The man and the machine

Aviation is one of the industries facing significant technological transformation, including the introduction of remote air traffic control. However, the question remains: what role can human factors play in it?

Aviation has experienced a period of significant change in recent years, embracing new technologies that are transforming many aspects of this industry, including cockpit design, flight safety and, more recently, remote air traffic control.

Through a 360⁰ live transmitted video, remote air traffic control allows controllers to view an airfield remotely. This is revolutionising the way airports manage air traffic and is opening doors to a new era of aviation.

With an abundance of new and innovative ways of working, it’s vital that human factors play a part right from the outset to successfully integrate people within developing technologies and daily operations.

Operators monitoring the flow of traffic can now be miles away from the runways they are monitoring. Photograph: Saab

Last year, the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) hosted a ‘Human Factors in Aviation’ event to explore human factors issues and achievements across the aviation spectrum and to demonstrate how human factors can and will continue to play a contributory role within the industry.

What are human factors?

Human factors as a discipline aims to ensure that people are the focus for systems design and that those systems capitalise on human capabilities. This is commonplace in industrial sectors and safety critical industries, such as aviation. For example, with automation changing the way pilots fly, ergonomics specialists are often involved in redesigning elements of the cockpit to ensure new controls and displays enhance safety by allowing greater understanding by the pilots of flight conditions and progress.

This approach is similar for the installation of remote air traffic control. To ensure the processes are seamless and still allow for people to successfully and safely integrate with the technology, human factors specialists work closely with airport management and the people expected to switch from on-site control to remote control to better understand and mitigate associated risks, such as loss of situation awareness.

The use of remote towers to control air traffic is increasing in places where there are large geographical areas to control such as Australia

Remote air traffic control – changing the face of the industry

The use of remote towers to control air traffic is increasing in places where there are large geographical areas to control such as Australia, or runways that are separated from main airports such as at Schiphol, Netherlands. Other countries to adopt these new technologies include Sweden, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

There is a high level of anticipation surrounding this development as it showcases an element of the future of aviation technology, but it’s important that designers and developers don’t get swept up by the technology and forget about the people who are key
to operating these systems.

One of the main challenges facing both air navigation service providers and human factors specialists is the change management of those expected to use these systems.

Trust in the system is also a major factor when adopting remote working

Since modern airports were first built, operators monitoring the flow of traffic in and out of airports have been situated next to the runway; however, with the introduction of remote traffic control they could now be many miles away, which can be a daunting thought for those not used to working in this way.

Trust in the system is also a major factor when adopting remote working, as people become completely reliant on visual technology in a distant location. These challenges can be resolved, however, by careful change management and human factors integration.

Manufacturers and human factors

Aerospace design and engineering companies are at the forefront of technologies that incorporate human factors at the start of the process in order to help mitigate risk and to ensure operators understand the capabilities of the new systems they are being trained to operate. This ensures that the concerns are raised early on and generates enthusiasm and buy-in for the technology.

A step by step implementation process to make the whole thing more digestible for operators to get to grips with has also been created. Additionally, all system designs start with a basic model – ‘Nice to have isn’t always need to have’ – allowing for an easier training process and encouraging operators to contribute with suggestions about the functionality throughout the process.

Looking into the future of aviation, human factors will still be an extremely important part of the imminent developments. It’s inevitable that we will continue to see exciting automation being introduced and new procedures being developed; however, humans will still need to be kept in the loop and be considered the ‘decision maker’.

Therefore, all automation introduced should be operationally driven and not vice versa. It is very easy to get carried away by new technologies and innovation, but you still need a solid business case as to why you should introduce them; it should make the lives of the people operating a system easier.

Per Ahl is vice president, head of marketing & sales at Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions