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Research Shows Equipment Failures Affect Pilots’ Mental Workload, Improving Training and Safety

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Researchers from Southwest Jiaotong University have recently conducted a study that offers crucial insights into how various equipment failures affect pilots’ mental workload during emergency flight conditions. This study utilised advanced flight simulation technology and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to monitor and analyse brain activity in pilot cadets. The findings, published in the journal Transportation Research Record, have significant implications for improving pilot training and aviation safety protocols.

Mental workload is a crucial factor influencing pilots’ performance, especially during emergencies when they must manage multiple tasks simultaneously. An excessive mental workload can lead to errors in decision-making and task management, posing severe risks to flight safety. With the help of both subjective and objective measures, this study sought to investigate how various emergency situations brought on by equipment failures affect pilots’ mental workloads.

The researchers recruited 25 male pilot cadets with real flight experience from the Civil Aviation Flight University of China. The participants were subjected to simulated emergency flight conditions in a high-fidelity Diamond DA42 fixed-base flight simulator. The scenarios included normal flight conditions, an attitude and heading reference system (AHRS) failure, and a right-hand engine (RH ENG) failure.

During these simulations, the pilots’ brain activity was monitored using fNIRS, which measures changes in oxyhemoglobin (DOxyHb) levels, an indicator of brain activity. Additionally, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Task Load Index (NASA-TLX) was used to obtain subjective ratings of the pilots’ perceived workload.

The study revealed significant variations in mental workload across different emergency scenarios. The NASA-TLX scores indicated that the mental workload was highest during RH ENG failure and lowest during normal flight conditions. The fNIRS measurements, which showed distinct patterns of brain activity corresponding to the various scenarios, supported this subjective data.

The researchers found that changes in DOxyHb levels were strongly associated with the pilots’ mental workload. Specifically, brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC), motor cortex, and occipital cortex exhibited significant changes in activity. These regions are critical for decision-making, motor control, and visual processing, respectively.

The study’s findings highlight the importance of tailoring pilot training programmes to better prepare pilots for handling emergency situations. By understanding how different types of equipment failures impact mental workload, training can be designed to enhance pilots’ resilience and performance under stress.

Moreover, the use of advanced monitoring technologies like fNIRS can provide real-time feedback on pilots’ cognitive states, allowing for more precise adjustments to training regimens. This approach can also be utilised in actual flight operations to monitor pilots’ mental workload and prevent potential errors.

The researchers acknowledge certain limitations in their study, such as the use of a fixed-base flight simulator, which may not fully replicate the conditions of actual flight. They suggest that future studies could employ moving-base simulators to provide a more realistic assessment of pilots’ mental workload.

Incorporating personal attributes such as age, gender, and individual differences in cognitive abilities could further refine the understanding of mental workload dynamics. This personalised approach could lead to more effective training and safety measures tailored to the needs of individual pilots.

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