cockpit was of the first workplaces to benefit from human factors
research. Katherine Plant describes the evolution of the cockpit and the
human factors implication of the new technology it contains.
of the first formal human factors studies was carried out by Fitts and
Jones in 1947 to analyse pilot experiences with display readings. Most
of the early aviation human factors studies were concerned with control
and display designs, demonstrating the design-induced traps that pilots
could fall into. In the 1950s and 1960s human factors contributed
towards crew selection, training and flight deck design. However, human
factors in aviation came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s with the
onset of crew resource management and the introduction of glass
The flight deck has undergone a major transformation in
recent years, going from the ‘classic flight deck’ with analogue dials
and individual displays, to the ‘glass cockpit’, in which most
instruments are presented via electrical screens and information is
interlinked between the instruments, Flight Management System and
autopilot functions. This evolution has been accompanied by the
emergence of a whole host of human factors issues. Large research
efforts have been devoted to understanding the associated cognitive
factors such as situation awareness, workload and error, in addition to
technological factors such as display design, Human-Machine Interface
(HMI) and automation.
Most recently, the launches of Boeing’s 787
Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, have seen breakthrough technologies
applied to all-new aeroplane design. It is not just the fixed-wing
community that has seen significant technological advances. Rotary-wing
manufacturers continue to develop state-of-the-art aircraft including
AgustaWestland’s AW189 and Eurocopter’s EC175, primarily to service the
demanding operating environments of oil and gas transport and Search and
Today, the flight deck may look very different from
the flight decks of WWII aircraft but human factors issues persist and
evolve. Traditionally, safety and performance enhancements were the
driving force for development. In recent years however, efficiency and
competitiveness have become increasing incentives for development. This
new aim is demonstrated by the changes in the way information is
displayed to the pilot. For example, whilst the advent of Head-Up
Displays and synthetic environments afford a safety benefit through
increased awareness and reduced workload, they also allow for operations
in degraded visual environments which increase efficiency and
ALICIA is a project that aims to develop new and
scalable cockpit applications that can extend operations of aircraft in
degraded conditions. It seeks to establish a common cockpit philosophy
between different aircraft types and, ambitiously, between fixed and
rotary-wing aircraft too. This article highlights some of the key
technologies that are being considered within the project for future
cockpits and discusses some of the associated human factors
allow the user to provide direct, context-sensitive interaction. In the
cockpit, touchscreens have been considered for use as inter-seat
controllers and armrest controllers and in instrument panels and
multi-function display units. The use of touchscreens has commercial
benefits in terms of commonality and scalability, particularly in
relation to their ability to integrate increased functionality without
any physical expansion.
Operationally, touchscreens also offer
potential benefits in support of reduced crew operations, rapid aircraft
start-up/take-off and information sharing between stakeholders.
is envisaged that touchscreens will have an increased usability benefit
over current units, which, due to the limited capacity of small
screens, have narrow but deep menu control structures. The increased
surface area afforded by entire touchscreen cockpits allows for broader
and shallower menu control structures. Currently, many procedures depend
on sequenced checks and actions on different panels distributed across
the cockpit, particularly in relation to emergency procedures. The
integration of these procedures into one area has the potential to
reduce pilot workload and enhance situation awareness. Similarly, the
use of touchscreens will promote better HMI consistency across the
cockpit as common display philosophies can be utilised.
however, potential issues and concerns that need researching. For
example, arm fatigue and discomfort requires careful consideration.
Touchscreens require direct interaction and therefore their positioning
is limited by reach, which has consequences for the location of
The need for feedback also requires careful
consideration. The current use of physical buttons provides immediate
feedback to the pilot. Haptic or audio feedback mechanisms are potential
contenders to complement visual feedback. Furthermore, the
effectiveness of touch-based interaction under conditions of turbulence
or vibration is also of concern, as the motion of the screen and hand
could lead to unintended interactions that have workload and safety
implications. Ultimately, the resulting interface needs to be intuitive
and unambiguous for the control and display of all aircraft functions,
whilst providing the pilot with a comfortable interaction that can be
used in all operating conditions.
there was no requirement for input devices in cockpits as displays were
non-interactive. As functionality of the displays increased, so too did
the need for suitable input mechanisms.
The introduction of novel
input devices raises design issues as several bespoke interfaces become
connected via one input device. Therefore, designers need to ensure
they maintain the familiarity and functionality of existing systems
whilst offering an effective redesign solution. Even with the
introduction of touchscreens, a requirement remains for an indirect
device as a back up method or to complement touchscreens in a
multi-modal solution. Input devices that are being considered for use in
future cockpits include:
Trackball: a ball held
in a socket and rolled using the hand or fingers. They are advantageous
in areas where there is limited surface space for device manipulation.
this can be rotated, pushed down or moved up/down/left/right in order
to control the movements and actions of an on-screen cursor. Rotary
controllers have been shown to produce faster task performance than
other indirect input devices.
comprises a tactile surface which is capable of sensing the movement of a
person’s fingers and translating this into actions of an on-screen
cursor. Like trackballs, they require little space for installation and
manipulation. However, trackballs can require more complex manipulations
when compared with other input devices.
Direct Voice Input (DVI):
this is likely to be the most flexible input application used in future
cockpits. It has the potential to be used for a variety of tasks
including radio tuning, navigation functions and checklist procedures.
However, the usefulness of DVI is currently outweighed by a host of
technical problems that need solving. These include adapting the
vocabulary to be suitable for all accents, identifying individual
speakers in multi-speaker environments and suppressing background noise.
already exist that allow pre-recorded templates to be loaded to negate
the problem of accents and the use of active input lines can resolve the
issue of multi-speakers. DVI is a promising input technology but is
only likely to be realised in future-future cockpits, not within the
‘2020’ vision that current research programs are aiming towards.
audio utilises natural audio processing capabilities through the
positioning of audio signals in 3D space using appropriate hardware in
order to emulate how audio is perceived in the natural world.
the cockpit, this technology aims to improve situation awareness during
fixed obstacle avoidance manoeuvring for rotorcraft. It has the
potential to optimise crew workload in high communication density
environments by spatially separating multiple simultaneous voice
The HMI design for this technology needs to consider the
comfort of the headsets and how best to track pilots’ head movements.
This is because there is a small area in which this technology will work
and it is dependent on the listener’s head position and orientation.
The effectiveness of 3D audio is also dependent on the aural capability
of the pilot, however this issue could be overcome via individual
headsets, amplification aids and thorough and regular hearing tests.
are slightly different considerations in a fixed-wing environment where
pilots are not routinely required to wear headsets and rarely maintain
head position for extended periods, except in critical phases of flight.
Advanced displays: Eyes out, head up and conformal symbology
use of eyes out displays and appropriate symbology is considered to be a
key enabler for enhancing operations in degraded visual environments
and enhancing situation awareness. Due to operational differences
between the two aircraft types, fixed-wing are likely to utilise Head Up
Display (HUD) solutions, whereas rotary-wing are likely to use tracked
Head Mounted Displays (HMD).
The eyes out displays will include
both primary flight information and relevant conformal symbology such as
landing sites. They will also allow the pilot to look through the
displays to see the outside world. Displays are aligned at infinity so
that the pilot can view real world objects and be presented with
information on the display without having to adjust eye focus.
HUD technology does exist but offers a very limited field of view and
so for longer flights the pilot must either maintain an uncomfortable
position for extended periods or deviate from the design eye reference
point, which has the potential for missed information. It is intended
that these display interfaces will implement an augmented reality
approach to allow for the presentation of 3D information onto the
In rotary-wing operations conformal symbology will be
used to provide virtual 3D on route, approach and landing references, as
well as primary flight and status data. The use of HUD symbology for
fixed-wing aircraft is intended to provide significant capability
enhancement to All Conditions Operations for taxiing, take-off and
approach/landing. Expected benefits of the advanced displays include
enhanced situation awareness and increased safety with regards to
airborne obstacles and navigation hazards. Human factors evaluation
trials are underway to assess the various implications of using advanced
displays including situation awareness, workload and general usability
of the displays.
Future challenges for human factors
any introduction of new technology, as old problems are addressed, new
issues may arise. The human factors discipline has an important role to
play in the evaluation of new technologies to ensure that both physical
performance and cognitive processing is optimised to enable successful
task performance. The physical arrangement of new technologies is as
important as the cognitive demand they impose, as both play an integral
part in the success of the human-machine interaction.
domain has often led the way in its acknowledgement and acceptance of
the importance of human factors considerations. The requirement for
rigorous human factors analyses of human-technology interaction becomes
especially pertinent when new technologies are introduced into an
already complex environment.
The human factors specialists within
the ALICIA project are currently facing the challenge of defining the
scope of evaluation trials. It is relatively simple to evaluate an
isolated piece of technology but this process gets increasingly complex
as more technologies are introduced into a future cockpit test bed.
Questions arise as to how these technologies can be simultaneously
evaluated to assess the merits of an overall future cockpit, whilst
capturing the salient strengths and weaknesses of individual
The methods used to do carry out this complex
evaluation also require careful consideration. Eye tracking, video
capture, simulator data logging and qualitative self-assessments are all
likely to play a part in evaluating the future cockpit concept. When
coupled with the constraints of cost and time-effective trials, the need
to demonstrate value is ever present.
These technologies provide
just a taster of the cockpit of the future. The ideal cockpit will be
capable of supporting the ever-changing Air Traffic Management
environment and operating within the demands of All Conditions
Operations whilst providing a scalable solution that is physically and
cognitively optimised for the pilot.
By Katherine Plant, Research Assistant in the Transportation Research Group, Catherine Harvey, Research Fellow & Neville Stanton,
Chair of Human Factors, all in the Transportation Research Group,
Faculty of Engineering and Environment, University of Southampton.
This article was first published in issue 520 of The Ergonomist, October 2013.