The Promise of Non-destructive Testing of Pilots’ Brains

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Reading the minds of pilots on the fly

Research paves the way to improve the safety and efficiency of aircraft-pilot interactions

Scientists’ ability to measure pre-frontal lobe blood flow

may provide insights into behavior

More research  

Since the Germanwings tragedy, aviation has struggled with how to deal with the flight crews’ mental and physical health. Here is a sampling of the commentary on this difficult subject:

 

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Hasan Ayaz, PhD, an associate research professor at Drexel, in a press release. Ayaz and co-author Frédéric Dehais, of ISAE-SUPAERO in Toulouse,axa chair France are in the early stages of using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS to examine how the brain functions in the cockpit.

Here is a brief description of their scientific methodology ( the full paper):

 

 

 

 

 

Using technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, the scientists are able to monitor pilot activity while they move about 
the cockpit and make decisions. An fNIRS system keeps track of blood oxygenation changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where 
problem solving, memory, judgement and impulse control are located.

When a person is learning a new skill, the prefrontal cortex is highly active. But as a task becomes a more learned trait, the brain is able to 
spread its resources out across other areas. This gives the prefrontal cortex space to breathe, so to speak, in the case of a split-second decision 
needed to be made.

"Unfortunately, many human-machine interfaces expose users to workload extremes, diminishing the operator's attention and potentially leading to 
catastrophic consequences," says Hasan Ayaz, PhD, an associate research professor at Drexel, in a press release. Ayaz and co-author Frédéric Dehais, 
of ISAE-SUPAERO in Toulouse, France have published their work in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Researchers split 28 pilots into two teams. One team flew in actual planes and the other that stayed in flight simulators. With fNIRS systems 
monitoring their brain activity, the pilots began a series of memorization tests given to them by pre-recorded air traffic control instructions for 
flight parameters. These varied in difficulty and in how they were distributed to the pilots.
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They have published their work in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Some of the initial findings include:

  • “Researchers split 28 pilots into two teams. One team flew in actual planes and the other that stayed in flight simulators. With fNIRS systems monitoring their brain activity, the pilots began a series of memorization tests given to them by pre-recorded air traffic control instructions for flight parameters. These varied in difficulty and in how they were distributed to the pilots

A pilot wearing the fNIRs headband. His brain activity is being monitored on the ground by researchers.

A clear trend emerged. Pilots in the real flight conditions had more errors and their brains had higher prefrontal cortex activation than the pilots in the simulator.

It’s a testament to how the pressure of real-time flight differs from even the most advanced simulations.”

  • “Someday perhaps the plane itself could monitor a pilot’s activity and adjust itself to help the flight out. “We believe that this type of approach will open a whole new direction of research for studying parameters in an aviation setting and eventually designing better machines,” says”
  • The efficiency and safety of human-machine systems depend on the cognitive workload and situational awareness of human operators, according to Hasan Ayaz, PhD, an associate research professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems at Drexel University.

“Unfortunately, many human-machine interfaces expose users to workload extremes, diminishing the operator’s attention and potentially leading to catastrophic consequences,” Ayaz said.

An ideal human-machine system would actually be able to read its operator’s mind in real-time, to know how well he or she was paying attention or able to process new information. Such a system may sound like the makings of a sci-fi movie. But Ayaz and Dehais, along with a team of researchers at Drexel and ISAE-SUPAERO, have now successfully measured the brain activity of pilots in real-time using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS. Their results were published this week in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

  • Members of the aeronautics industry, flight safety boards, like the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and commercial airlines are following Prof. Dehais’s research closely. Recently, his team’s eye tracking experiment revealed that pilots were not monitoring their cockpits sufficiently, leading the Neuroergonomics Department to make recommendations on pilot training to the French air safety board. He is confident this work will have broad impact, quickly: the US Federal Aviation Authority, for example, has already developed legislation giving commercial airlines three years to define new training programs to enhance pilots’ ability to monitor the flight deck. On top of that, the results of this research have begun to demonstrate for aircraft manufacturers that there are explicit measures of air safety parameters, like eye-tracking studies, which will now enable a new generation of cockpit design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neuroergonomics and fNIRS hold great potential for dealing with the cockpit as a work place. Neurology and psychology have very basic/crude tests for suicidality; tracking of depression and impulsivity in individuals is in nascent stages. The research by Dehais/ISAE-SUPAERO/AXA and Ayaz/Drexel University, School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems hold great promise. Aviation private and governmental institutions need to monitor and financially support the Non-destructive testing of the minds of the men and women who fly planes.

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