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Monitoring Wakefulness of Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic

At midnight on Wednesday March 23rd two commercial airplanes approaching Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. requested permission to land. The tower responded with only silence. After repeated attempts at communication, both pilots were forced to navigate their descent through the darkness without the assistance of Air traffic Control.  The landings were successful and no one was injured, but when it was revealed that the controller on duty was asleep at his post, the story captured national attention.

Fatigue is unavoidable for the air traffic controller. The combination of long hours, monotonous tasks and high stress will eventually lead to physical and mental exhaustion, no matter how many cups of coffee are consumed. The event described above is just one of five cases reported in the past month. This is not a pleasant thought for the frequent flyers among us.  It means that at any given time as we hurtle through the atmosphere in a combustible tube traveling 500 miles per hour suspended 30,000 feet above the earth, the person charged with guiding us safely to the ground might be fighting that pesky recurrent nod of the head that we have all experienced during one workday or another (hopefully in lower leverage situations). To say the least, this prospect raises concerns.

New government regulations have already been put in place to increase staff and decrease hours, but technology may offer a more proactive solution. The application of eye tracking to aviation and transportation security is not new. Over the past decade we have conducted research with FAA, TSA, ONR and NASA to examine the visual behavior and cognitive state of system operators. It’s easy to see how this technology might be applied to our current situation with ATC. The challenge, after all, is making sure that the controller’s eyes are opened and pointed at the screen. What better method for achieving this than eye tracking? It’s the most objective and reliable tool available for ensuring that attention remains focused during critical aviation events.

And while you’re at it, you might as well get the most out of this technology. In addition to detecting when the eyes are opened and directed at the screen, eye tracking can determine whether or not a person is looking at the appropriate SECTION of the screen. Such data could be used in real time to alert the controller of an unnoticed situation before it becomes a crisis. Another applicable component of eye tracking is the detection of cognitive state. Fatigue, boredom, and mental overload each leave a unique signature upon the eye. By examining fluctuations in pupil size (using the Index of Cognitive Activity) along with eye movements, blinks and divergence, we are able to determine whether or not a person is cognitively impaired. In the case of ATC, this information could be used to alert the supervisor when a given controller is too tired or stressed and needs to take a break.  

Putting more controllers in the tower for shorter periods of time is certainly a step in the right direction. However, the use of eye tracking in air traffic control would provide an additional safeguard, one that most air travellers would be delighted to know is in place.

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