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NASA Tries To Get Inside Pilots' Heads

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Whether you’re jamming for a final exam, working late to finish a big presentation, or just trying to drag yourself to work the morning after tying on one, you know that making it through the day in a state of sleep deprivation is no fun. If you’re an airline pilot, it can be lethal.
Pilot fatigue is a real problem, and researchers at NASA are looking at some interesting new ways to deal with it. They’ve launched a study to determine if neural imaging technologies could be used to measure stress and fatigue, and to indicate when these factors have reached levels that might make it tough for a pilot to safely fly an airplane.
According to, the study is happening at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and works like this: 15 subjects sitting in a moving flight simulator strap on headgear equipped with electrical sensors and perform a series of increasingly complex cockpit-related tasks. Over the course of the simulation, sensors measure blood flow in the brain’s cortex and oxygen levels in the blood using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and other imaging technology.
These techniques measure neural activity, which in turn can measure when pilots may be becoming overloaded. “Flying an aircraft involves multitasking that potentially can push the limits of human performance,” said Angela Harrivel, the NASA biomedical engineer leading the study. “When we increase stress and difficulty we can see how the subject reacts, measuring brain activity during overload.”
That’s good news in light of several recent high-profile incidents that illustrate the dangers of pilot fatigue. In one, pilots of a 50-seat commercial jet fell asleep for nearly 25 minutes while the plane was cruising at 21,000 feet. In another, a plane hit trees on approach and crashed short of the airport. Because of these incidents and others, the National Transportation Safety Board has urged the FAA to develop a pilot fatigue management system.
“No matter how much training pilots have, conditions could occur when too much is going on in the cockpit,” said Harrivel. “What we hope to achieve by this study is a way to sensitively — and, ultimately, unobtrusively — determine when pilots become mentally overloaded.”

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