Engineers reduce risk of mid-air collisions

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed new modifications for technology that helps pilots of small aircraft avoid mid-air collisions. 

At issue are cockpit displays of traffic information (CDTIs), which are GPS displays used by private pilots to track other aircraft nearby. However, pilots often focus on the closest aircraft on the display, which can pose a significant hazard.

For example, the pilot of Plane A  who sees two planes on the CDTI is more likely to focus on the closest aircraft (Plane B). But if the more distant plane (Plane C) is moving at high speed, it could cross the pilot’s path before Plane B does. Not paying enough attention to Plane C increases risk of a mid-air collision.

‘Our goal was to modify a CDTI to help pilots recognize which other planes pose the greatest risk. And it worked,’ said Carl Pankok, lead author of a study on the work and a Ph.D. student in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State.

Researchers modified the CDTI so that the plane that would cross a pilot’s path first either began blinking or was coloured yellow.

The researchers tested the modified CDTI in a flight simulator with a panel of licensed recreational pilots. The research team compared the pilots’ response times and decision-making accuracy when using the modified and unmodified displays.

‘These pilots were already pretty good, but the modified CDTIs made them better,’ Pankok said in a statement. ‘Their percentage of ‘correct’ decisions – minimizing risk – jumped from 88 per cent to 96 per cent. And their response times in scenarios where the farther aircraft was the higher-risk aircraft were cut in half; from 7.2 seconds to 3.7 seconds for blinking CDTIs, and to 4 seconds for yellow CDTIs.

‘We’re not trying to make money off this,’ Pankok said. ‘We’re hoping that CDTI manufacturers can incorporate these changes and possibly save lives.’

The paper, ‘Cockpit Displays of Traffic Information and Pilot Bias in Time-to-Contact Judgments,’ is published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine