Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ATC and Eggheads

I’m told that many of the new controllers are college graduates -- some with degrees in aviation. It shouldn’t be hard, therefore, to convince them that advanced research about air traffic control can be helpful to them and their profession. But just in case, let me point one out that popped onto to my radar yesterday.

Psychology Student Finds Less Automation Better for Air Traffic Controllers

”“The first group had higher situation awareness far beyond those who had higher levels of automation,” she said. “I thought exposure to one automation failure would make the controllers more cautious. So, I made them complete another scenario in which the automation failed. What was shocking was that even after exposure to a failure in the automation, the groups with higher levels of automation continued to have lower situation awareness and were slower to detect a subsequent failure in the automation.

“Automation technology has clear benefits when it functions correctly. But no system is 100 percent reliable. The trick to designing future air traffic automation systems will depend on coming up with the right level and types of automation. Psychology can help make these systems more user-friendly and more interactive to protect against over-reliance.” “

There are a lot of things I want you to think about here, boys and girls. First, the obvious. Be wary of your automation. Second, be aware that this type of research is out there, has always been out there and it can be useful to you. Third, be aware that bright college students are always looking for a good project to work on or write a paper on. If you so choose -- and you’re motivated -- you can drive research into areas which you consider critical.

Let me put that last point another way. You can drive the research or you can let someone else drive it. Trust me, people that are trying to sell the government $40 billion dollars worth of automation are more than willing to spend a few million on research papers.

I’d love to cover this subject in depth but it tends to bore most people. If you are one of the few that are intrigued, let me provide some suggested reading from the FAA’s own Human Factors shop.

A list of publications from Dr. Earl Stein. Dr. Stein’s work was the first I ever read in this area. I still remember my friend Brian Fallon sending it to me. “Air Traffic Controller Memory” (a .pdf file). It had a tremendous influence on me. I notice that Dr. Stein is now the Group Manager.

If you’ll take a look at the FAA’s list of publications, you’ll see Dr. Carol Manning’s name on a couple of them. I won’t try to understand the FAA’s website and filing system. Just know that there are other publications squirreled away in different places (check the URL). Like this one:

How controllers compensate for the lack of flight progress strips (a .pdf file)

I think Dr. Manning was genuinely surprised that I knew who she was and what she did when she showed up at Atlanta Center. There weren’t too many controllers out there keeping up. I hope that changes. Anyway, you might recognize me in the report’s conclusion.

”The final question pertaining to strips, in general, asked what information would need to be included on the PVD data block in order to eliminate the need for strips. Only one controller said that the strips could not be eliminated.”

Guess who ?

I believe that brings us full circle.

“The first group had higher situation awareness far beyond those who had higher levels of automation,” she said. “I thought exposure to one automation failure would make the controllers more cautious..."

We’ll see if ERAM makes controllers more cautious. For most of my career as a safety rep, I would have people that experienced an automation failure firsthand come up to me with some version of, “I hate to admit it but you were right. If it hadn’t been for the strips we would have really been in trouble.” I don’t know what happens now without paper strips. But if you’re a controller, you had better know.

Don Brown
October 21, 2009

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