Automation Has Encouraged the Pilot's Wandering Mind

With increasing automation, pilots may be thinking about the cold cuts they're going to buy at the deli instead of focusing on the flight.
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(Photo: hugokernel/Flickr)

(Photo: hugokernel/Flickr)

With the airplane's computer system pre-programmed to hit waypoints at certain speeds and altitudes and a veteran co-pilot on hand, pilots making a descent into a busy airport might feel comfortable enough to allow their minds to wander. Perhaps this means dreaming of the cold cuts they'll be purchasing later or the cold beer they'll soon be sipping on a beach. Who knows, maybe they'll even ponder the meaning of life. Though these kinds of thoughts might seem ill-advised for someone who's in charge of directing a giant tube of steel that's hurtling thousands of feet over the ground at hundreds of miles per hour, new research indicates they're increasingly common.

Automation in the cockpit is designed to limit thoughts about "tedious control tasks and [afford pilots] more time to look up, think ahead, and focus on 'the big picture' of the flight," but the elaborate systems can often mean more time for not thinking about the flight at all. According to a new study published this month in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, previous studies that tested the effect of "high levels of automation" on pilot performance found that they "failed to answer basic questions about their situation or even know where they were."

Automation in the cockpit is designed to limit thoughts about "tedious control tasks and [afford pilots] more time to look up, think ahead, and focus on 'the big picture' of the flight," but the elaborate systems can often mean more time for not thinking about the flight at all.

In this study, the researchers wanted to assess the pilot's actual thought patterns during flight instead of evaluating their performance. In an experiment, the researchers had 18 experienced commercial pilots fly a Boeing 747-400 flight simulator into New York. Along the way, the scientists asked the pilots whether they were focused on the "task at hand," "higher-order thoughts about the flight," or "something entirely unrelated."

The scientists found that while the high-level automation mode encouraged the pilots to have "fewer task-at-hand thoughts" and "more high-level thoughts about the flight" (automation's intended purpose), the pilots tended to engage in mind wandering when the automation systems were working smoothly. "Task-unrelated thoughts peaked at 25% when pilots were not interacting with the automation," the researchers write. "When all was going to plan, and the task of managing the airplane was seemingly under control, pilots often opted to think about something else."

"Task-unrelated thought" can have dangerous effects when the task you're performing is more significant than playing Mario Kart. "Task-unrelated thought has been demonstrated to lead to a greater propensity for error, predictable slumps in reading comprehension, and more careless response in a go/no-go decision task," the researchers note.

The authors suggest reconsidering the relationship between pilots and their autopilot systems, so their minds are not faced with unending monotony. "As technology grows in capability, we seem to be taking the approach of using humans as safety nets for computers," Stephen Casner, a co-author and research psychologist at NASA's Ames Research Center, says in a press release. "We need to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of both humans and computers and think of work environments that combine and exploit the best features of both to keep humans meaningfully engaged in their work."

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