New guidelines will establish methods so unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) can be used safely in personal, commercial and academic situations.
“You don’t have the lives of other humans involved in shipping cargo,” said Igor Dolgov, an assistant professor of psychology at New Mexico State University (NMSU) who is working on the guidelines. “Computers can fly airplanes fairly well already, so UAS designers are thinking of automating these crafts and making them unmanned, which would save a lot of money and avoid potential delays due to human error and misrouting.”
To discover safety issues involved in flying over rural, desert and metropolitan areas at night, Dolgov and his team will be launching unmanned aircraft at night as part of a NASA grant. He hopes to determine the kinds of lighting and sensing technology needed to prevent accidents.
“Visual cues are typically absent at night, particularly depth, which is absolutely essential in daytime depth perception,” Dolgov said. “Relative disparity, which is missing at night, is typically considered necessary to perceive the location and relative safety of the aircraft.”
Potential accidents include colliding with other aircraft or crash landing in populated areas.
NMSU has the only Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-authorized Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Test Center in the United States, and companies frequently bring their aircraft to be tested by the Physical Science Laboratory.
A typical four-member UAS operation team is made up of a pilot, two observers and a payload operator. According to Dolgov, the pilots are normally PSL-trained pilots or pilots provided by the agencies with whom they are cooperating.
One of the goals is to study both expert and novice pilots and observers to better understand the impact of training and the potential continuum of performance. Dolgov hopes his findings will be included in future training procedures for UAS operational teams.
Pilots of small UASs typically use small handheld devices that are similar to many handheld video game systems to operate the craft. During a flight, Dolgov studies the psychological aspects of the effectiveness of the controls on the device in relation to the pilot and the aircraft.
“The human side of engineering psychology really entails the efficiency and experience of using various control devices,” Dolgov said. “We all have various backgrounds and previously gained knowledge, and therefore also have certain biases and expectations about using machines, computers and other interactive devices.”
During the process, Dolgov tries to discover whether the aircraft’s behavior actually matches the intentions and actions of the pilot. He looks at both the user and the usability of the handheld displays and controls.
“Visibility, the order of operations, and the organization of the information on the screen is clearly very important, because the screen space is limited,” Dolgov said.
In the course of his research, the most interesting thing he discovered was that assistive technologies, like night-vision and infrared goggles, didn’t necessarily improve observers’ abilities to track an aircraft at night. This is due to the impact of the aperture problem, which is the experience of seeing a larger field of view through a small window. The aperture problem makes the use of such technologies beneficial for the best-trained observers.
According to Dolgov, if a solution for flying safely at night is discovered, the FAA could remove the ban on night flying, and the market for commercial, academic and personal uses would open up. He believes there are economical implications for commercial cargo shipping companies that could convert their operations to unmanned aircraft.
“It could potentially create a lot of new jobs making sure the system works, and that it works safely,” Dolgov said. “It does take the traditional pilot out of the equation, but it brings in a lot of other individuals who are involved in the process of operating UASs that perform functions resembling monitoring more so than flying.”
In the future, Dolgov plans to look at the different lighting configurations, different weather conditions and the light variations of dusk, dawn and night on the safety and efficacy of UAS operations.