Earlier this year, a Germanwings jet carrying 150 people crashed into a remote area of the French Alps, killing everyone on board. Authorities say co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had suffered from suicidal tendencies and depression, intentionally crashed the Barcelona-Dusseldorf flight but they are still puzzling over why he did it.
Scientists from France, the US and Japan are now working together to better understand how a pilot’s brain functions. The Germanwings accident was a unique case, so scientists have extended their research to understand pilots’ physiological and neurological reactions to stress, with the aim of being able to identify the signals that precede potential error in order to prevent it.
No matter how well trained and experienced a pilot is, human error is always possible. In this lab in the French city of Toulouse, a team is developing instruments that might help the pilot handle the workload:
“We are trying to better understand what can cause human error by using the same tools as neuroscientists, like electro-encephalography, measuring the heart rate, perspiration, the pupil diametre, eye tracking, which means tracking the pilot’s gaze at any given moment,” explains Mickael Causse, assistant professor at the Aeronautical and Space Institute (ISAE SUPAERO) in Toulouse.
“So we’re carrying out all of these tests in order to better understand how a human being functions in poor conditions, under stress, or when tired, in order to prevent accidents when that’s possible.”
Wired-up pilots flying a real, light aircraft are put into situations of forced landing. Meanwhile, their brain activity is measured and recorded. Frédéric Dehais, professor of neuroergonomics at ISAE, explains how the eye tracking device works: “It’s very light, it weighs less than 80g. It has a frontal camera which shows us where the pilot is looking, his field of vision. And here we have another camera, a smaller one, that films his eye pupil and which shows us, in real time, in which direction the pilot is looking.”
Pupil dilation is a reliable external indicator of mental stress, according to Dehais. The scientists can watch as a highly stressed pilot’s brain literally shuts down many of its critical faculties and shifts from rational decision to emotional reaction, to a state of so-called “inattentional deafness”, where audible alarms and spoken instructions are ignored.
One of the solutions would therefore be to reduce the load of information directed at the pilot. Daniel Callan is a senior researcher at the NICT (National Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Osaka, Japan): “So the future cockpit is, hopefully, a non-invasive, brain machine interface, that would be able to monitor the pilot’s attentional workload use countermeasures, through technology, perhaps a heads-up display, to present information to the pilot in the most optimal way and reduce the amount of information to the pilot optimally, so that under high workload conditions, it’s only the situation that they need to deal with, (that’s all) they need to attend to.”
Since the Germanwings crash last March, pilots’ behaviour has been under scrunity. However, researchers believe we are still a long way from switching to completely automatic, pilotless planes or even planes with just one pilot onboard.
“First of all, there is a psychological barrier – are passengers prepared to board an aircraft without a pilot? For now I would say that’s a no. Having just one pilot on board, unfortunately we saw what happened with the Germanwings (crash), that can be a problem. So I think, there will still be two pilots inside the cockpit for a while to come,” says Mickael Causse.
The potential of this research goes further as it could also be used during the pilot selection process and for monitoring the effectiveness of training techniques and cockpit designs.
And it could even be applied to others working in high stress jobs, like surgeons, or for people working in nuclear power control.