Cockpit Automation Is Hurting Pilot Focus

A new study shows just how much time pilots spend daydreaming in automated cockpits.

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May 6 2014, 11:45pm

I'm probably not alone in finding the modern commercial jetliner "glass cockpit" a bit ominous. It's not that I don't trust computers to perform the tasks needed to get an aircraft loaded with 300 humans from one place to another without throwing a general protection fault, blue screening, and sending that aircraft into a flat spin—let's assume the web of redundancies in a cockpit can handle whatever faults could possibly be encountered in a computer engineer's wildest imagination—but there's something more subtle, having to do with how human pilots interact with that system. It's something to do with virtualizing reality and what that might entail for pilots navigating an especially real environment. That's about as far as I can explain it: detachment from an environment at a time when that environment is absolutely everything. 

A study out today in the journal Human Factors (prepublished in 2013) provides some definition to the above ominousness. The researchers, a team drawn from NASA’s Ames Research Center and the University of California, looked at the relative levels of attention reported by pilots placed in cockpits with differing degrees of automation during a simulated descent into the hectic JFK airport in New York. Specifically, as the automation levels changed, the pilots were asked whether they thinking about, "the  'task  at  hand,' if they were thinking higher-order thoughts about the flight, such as planning ahead, or were thinking about something entirely unrelated to the flight," in the study's words. 

What would we expect? Proponents of aircraft super-automation argue that such systems free up pilot attention for higher-level thoughts about the flight, like planning for unexpected events and maintaining a more holistic situational awareness. Planes crashing because of pilots focusing on some less-critical detail at the expense of overall awareness have historically been more common than anyone would like to think. There are different kinds of awareness then: misallocated (and dangerous) awareness, such as focusing on an uncritical indicator light instead of fuel levels, and there's the sort of awareness promised by glass cockpits, where a pilot's task becomes limited to overseeing the flight and being ready to intervene if necessary. 

But it's not that easy. Pilots are simply humans and have the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us. One of those is boredom. Watching a plane fly itself isn't going to be a stimulating activity, in part because it was designed with the above philosophy in mind: freeing the pilot. It also isn't going to be stimulating because, if you're a pilot, some vast portion of your life is going to consist of just doing that, watching the plane fly, day after day. 

What today's study found shouldn't be surprising. With more cockpit automation, pilots' attentions declined in some situations. They daydreamed (thought about something unrelated to the flight), which is almost a tautological finding: as flight tasks to pay attention to declined, attention declined. It's not quite that simple, however. The data collected in the study tests a few different automation-related variables. The most general situation of "some automation" vs. "more automation" actually found attention shifting as intended, from specific tasks to higher-level planning and observation, rather than shifting from specific tasks and/or higher-level observation to the third daydreaming option. 

This general finding, however, is aggregated from several more specific subsets. One of those is whether or not everything is going correctly as the flight approached JFK. If the automated aircraft was not on-target, pilots became very focused on specific tasks, but if it was and everything was going according to plan, attention dropped off severely. The results are subdivided again according to whether or not the automation required "hands off" or "hands on" attention, with the even more unsurprising finding that daydreaming increased by an even more severe degree while in "hands off" mode. 

The study notes that the percentage of cockpit time spent unfocused is roughly on par with the average amount of time across the entire (pilots and just regular goofballs) population that people spend with their mind wandering (not including sleep): 30 percent. The authors also note the emerging body of research suggesting that daydreaming has positive effects on cognition, from problem solving to psychological vigilance—though another body finds effects to the contrary. Maybe then your pilots tuning out at 40,000 feet is to everyone's benefit, but only if it's the "right" kind of tuning out. 

Finally, the study asks, "since pilots receive little procedural guidance about how to actively monitor automated systems, we may have effectively left them with the question: 'What else is there to think about?'" What other ways out are there aside from completely redesigning cockpits?

Automation may not be as doomed as it seems. Previous studies have imagined systems that bring pilots into the automated process, forcing them to "check in" with different monitoring tasks, and even just pilots checking in with each other has been shown to break them out of the daydream loop and back into cockpit focus. These things are easy enough to implement and wouldn't take much hardware modification, just new procedures and new layers of pilot education. At the very least, it's something to think about.