Public Release: 

Panel Assesses Impact Of Automation On Air Traffic Control

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Pressure to provide for more daily flights -- combined with old equipment and a shortage of personnel -- has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to consider automating more functions at its air traffic control facilities. Before implementing any changes, however, consideration must be given to the effects such changes would have on the people who work in the facilities, says a new report issued by a National Research Council panel, chaired by a University of Illinois professor.

"We have learned some lessons from automation in other domains that suggest certain kinds of automation are good and helpful, while other kinds can be confusing and dangerous," said Christopher Wickens, head of the U. of I. aviation research lab and a professor of psychology and of industrial engineering.

Examples where automation could benefit human performance in air traffic control include the scheduling of multiple flight paths and the graphical representation of complex flight trajectories in three-dimensional space, Wickens said. "Such tasks are very difficult and time consuming for the unaided mind."

Too much automation could do more harm than good, Wickens cautioned. "No system is fail-safe, therefore we may not want to remove the human operator from the loop. Controllers must be able to efficiently monitor the system and be able to take over if the automation should fail."

Because monitoring is not something that humans do especially well, more effective displays of the existing and projected flight paths could help air traffic controllers maintain better "situation awareness" with an automatic system and make appropriate decisions in the event of a failure, Wickens said.

In its recent report, Flight to the Future: Human Factors in Air Traffic Control (published by the National Academy Press), the panel examined the role of human factors in the current air traffic control system.

"We made a series of recommendations that range from hiring criteria, work schedules and training programs for air traffic controllers, to the types of information that should be displayed," Wickens said. "By employing good human factors, the safety and reliability of the present system can be improved."

In its next report, expected to be completed later this year, the panel will assess different types of automation that the FAA is considering, and make recommendations on how the automation should be implemented.

The panel's three-year study is funded by the FAA.

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