FAA Atlantic City Laboratory tests the Human Factor Aviation Safety in the NextGen Work Place

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The Research Development and Human Factors Laboratory at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical is reducing some of the risk of implementing NextGen as it applies to humans. The below↓ press of Atlantic City documents those efforts.

NextGen poses a great number of technical challenges involving integration of systems, capacity to process information, reliability and the like. Equally vexing, perhaps greater, is the capability of the human beings (who are currently called air traffic controllers and will be called___? In the future) to absorb and process the information produced by the data fed to them by satellites (formerly produced by radars), transmitted from onboard systems, calculated and distributed by complex software and displayed on their screens (weather, altitude, etc.).

There are all sorts of methods to test the hardware and software prior to installation (many of those assessments are also performed at the Tech Center), but frequently the most meaningful examination occurs when the systems are installed. That is why RNP, ERAM and other systems are introduced at one facility to ascertain how it works before they are included at all of the facilities.

The scientists, engineers and human factors expert at the Egg Township facility (Chairman LoBiondo’s district) have devised a series of experiments which map how the human systems interact with the NextGen’s high tech machines. The team models situations which the AT personnel may experience and place real controllers into a laboratory to determine if the work load is within safe tolerances. The above picture shows a device which measures the electrical activity in critical regions of the brain.

To do so the Tech Center team has created laboratories with world of human avatars, 3-D depictions of the workplace, simulated air traffic control towers/centers and other high-tech wizardry. One example is the work process required with the new oral and digital communication systems. The lab sets up specific levels of expected-to-be required transmissions by the future FAA employee to/from the planes under her/his control. Since other functions will be automated, the future number of planes to be handled by each position will be increased; the experiment determines the calculus of more planes and fewer hand tasks to see what number is well within the safety margin.

Ben Willems, an FAA engineering research psychologist, explained the process quite succinctly: We literally put them through the wringer.” It is such a benefit to safety that the demands of the new work station can be replicated and human test objects can be used to see if the new requirements can be met.

The article makes it clear that the technical term for the Tech Center’s test environment is “virtual reality”. That’s odd, years ago the FAA headquarters staff used that phrase to describe what goes on within the DoT Secretary’s staff ruminations. ;-)

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