NASA to Study Pilot Cognition

Most adults are familiar with that feeling one gets when you are just so tired that driving a car becomes plain ludicrous. The moment you find yourself fighting to stay awake behind the wheel unexpectedly you know it is time to pull over. But what happens when you are a couple of thousand kilometers up in the sky?

Prevention is better than cure – or so the saying goes. It seems NASA is putting this philosophy into practice in a whole new way with new pilot cognition studies designed to help airplane pilots realize when they might be operating under dangerous levels of distraction, fatigue and stress. NASA’s Glenn Research Center, situated in Cleveland, has been carefully studying the blood flow in the brain’s cortex, as well as the concentration of oxygen in the blood using infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and other types of imaging technology. The exciting new technology provides a safe, portable, non-invasive and inexpensive way for various crucial factors to be monitored.

According to Angela Harrivel, the NASA biomedical engineer who is leading the research team, “conditions could occur when too much is going on in the cockpit” regardless of how much training a pilot has had. Harrivel said that the study hoped to find a way to determine when the pilot may reach the point of mental overload in a sensitive and unobtrusive way. The tests have seen 15 test subjects don specially-made headgear as they sit in a moving cockpit simulator and try to perform functional or more complex tasks. At this point not much is being done to ‘stress’ the test subjects and already valuable data is being gathered. Future tests should see the volunteers trying to stay aloft and in control despite trying situations in the test simulator.

The purpose of the research being conducted at NASA’s Glenn Research Center is not just to monitor the pilot, but to improve interaction between pilots and new automated equipment and to help pilots to make various important decisions during the course of a flight. All this will go a long way to improving aviation safety.