FAA Lab Tests New Air Traffic Technology

By Christie Duffy

American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in November, 13 years ago. It went down in Queens, killing everyone on board. NTSB investigators blamed it on human error.

According the Federal Aviation Administration, around 60 to 80 percent of all aviation accidents can be blamed on humans.

“Our focus is on the interaction of people with technology,” said FAA Human Factors Laboratory Manager Kenneth Allendoerfer.

Inside this FAA laboratory in Egg Harbor Township, the job is to make air traffic controllers’ interaction with technology as seamless as possible.

“We can do things in the lab that you really can’t do in the field. So we can test out situations that are either dangerous or that are rare and we can make sure that everything works,” Allendoerfer said.

Fifty psychologists, researchers, engineers, computer programmers and air traffic controllers work out of the lab. They use a million-dollar simulated air traffic control tower and other 2D technology to test out new programs like data messaging between air traffic control and pilots.

Dave Molyneux was an air traffic controller for over 20 years. He worries that too much new technology could dumb down the instincts of air traffic controllers.

“There are so many more things that are automated and so if something breaks, the controllers don’t have that experience to fall back on because they haven’t needed to use that type of thinking,” Molyneux said.

More technology merging onto the screens of controllers can make things seem more cluttered and could potentially lead to more false alarms, says engineer Ben Willems.

“We want to make sure controllers are still in the loop. And that their workload doesn’t get any higher than they can handle,” he said.

Willems calls it next generation air control. But there’s really no points of measurement in the past to compare it to because the technology is so new. So FAA researchers use physiological measures — studying air traffic controllers’ brain waves, heart rate and eye movement as they work on the simulators — to gauge whether they’re being overworked or under stimulated.

And it’s not just how humans interact with the technology but they’re also looking at the placement of monitors and keyboards, basically the entire work environment of the air traffic controllers.

FAA officials say the careful placement of computer equipment, a controller’s line of sight or his heart rate can all add up to safer skies, more efficient runways and less delays at airports.