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CCI Professor Ellen Bass Examines Human Factors in Unmanned Aircraft Systems

February 24, 2016

Remotely piloted aircraft introduce safety and related concerns, so the Federal Aviation Administration is taking measures to address the integration of these drones, known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), into the nation's airspace. In 2015, the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), composed of academic and industry partners, was selected to help the FAA. Researchers from Drexel University are part of the ASSURE experts selected to advise the FAA with respect to the commercial operation of unmanned aircraft systems. College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) Professor and Information Science Department Head Ellen Bass, PhD is the human factors thrust lead for the ASSURE team.

There are many human factors issues involved with UAS. “While UAS offer potential for environmental benefits, due to their small size and weight, and safety benefits due to their ability to fly into more dangerous situations, several organizations have identified human factors issues unique to UAS,” Bass said.

Bass is currently leading a multi-university team to develop guidelines for recommended function allocation strategies and control station information requirements for UAS human-machine functions. Her project, titled “UAS Human Factors Control Station Design Standards (Plus Function Allocation, Training, Visual Observer),” includes drafting recommendations for future research related to function allocation strategies and controller station standards and guidelines. Researchers from other universities working on this FAA-funded project are from New Mexico State University, the Ohio State University and the University of North Dakota.

Bass notes that some of the major challenges associated with UAS operation include the allocation of functions between the UAS and the remote pilot in various operational scenarios; information requirements for adequate pilot awareness of normal and non-normal system state and surrounding airspace; pilot distraction from individuals other than crew (known as “sterility”) and ambient noise; variable training programs across organizations; and visual observer performance limitations in various operational and environmental conditions.

Furthermore, Bass also points out that “because UAS pilots receive information regarding the state and health of their aircraft solely through electronic displays, they have reduced sensory cues as compared to pilots of conventional aircraft.” This makes it difficult for UAS pilots to recognize and diagnose anomalies during flights that could endanger the safety of the vehicle. Bass says that besides technical failures like engine loss and data link loss, external environmental factors such as traffic, atmospheric conditions, lighting and noise also need to be considered.

Bass believes that enhanced automation and function allocation, or the distribution of work between people and automation, can lead to viable solutions to human factors issues prevalent in UAS operations and to the safe and efficient integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. However, these solutions require evaluating regulatory requirements, or minimum standards, that determine the levels of automation across aircraft type, airspace, phase of flight, and normal and abnormal conditions.

“There is a large research base of information about human factors issues associated with automated systems; however, there is a need to identify the specific human factors requirements in certifying civil UAS automation systems,” Bass said. “There is [also] a need for an evaluation of the regulatory requirements and guidance for the flight deck of manned aircraft to determine what, if any, of those requirements should be included with the minimum requirements for the control stations for UAS.”

Bass recognizes the need for several areas for evaluation such as the information requirements (as a result of function allocation), control station size and egress capability, and redundant control capabilities such as using another control station or portable device (laptop or tablet) in case the primary control station cannot be utilized due to loss of power, fire or other emergency.

Bass shares joint appointments in both CCI and the College of Nursing and Health Professions (CNHP). She also holds affiliate status in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. She has over 30 years of human-centered systems engineering research and design experience in air transportation, biomedical informatics, healthcare, process control and weather related applications.

Bass earned a bachelor of science in engineering (BSE) with a major in bioengineering and a bachelor of science in economics (BSE) with a major in finance from the University of Pennsylvania; a master of science in advance technology from the State University of New York at Binghamton; and a doctorate in systems engineering with a major in human-machine systems and a minor in artificial intelligence from the Georgia Institute of Technology.