Visual Search in Complex Displays: Factors Affecting Conflict Detection by Air Traffic Controllers

By Remington, Roger W.; Johnston, James C. et al. | Human Factors, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Visual Search in Complex Displays: Factors Affecting Conflict Detection by Air Traffic Controllers


Remington, Roger W., Johnston, James C., Ruthruff, Eric, Gold, Miri, Romera, Maria, Human Factors


Recent free flight proposals to relax airspace constraints and give greater autonomy to aircraft have raised concerns about their impact on controller performance. Relaxing route and altitude restrictions would reduce the regularity of traffic through individual sectors, possibly impairing controller situation awareness. We examined the impact of this reduced regularity in four visual search experiments that tested controllers' detection of traffic conflicts in the four conditions created by factorial manipulation of fixed routes (present vs. absent) and altitude restrictions (present vs. absent). These four conditions were tested under varying levels of traffic load and conflict geometry (conflict time and conflict angle). Traffic load and conflict geometry showed strong and consistent effects in all experiments. Color coding altitude also substantially improved detection times. In contrast, removing altitude restrictions had only a small negative impact, and removing route restrictions had virtually no nega tive impact. In some cases conflict detection was actually better without fixed routes. The implications and limitations of these results for the feasibility of free flight are discussed. Actual or potential applications include providing guidance in the selection of free flight operational concepts.

INTRODUCTION

The movement of aircraft through the National Airspace System (NAS) is governed by strict procedures that specify permissible altitudes and routes as well as other constraints (e.g., the required separation between aircraft under different conditions). The goal of these procedures is to promote safe operations by providing a well-structured airspace in which all participants (e.g., pilots, air traffic controllers) understand their roles and responsibilities. There is general consensus that the orderly nature of the NAS contributes significantly to its exemplary safety record.

Currently, ground-based air traffic controllers route flights along fixed airways, restricting altitude depending on the east/west direction of flight. Although they provide for an orderly airspace, current routing procedures do not correspond to any natural optimization of flight parameters, such as fuel consumption or flight time. In general, it would be more efficient in terms of both fuel and time to fly along a great circle route, the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere, with modest adjustments for wind.

The current system of airways was created in response to limited navigational technology (see Cotton, 1995). Improved aircraft technology, however, has now made it possible to fly with precision any desired path from one point to another in the continental United States (e.g., a great circle path) and to optimize for whatever criteria are desired -- distance, time, fuel consumption, and so forth. Greater optimization translates into decreased operating costs and improved schedule adherence, which are increasingly important in the competitive air carrier market (see Planzer & Jenny, 1995).

As a result, the operational feasibility of relaxing constraints on routes and altitudes is being given serious consideration (see, for example, RTCA, 1994; Wickens, Mavor, Parasuraman, & McGee, 1998, chapter 9).

Research on the feasibility of increased aircraft autonomy has a surprisingly long history; at least one early laboratory study found improvements in some measures of safety and efficiency during a simulated approach in which aircrews shared responsibility for maintaining separation (Kidd & Kinkade, 1958). Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is conducting limited operational tests of more flexible procedures, and permitting point-to-point navigation under specific conditions. In addition, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in conjunction with the FAA, has established the Advanced Aviation Transportation Technologies (AATT) program to investigate a variety of free flight concepts that embody various degrees of aircraft autonomy. …

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