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Human factors in aviation and prevention methods

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Within the aviation world, humans play a decisive role in executing the different systems and applying procedures. The design of systems and procedures in the aeronautical world effectively contributes to flying with safety conditions that approach perfection, although it is true that, even if it tends to, 100% can never be guaranteed.

In the same way that there are preventive tasks in maintaining structures, technology, aircraft etc., there are also procedures and technology aimed at monitoring human factors, which in remote circumstances may be at the source of a dangerous situation. In this way, we can act preventively.

The body is a complex machine that is vulnerable to certain factors that can compromise both its condition and its actions, therefore, it is constantly controlled.

In performing their work, pilots, controllers and airport operators may be affected by some alteration to their skills, consequently, in some cases it may be important to monitor factors such as the following: ​

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)​: Cardiovascular disease or events are the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 31% of global deaths, or approximately 17.9 million people according to the World Health Organization. For this reason, ECGs are common in periodic check-ups of staff in aeronautics, although in some specific cases, they are also performed with monitoring of the circulatory system to avoid safety problems related to this.

Early detection can prevent cardiovascular events and, therefore, associated safety risks.

One of the most innovative and non-invasive devices is the ECG patch. This system does not use cables or electrodes, and continuously monitors ECG activity. It is intended for monitoring for 14 days, using an adhesive patch that sticks to the individual’s chest. Consequently, this kind of monitoring could be used periodically. There are several developments in these systems, but their use is not yet widespread.

  • Monitoring eye movement: A priori this may seem to be a trivial issue, but according to some studies, up to 80% of the information required for the flight is acquired through the eye system, so it is vitally important that pilots’ and controllers’ sight is in very good condition. Devices for monitoring this include:
  • Eye monitoring device for PVD (Portable or Remote). This device is already on the market, is easy to install and very versatile. The aviation application is mainly for the air traffic control service.
  • Eye monitoring glasses. Easy and convenient to use, with an integrated camera that allows for use by pilots as there is no need for a PVD. In addition, they are not very intrusive for the user’s vision.
  • Bionic eye monitoring contact lenses. This is the most advanced and powerful technology being developed on the market and there is a race in the business world to develop this technology. The smart contact lens market is expected to see a growth rate of 10.4% by 2023. As well as its use in aviation, it could also have multiple uses in the general public’s day-to-day lives.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)​: Electroencephalography is an electrophysical monitoring technique that records the brain’s electrical activity, which is in turn produced by neuronal activity. For early detection of fatigue, stress and neurological conditions that are limiting from the point of view of flight licences, such as epilepsy.

Various devices are currently being developed that allow for non-invasive monitoring by electroencephalogram to detect fatigue in advance. They have applications not only in aviation, but also for driving vehicles in general as they could reduce the percentage of accidents caused by this factor.

An example is the EEG monitoring helmet. Safely measures brain wave signals and monitors people’s attention levels while they interact with a variety of different applications. The cost is fairly low, consequently, implementation should not pose an issue as respects investment. The helmet has an electrode placed under the ear and another on the forehead. Furthermore, it is very light so is, a priori, comfortable for an 8-hour working day.

  • Elements related to health and flight​: Working on an aircraft in flight involves a number of unique factors in this profession that can affect people’s health, such as pressure and temperature changes, respiratory diseases, different air quality, changes in times, noise etc.

Due to the heavy responsibility on pilots for transporting hundreds of people daily, their good health is considered essential for them to be able to work as airline pilots with all their psychophysical capabilities in optimal condition. For this reason, the health of pilots has become a safety issue. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has conducted campaigns and published a guide for pilots that establishes recommendations for maintaining optimal health.

Current technologies for monitoring the health of pilots include small computing devices, such as smartphones and tablets, with low power consumption BlueTooth wireless connectivity. An example is the widely-used smart bands that a large part of the population uses to monitor their physical activity.

  • Behaviour and motivation: As in other sectors in which workers work far from home and in many cases on shifts, pilots experience many physical, emotional and environmental stress factors. Recent research indicates that, given the demands of the work (i.e. antisocial working hours, altered sleep patterns/fatigue etc.) and the nature of the work (i.e. sedentary work, with little physical activity, a mix of periods of high and low stress, isolation), pilots have a greater potential risk of developing unhealthy attitudes or behaviours and even psychological health problems.

Currently, most instruments or tools that allow people to analyse their levels of motivation and attitude are based on questionnaires or personal interviews carried out by experts in psychology and human behaviour that seek to identify patterns and certain responses indicating the presence of certain behaviours or attitudes that affect people’s emotional balance.

However, studies and research are also being conducted to develop new technological tools to monitor the behaviour of workers at certain companies or sectors in which this attitude is particularly important, such as aviation.

  • Sleep and fatigue: Fatigue and sleep affect both pilots and cabin crew as a result of sleep that is not restful, as bad programmed sleep habits reduce brain coordination and performance, with the consequent risk of air accidents.

Fatigue detection has also been the subject of research in the automotive sector, which has led to the appearance and development of numerous tools for detecting these symptoms through facial recognition.

There are currently numerous devices on the market that continuously monitor all the individual’s facial expressions, detecting possible signs of tiredness, drowsiness or distraction through a complex facial recognition algorithm, even with sunglasses or at night.

These are simple and effective devices that detect almost immediately the onset of signs of drowsiness. Their functions include the option of powerful sound alerts and flashing LEDs.

These devices are reactive-type technological solutions, i.e. solutions that provide information on the individual’s level of drowsiness or fatigue once the signs start to appear.

  • Communication and cooperation between individuals​: It is important to monitor the emotions of controllers, pilots and cabin crew, as they are continually exposed to demanding situations, with great responsibility and mental and physical demands.

It has been demonstrated that through recurrent neural networks (RNN), which use sequential data or time series and have a primary application in voice recognition systems (such as on our smartphones), speech emotion analysis can be monitored. These networks use training data to learn and have a “memory” that improves this analysis and recognition.

This is a monitoring tool with broad scope for improvement and application; it entails pretraining but, through the analysis of pauses, sounds and tones, can identify the emotional state of any individual and carry out the appropriate actions where necessary.

There is no doubt that the human being’s position in the system makes this a key factor in the field of operational safety.

The body is a complex machine that allows a multitude of actions and processes to be performed, but which is vulnerable to certain factors that can compromise both its condition and the integrity of the environment that surrounds it.

However, with continuous learning based on experience, the development of new technologies and the relentless pursuit of total safety, the world of aviation is always at the cutting edge of safety, thus retaining the title “the safest form of transport in the world”.


Human factors


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