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Study: Automated Cockpits May Have Some Drawbacks

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A study at N.C. State found that cockpit crews using advanced computer controls may not be effective when recovering from a bad situation.

American Airlines Flight 965 smashed into a mountain, killing 160 people. The cockpit crew was using a computerized flight management system when they had to change course. Trying to change the automated controls, they forgot to fly the plane.

Dr. David Kaber and two graduate students at N.C. State's Industrial Engineering School are studying pilot performance under various levels of automation.

Computer screens simulate the glass cockpit of an MD-11 jet. The screens display navigation information and the altitude of the plane. The MD-11 cockpit offers 17 automation modes. Flying can be done without pilot input.

The three-year study for NASA found that pilots working with high levels of automation can get in trouble.

"They're actually slower in terms of recovering the system. Their diagnosis may not be as accurate and the action they take may not be correct," Kaber said.

International flights are more difficult for crews than domestic flights because they are longer. Kaber said crews get bored and tired and they miss things because the plane is flying itself.

The N.C. State group will soon be working with Georgia Tech on the project. They hope to come up with plans for automated cockpits that also keep the crew alert, involved and better able to recover when something goes wrong.


Tom Lawrence, Reporter
John Cox, Photographer
Kamal Wallace, Web Editor

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