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Pilot workload and human factors: the shift from manager to decision-maker

May 11. 2015 

The Avionics 2020 cockpit is the culmination of years of research, with human factors experts at Thales working hand-in-hand with pilots to develop a whole host of user-centred innovations.

Over the years, technical progress has caused roles and responsibilities in the cockpit to evolve and the pilot has gradually become more of a manager than a mechanic. Given that individual pilots will have limited capacities and resources, Thales has studied every aspect of pilot workload to better understand how they operate in different types of environments.

Sylvain Hourlier, a doctor and senior expert in human factors for Thales, explains that “pilot workload comes down to four factors: the purpose of a given task, the resources available to perform it, the demands of the situation and the time available”. Pilots can feel overloaded when the available resources seem inadequate for a given situation, leading to stress and even loss of control.

Better use of cognitive resources

According to Sylvain Hourlier, the way to limit this kind of overload is to “make better use of cognitive resources, enabling pilots to remain in control of the situation”. Thales has focused its research on four strategies:  

  • Training, so that learned tasks become routine

  • Visual simplification, so the information is organised in a way that enables pilots to quickly grasp the situation and decide on the best course of action

  • Anticipation, or preparing for actions ahead of time

  • Delegation, which means either transferring or deferring tasks, depending on the chosen mode of prioritisation

It’s vital for us to understand these strategies so that we can design the most appropriate human-system interfaces and preserve the pilot’s resources for an optimised mission,” continues Sylvain Hourlier. “Interfaces must be simple and they have to match the way pilots think in order to best support their decision processes.

Reducing pilot workload: three key lines of research

    • Help pilots connect more fully with the outside world by providing the technologies and tools they need for a better perception of their environment, such as head-up displays and augmented reality
    • Improve situation awareness by providing synthetic interfaces, specially designed for the particular context of their missions
  • Simplify interfaces with aircraft systems by introducing advanced and more intuitive ways of interacting, including touchscreen technology, 3D displays and voice control


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