September 21, 2014

U-I project focuses on helping pilots handle malfunctions

A new, three-year research project at the University of Iowa is focused on helping pilots react and recover when the auto-pilot system in the plane malfunctions. Thomas Schnell is the director of the “operator performance lab” in the university’s Center for Computer-aided Design.

He says they’ll experiment with rearranging the signs on the instrument panel in the cockpit. “The little display elements that pilots look at on their instruments that provide with information about air speed, altitude, pitch, roll, yaw, heading and so forth,” Schnell says.

The use of automated flying systems in commercial aircraft has “eroded” the flying skills of pilots, according to Schnell. He says the pilots of military fighter jets are taught how to respond to the sensation of the plane’s nose dipping or wings rolling while they’re in the air, and you can’t get that by training in a simulator.

“The stick and rudder skills have been de-emphasized and been replaced by procedural responses to controlling the aircraft with the auto pilot more so than using the old-fashioned…pay-attention-to-the-display responses,” Schnell says.

Schnell and his research team has gotten a $1.2-million NASA grant for the project.

“We’ve done this kind of work in the past,” Schnell says. “We worked with Rockwell Collins on a system called the Spatial Orientation Enhancement System or SOES where we conducted research for NASA on a somewhat similar topic where we tried to use tactile displays to cue the pilot,” Schnell says.

Staff from Rockwell Collins and Boeing are joining with Schnell and other University of Iowa researchers on this latest project.