ARCHIVED - Pilots Learn to See in the Dark

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March 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

For pilots executing dangerous search-and-rescue missions there is little room for error. This simple fact has encouraged research into helping pilots to "see" in the dark or in poor weather conditions. It has also helped improve the way critical information is displayed to pilots. The ultimate benefit of these changes is a safer flying experience. But, these modifications also alter the way pilots see, perceive and process information about their environment, which itself can also pose a risk to pilot safety.

Dr. Todd Macuda adjusts night vision goggles
Dr. Todd Macuda adjusts night vision goggles

Welcome to the world of NRC researchers Sion Jennings and Dr. Todd Macuda, experts in the field of human factors research, the study of human interaction with machines. Human factors play a major role in the aviation industry. It governs how cockpits are designed, how instruments are configured and how information from these instruments and other sources is relayed to the user.

During a recent presentation, Jennings, an engineer and Dr. Macuda, a psychologist by training, underlined that successful human-machine interface design relies on close collaboration between researchers from different fields. Both researchers work at the NRC Institute of Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) Flight Research Laboratory, based at the Uplands airport in Ottawa. Their multi-disciplinary approach is shared by other NRC research teams that have or are scheduled to deliver presentations as part of NRC's month-long lecture series, titled: Mind in Matter: Behavioural Sciences at NRC.

Assessing Night Vision Technologies using basic visual testing.
Assessing Night Vision Technologies using basic visual testing.

Fundamental to the science of human factors is, not surprisingly, humans and their interaction with their surroundings. The thrust of research efforts in these fields is to enhance design that improves the human user interface with the machine. According to Jennings, the increasing complexity of machines during the post-World II period is what set this modern research field in motion and, since then, it has become a major aspect in industrial design as well the design of software and Web interfaces.

Researchers are striving to answer a broad range of questions involving social, perceptual (e.g. how bright do I need to make the display to make it readable in direct sunlight?), cognitive (how much information can be retained, for 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days?) and bio-medical factors (how much force is needed to move the control stick?). "With this kind of work, engineers are forced to understand the needs and capabilities of users as well as the technology and it becomes an incredibly multi-disciplinary effort to build the right tool," Jennings told the audience. "While the engineers understand the science and technology, they can use input from psychology and medicine to understand the human needs and in the end produce a better product."

In the past 10 years NRC-IAR has completed over 500 hours of flight testing of night vision goggles and other systems meant to improve the ability to see of pilots. If you've ever been for an eye exam, you can imagine the kinds of helmet-mounted lenses and visors that are being considered for use, but one can also imagine the impact that this can have on pilots' overall field of vision, movement and behaviour.

NRC employee wearing the night vision goggles
NRC employee wearing the night vision goggles

Dr. Macuda studies how night vision goggles affect visual perception in key areas such as acuity (how well you can resolve image details) and depth perception. For example, simple choices like the placement of the night vision system on the side of the pilots head or in front of their face have a major impact on depth perception. Another major issue being explored is the impact of "noise" on perception. In low light conditions, these night vision devices produce a cloud of moving spots, similar to the "snow" seen on televisions with poor reception. A question being tested is: how does the behaviour of users change in response to this condition? Dr. Macuda's work relies on a battery of research methods, such as modeling, simulation and field tests to determine the effect of noise on the pilot's ability to see. Ultimately, the laboratory work being conducted will contribute to the development and enhancement of night vision technology.

One of the features that makes NRC-IAR facilities unique is the ability to carry out all of these experiments under the same roof. The lab for testing night-vision goggles is literally a step away from the large hangar housing a range of different aircraft fully instrumented for testing. What this means in practice is that theories developed in the lab can quickly be field tested under real conditions. The benefit is that new insights and improvements to critical systems such as night vision goggles can just as quickly be introduced to the aviation community, a win-win situation for all involved.

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