of three to five miles laterally and 1,000-3,000 feet vertically. NGATS is looking to tighten that spacing.

“The goal is to increase air traffic while maintaining safety,” Vu said. “Right now we have specific separation rules for the different types of aircraft being flown, the phase of flight, and so on. With the new technological devices available, the NGATS program would like to reduce the spacing requirements. For example, instead of planes needing to be three miles apart, if we can reduce the spacing, then another plane or two could be added into the airspace.”

As a psychologist, Strybel’s focus, and that of his research team, will be on two specific areas: measuring workload and situation awareness among air traffic controllers and pilots. “With this grant, we are interested in evaluating the impact of new automation concepts and technologies on the performance of pilots and air traffic controllers,” said Strybel. “We want to measure workload, or mental effort, and determine if it is manageable under new automation concepts. Workload is always an issue for air traffic controllers and pilots because of the demands made on them. Situation awareness is being aware of the information in your environment, understanding it, making good predictions on the basis of that information and being able to anticipate future events. Pilots call this ‘being ahead of the aircraft’ and air traffic controllers call it ‘having the picture.’”

Consortium members can be in different locations but still can collaborate with each other and with NASA Ames Research Center that developed the simulation software and agreed to share it with the consortium. 

In one simulation exercise, a pilot at CSULB could be flying an aircraft arriving at an airport. Pilots on other workstations, possibly at other universities, would fly other aircraft that are either arriving, departing, or en route in the same airspace. All pilots would communicate with air traffic controllers over the Internet. Air traffic controllers will manage traffic on their own workstations. With these simulations, the consortium can evaluate new automation concepts to determine their impact on workload, situation awareness, capacity and safety.

“Some people have said that, from a situation awareness standpoint, if you give pilots an air traffic controller type of display, they will be more aware because they can see more of what’s going on in the airspace,” Strybel noted, “but the display might require that pilots spend more time looking down at it instead of out the window, possibly reducing situation awareness.”

Another possible end result of automation is that some responsibilities of air traffic controllers could be transferred to pilots. Presently, air traffic controllers are responsible for maintaining separation among all aircraft and pilots must obtain air traffic controller approval for their initial flight plan and any changes to their flight plan. 

“With new automation tools, some responsibility for separation could be transferred to pilots to alleviate some workload on the air traffic controllers, giving them more time to manage traffic flow in the sector,” said Strybel. “Most air traffic controllers have a small area of sky to manage and they keep the planes separated in that area, but they don’t have much to say about planes coming into their area. So, one thing we are concerned about and we’ll be studying is the management of air traffic from a more global perspective.”

In addition, the consortium will be developing new ways of measuring pilot and air traffic controller situation awareness and workload.

“I would like to be able to, by developing and validating these metrics, let the results themselves show how new automation technologies affect pilots and controllers in terms of their job performance,” said Strybel. “I can’t tell you if we’re going to be able to do it or not; we’re just going to let the data suggest what is possible.”