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Engineers find way to lower risk of mid-air collisions for small aircraft

Mon, 05/19/2014 - 7:57am
Matt Shipman, News Services, North Carolina State Univ.

A modified screen display helps pilots identify which plane poses the greatest risk to their flight path. Image: Carl PankokResearchers at North Carolina State Univ. have developed new modifications for technology that helps pilots of small aircraft avoid midair collisions. The modified tools significantly improved pilot response times in making decisions to avert crashes.

At issue are cockpit displays of traffic information (CDTIs). These are GPS displays used by private pilots to track other aircraft in their vicinity. However, pilots often focus on the closest aircraft on the display—a habit that can pose a significant hazard.

If the pilot of Plane A sees two planes on the CDTI, he’s more likely to focus on the closest aircraft (Plane B). But if the more distant plane (Plane C) is moving at high speed, it could cross his path before Plane B does. Not paying enough attention to Plane C increases risk of a midair collision.

“Our goal was to modify a CDTI to help pilots recognize which other planes pose the greatest risk,” says Carl Pankok, lead author of a study on the work and a graduate student in the Edward P. Fitts Dept. of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State. “And it worked.”

Researchers modified the CDTI so that the plane that would cross a pilot’s path first either began blinking or was colored yellow.

The researchers tested the modified CDTI in a flight simulator with a panel of licensed recreational pilots. The research team compared the pilots’ response times and decision-making accuracy when using the modified and unmodified displays.

“These pilots were already pretty good, but the modified CDTIs made them better,” Pankok says. “Their percentage of ‘correct’ decisions—minimizing risk—jumped from 88 to 96%. And their response times in scenarios where the farther aircraft was the higher-risk aircraft were cut in half; from 7.2 to 3.7 sec for blinking CDTIs, and to 4 sec for yellow CDTIs.

“We’re not trying to make money off this,” Pankok says. “We’re hoping that CDTI manufacturers can incorporate these changes and possibly save lives.”

The paper is published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.

Source: North Carolina State Univ.

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