ScienceShot New Tool Could Help Airline Pilots Spot Impending Collision

Is that nearby aircraft going to hit you? The answer isn’t as simple as it seems, especially for pilots of light aircraft, who—unlike commercial pilots—typically fly without assistance from air traffic control. Modern, GPS-based cockpit displays can show the location of nearby planes, but interpreting these can be challenging. When presented with two incoming aircraft, for example, pilots are susceptible to distance bias—the assumption that the nearest aircraft poses the highest risk of collision, even if the one farthest away is traveling faster and could intercept first. To address this, researchers set up modified GPS displays in an indoor flight simulator. This was manned by real-life pilots, who were tasked with selecting which of two incoming aircraft (or “intruders”) presented the greatest risk. For some of the flights, the displays were normal, whereas during others the intruder that would cross the simulated flight path first was highlighted in yellow or made to blink. The scientists then measured the pilots’ accuracy and response times in dealing with the threat. The visual cues in the modified displays made it easier for the pilots to identify the intruder that presented the greatest risk—with accuracy increasing from 88% to 96%, the researchers will report in the June issue of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. Furthermore, in the cases where the more distant aircraft posed the higher risk, reaction times were cut almost in half, falling from 7.2 seconds to 3.7 seconds in the displays where the priority intruder blinked. The researchers hope that the concept might be taken up by the aircraft industry, where it could save lives.

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