Campus: CSU Long Beach -- September 15, 2004

CSULB Psychology Department, Professor Establishes Research Center to Study 'Human Factors' of Air Traffic Management

What if pilots could depend less on air traffic controllers for in-flight directions? What if controllers handled unpiloted planes? These are just a couple of questions being considered at the Advanced Air Vehicle/Air Traffic Management Simulation Research Center (AAV/ATM SRC) at California State University, Long Beach.

With financial assistance from The Boeing Company, the CSULB Psychology Department has established the center to study the human factor issues in air traffic management.

“The study of human factors optimizes the relationships between people and machines, and machines can mean anything from books to fighter jets,” explained Tom Strybel, CSULB psychology professor and director of the center. “Any place where people interact with technology is the proper subject for human factors application.”

Creation of the center was made possible with the support of some $200,000 in donations and contracts from The Boeing Company’s Southern California Air Force Systems and Huntington Beach Site organizations. Strybel also credited the efforts of Jack Dwyer, an Associate Technical Fellow at Boeing and part-time lecturer in psychology at CSULB.

Among the equipment and monetary gifts from Boeing were 23 high-end computer workstations, $31,000 in start-up costs and a $48,000 grant for initial simulation projects. AAV/ATM SRC is also receiving specially designed simulation software from the NASA Ames Research Center valued at several million dollars.

“We will be doing un-piloted air vehicle and airspace simulations on the second floor of the Psychology Building,” said Strybel, who was instrumental in setting up the department’s new master’s degree program in human factors. “One of the reasons the center is here and not in the College of Engineering is the importance of human-factor issues in air traffic management.”
The professor noted that the AAV/ATM SRC will also participate in joint air traffic management simulations with Boeing and the NASA Ames Research Center, and that students will play a large role in these simulations and other projects.

“Students will assist in the operations of the center by learning to perform pilot and air traffic controller tasks and becoming familiar with the human factors issues in these areas, thus preparing them for future positions in aerospace human factors,” Strybel pointed out. “Our masters’ candidates also will be able to use the center for research and thesis projects when simulations are not being run.”

Exemplifying the type of research the lab will conduct is NASA Ames’ program investigating the concept of “Free Flight,” a method for increasing air capacity.

“It evaluates an increase in air capacity by providing pilots with more information and giving them more responsibility for navigation decisions,” Strybel explained. “Pilots could use that new information to make decisions that only air traffic controllers can make today, such as a change in flight path or altitude. How will the information be displayed? What happens if they are looking at displays when they ought to be looking out the window.”

In short, the center will explore a world where airports get busier.

“If new decision-making technology makes it possible for planes to fly closer and more safely, that means more passengers and more passengers mean more money,” Stybel said. “The
issue is, how close can planes come and still maintain the equivalent levels of flight safety employed today? Everyone hopes that, with new technology and decision aids, the system can become even more efficient.”

New technology will have an immense impact on the air traffic control of tomorrow. “What we’re doing represents a system shift,” he said. “All of a sudden, air traffic controllers might not have sole responsibility.”

While physical workload for 21st century pilots has shrunk, mental workload has not. “Workload is an important issue for both air traffic controllers and pilots,” he said. “Today’s pilots and controllers are carrying heavy cognitive loads. That is especially true during certain portions of the flight such as take-off and landing when there are many aircraft coming together. Measuring that is some of what we’ll do.”

Other issues to be explored include the role of unpiloted aircraft in the skies of the future. “There is interest in allowing unpiloted air vehicles access to commercial air space,” he said. “Thanks to the support of Boeing and NASA Ames, we can explore these issues.”

Strybel, who has been at CSULB since 1987, received his bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in Michigan, his master’s degree from Cal State Los Angeles and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology and human factors from the University of Arizona.

Media contacts: Rick Gloady, 562/985-5454, rgloady@csulb.edu
Shayne Schroeder, 562/985-1727, schroede@csulb.edu


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