For these researchers, building a ‘smart cockpit’ means reading a pilot’s mind

It takes grit to be a pilot. One glance at all the buttons, gauges, and toggles in an airplane cockpit is evidence of that. Even though automated systems are increasingly taking over tasks on commercial flights, as long as there are pilots in the plane, they will wear the weight of responsibility for all its passengers.

That is to say, flying planes can be stressful. In cases where something goes wrong, coordination between the human and the automated systems can be strained.

In a bid to develop a “smart cockpit,” where pilot and plane become one, a team of researchers from Drexel University and a French aerospace engineering institute, ISAE-SUPAERO, have demonstrated that they can measure a pilot’s brain activity in real time. Using this study as a launching pad, they hope to design advanced technologies and training plans to help pilots overcome challenging mid-flight situations.

Using a portable fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which differs from the more familiar fMRI and can be worn like a headband), the researchers studied two groups of pilots — one flying a plane and one using a simulator. The device measures blood oxygenation changes in the prefrontal cortex, just beneath the forehead, where things like problem-solving and judgment are controlled, and is often used as a location to study the “brain at work.”

“This study is the very first to demonstrate that it is possible to monitor pilot’s brainwave in real time with fNIRS in highly realistic settings such as motion flight simulator and real flight condition,” Frédéric Dehais, a professor at ISAE-SUPAERO and expert in flight safety, told Digital Trends. The researchers also found that actually being in the cockpit — as opposed to a simulation — caused pilots to make more errors, which Dehais said, “suggests that the simulators may need to be calibrated against real flying conditions to be more engaging.”

Along with Hasan Ayaz, a research professor at Drexel, Dehais aims to develop a brain-computer interface based on fNIRS to improve training through a sort of neurological feedback. They then plan to use this system to monitor brain activity during operational flight, to better understand the pilot’s cognitive processes.

“These daily measures can be used to assess pilot’s cognitive workload state and mental fatigue thus providing airlines with analyses tools for crew rostering and flight safety officers,” Dehais said. “A last step is to adapt the flight deck depending on the crew’s workload to overcome cognitive bottleneck. The objective is to optimize task allocation between the pilots, the copilots and automation in order to enable better task switching, interruption management, and multi-tasking.”

The end result would be a futuristic cockpit, where pilot and plane become one. A paper detailing the research was published this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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