Reducing Pilot Fatigue through Avionics

December 2019

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In an effort to combat fatigue on the flight deck, the FAA has hosted fatigue symposiums, created a working group centered on sleep and fatigue awareness, published new Part 121 flight crew duty and rest requirements, and is working on similar new requirements for Part 135 operators. Essentially, the FAA’s approach to reducing fatigue in the cockpit is to advise pilots to get enough good sleep.

But avionics manufacturers and other human-factors experts have long understood that another type of fatigue associated with flying has less to do with how much sleep a pilot received the night before than with the mental tasks involved in aviating, navigating, and communicating.

All pilots can experience acute mental fatigue, from the private pilot hand-flying an aircraft on instruments in turbulence to the airline pilot continuously scanning and deciphering information from multiple systems, according to Paul Novacek, Ph.D., former human-factors investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center and current Pilatus PC-12 instructor pilot at Salt Lake City–based Guardian Flight. Novacek says that good cockpit and avionic design can reduce this type of acute fatigue, especially during critical portions of the flight.

“It takes concentration to use various tools to figure out where you are correlated to the map, what’s ahead of you, and how to avoid terrain or traffic, and that can be extremely fatiguing,” said Novacek. “A well-designed synthetic-vision display with audible terrain and traffic reporting callouts severely reduces pilot fatigue because all of the information is in front of you. Using voice callouts also pushes through any fatigue by not requiring the pilot to remember what a certain beep or tone means.” 

Honeywell’s Primus Epic cockpit system—touted as “the industry’s first system to simultaneously display traffic, terrain, airspace, airways, airports, and navigation aids”—reduces pilot stress and fatigue by increasing situational awareness both on the ground and in the air.

“Today’s pilots get most of the information they need to fly the aircraft on a few sharp and clear liquid crystal displays,” wrote Mike Ingram, v-p of Honeywell Aerospace Cockpit Systems, in a recent blog post. “They control every aspect of flight with flight management systems, navigate with GPS and inertial technologies, file flight plans on tablets, and send and receive messages and data with satellite communications systems.”

In addition to standard flight management system features found on most of today’s advanced cockpits, Honeywell’s Primus Epic provides a choice of 2D or 3D airport moving maps to increase situational awareness on the ground. The 2D moving map shows runways, taxiways, airport structures, and signs at many airports on navigation displays. The 3D moving map integrates Honeywell’s SmartView Synthetic Vision System for an “out the window” view of the airport on the Primary Flight Display (PFD) that transitions to a synthetic view of the terrain after takeoff.

Adding Honeywell’s SmartRunway and SmartLanding options for Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS) increases situational awareness through aural and visual alerts during taxi, take-off, approach, and landing phases of flight. Designed to prevent runway incursions, SmartRunway provides advisories when approaching or crossing a runway. Conversely, SmartLanding is designed to prevent runway excursions—essentially long landings—and alerts the crew when the aircraft is approaching the runway too fast or too high.

“Avionics have changed dramatically over the years,” wrote Ingram. “What hasn’t changed is the fact that avionics boost the performance of civilian and military aircraft and the people who fly them. The latest innovations set new standards for safety, efficiency and situational awareness. They perform hundreds of tasks automatically so pilots can concentrate on their main job – flying the airplane.”

Communications between the pilot and air traffic control can also be a source of pilot fatigue, especially when the workload is already high, such as when a flight is being rerouted due to weather. To reduce communication errors and traffic congestion due to controllers needing to provide new instructions to each aircraft verbally and wait for a correct read back of those instructions, the FAA established the text–based Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) system—also known simply as “Data Comm”—as a visual supplement to voice communication.

Essentially text messaging between pilots and controllers, Data Comm lowers the communications workload. Flight plans, clearances, instructions, advisories, flight crew requests, reports, and other essential messages flow visually between pilots and ATC at certain airports. Not only does the recipient receive the message nearly instantaneously, but both parties can review and refer to the data at a later time to ensure it was correctly transmitted and understood. According to figures released by the Harris Corporation, CPDLC usage saved more than 641,000 minutes of communication time between U.S. pilots and controllers in 2018, avoiding an estimated 33,800 readback errors and reducing weather and congestion re-routing delays by 531,000 minutes.

Honeywell’s Protected Mode-CPDLC system integrates with the Primus Epic and other Honeywell FMSs to allow controllers to send clearances and amendments directly to the aircraft. Upon accepting the clearance through the FMS, the crew simply updates the departure runway and SID in the flight plan if cleared as filed. 

As of August 2019, more than 60 air traffic control towers across the United States are using Data Comm to quickly relay messages between controllers and pilots. According to the FAA’s Data Comm Fact Sheet, its rollout of tower services at the original 55 airports was under budget and more than two and a half years ahead of schedule, which enabled the FAA to deploy Data Comm at seven more airports than originally planned at no additional cost. The FAA is also in the process of implementing Data Comm in high-altitude airspace; it is currently testing the technology at two Air Route Traffic Control Centers. 

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