November 12, 2018

Innovative Team of quarter explores pilot workload

Carlie Mensen
Edwards AFB, Calif.

The Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Innovative Team of the Quarter — the 412th Operations Group’s Objective Measures of Pilot Workload Team –, is changing the way we test and evaluate the pilot workload experienced during flight operations. 

The pilot workload team brought their idea to the XCITE Team for funding and with help from the 711th Human Performance Wing, University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Lab, and Southern Methodist University, they asked pilots to step outside of their comfort zone by wearing sensors to monitor their heart rate, brain waves, eye movement, electro-dermal activity and wrist accelerations. These precise measurements can be tied back to a more accurate and unbiased assessment of pilot workload.
Currently, Edwards uses the Bedford Workload Scale to evaluate workload based on a decision tree used by the pilots that rates workload by a number, one through 10 with 10 being the highest. This measure is subjective. Therefore, each operator is likely to interpret the ratings differently and the ratings may be influenced by external factors such as the delay in time between performing a task and completing the Bedford Workload evaluation. Using the pilot workload team’s new innovative approach, sensors provide measurements in real time and allow testers to evaluate workload quantitatively.

 Why is this important to the war fighter? Consider the following relatable example from our everyday lives; most of us have experienced turning down the car radio while driving, chatting with a passenger and navigating in traffic. It would seem that adjusting the radio, holding a conversation and avoiding traffic would be independent, but the mental capacity required to successfully accomplish those tasks at the same time can cause the driver to “abort tasks,” like turning off the radio, otherwise known as task shedding.  Most new vehicles now incorporate volume and station controls on the steering wheel to ease this task. Task shedding has proven to be potentially fatal when flying aircraft and is one of the elements that makes Human Systems Integration Engineering essential when testing aircraft.

Obtaining precise measurements while executing demanding tasks during flight test helps engineers better evaluate pilot workload. Understanding pilot workload is critical to the design of the controls and displays in the cockpit and can literally be the difference between life and death for pilots in combat.  

The pilot workload team’s trials are complete and if this approach to pilot workload measurement is implemented, it will bring EAFB one-step closer to objective measurement of the human systems integration on the war fighter’s aircraft.

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