The all-important system of communication between air-traffic controllers and pilots is over 50 years old, and is increasingly less able to do its job in today’s crowded skies. John Wilson, Professor of Human Factors at the Institute for Occupational Ergonomics at the University of Nottingham, leads a team that is finding ways to bring it up to date.
According to the BBC’s Digital Planet program, which ran a feature on the project in April, the Nottingham researchers have created a basic flight simulator in which flight decks receive information and commands either as voice or text.
“Traditionally, we know that pilots communicate with the ground and air traffic controllers communicate with planes through voice, through radio communications,” Professor Wilson told the BBC. “We’re asking how much we can use written information which comes up on computer screens. How much can we use that together with voice in the future?”
Early results show pilots prefer speech-based communication at the most demanding times, such as take off and landing. The text-based information appears to be useful when the workload is low, such as over the Atlantic.
The research has also tried out synthetic voice versus human voice. It shows pilots prefer a human voice at the most demanding times and in emergencies, as the intonation of human speech conveys urgency more potently than a voice synthesizer.
Controllers increasingly face information overload, and one controller may be handling 10 to 15 aircraft at the same time he or she is interacting with other air traffic controllers handling other sectors. Initial results suggest it might be possible to reduce the amount of radio communication by relaying basic information, such as aircraft altitude and heading, as text. But there are no plans to do away with radio communication. Several aircraft share a radio channel with a controller at any one time. One advantage is that individual pilots build up a picture of where all the aircraft are in relation to each other, a situation not possible with text-only communication.
As the skies get busier and more is being said, there is more scope for error. The ergonomic answer, as seen in the findings, appears to be a careful mix of traditional and innovative communication methods.