FAA first should focus on automation that would aid in acquiring, integrating, or presenting information for controllers on the ground to use in making decisions, the report says. New technology to help controllers resolve conflicts in the air, keep proper spacing in the final stages of approach to landing, and change routes to improve efficiency will be especially needed as skies grow more crowded. The FAA should pursue high levels of automation only for decisions and actions that involve relatively little uncertainty and risk, such as tracking the weather. Final decisions for high-risk tasks should still be made by ground-based personnel.
Efforts to make flights more efficient -- such as free flight -- are backed by commercial air carriers, for whom even short delays from poor weather or crowded skies can mean large financial losses. Free flight would take advantage of existing and emerging technologies designed to provide pilots with more real-time information about airborne hazards and wind and weather patterns, and help them gain more efficiency in their flight plan. Proposed scenarios vary in the degree to which pilots or ground-based controllers have control. In either scenario, however, pilots would have some control over their own flight path, the report says.
Moving control from the ground to the air, however, could make it more difficult for the ground-based controllers to maintain an accurate mental picture of the airspace. Control should remain with personnel on the ground until the safety implications of free flight are well understood, the report says.
The panel called on FAA to conduct extensive simulation studies of free flight in order to examine what is likely to happen in a range of scenarios. The agency should test some free flight concepts through extensive simulations and focus-group sessions with controllers, pilots, traffic managers, and airline dispatchers. Lingering uncertainties remain over in-flight negotiations between pilots, how pilots would react to their increased work load and decision-making responsibility, how to maintain controllers' alertness to hazards in an airspace, and how to resolve possible confusion over who has authority among air traffic controllers, pilots, and airline operations personnel.
On the ground, tasks that require decisions to be made, or which involve some amount of uncertainty or risk, should not be automated beyond simply suggesting actions for human operators, the report says. Especially when automation limits the controller's options, it is critical that a human operator is able to review the recommendations made by automated systems before deciding what to do.
When considering automating a task more fully, the FAA should design systems that guard against eroding a controller's vigilance or skill level, or hamper the current level of teamwork and communication among controllers. Operators must be able to assume control in the case of system failures, and be able to maintain safe separation of planes. And FAA should work to make sure all new designs are compatible with the current system, rather than simply "tacked on" as new technology is developed. Human factors experts should be involved from design to implementation, the report says.
A panel roster follows. The National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. It is a private, non-profit organization that provides advice on science and technology. This study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
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