From battle zones to oil rigs, helicopters often operate in some of the hairiest situations in which pilots are forced to rely solely on cockpit instruments. In an effort to improve safety, the non-profit helicopter safety organization HeliOffshore is using eye-tracking technology to gain a greater understanding of how pilots operate in such scenarios.
"Flying blind" is more than just a figure of speech. It's another way of describing a common occurrence when pilots must rely completely on instruments when visibility fails. The problem is that operating a helicopter is tricky enough at the best of times. Throw in a heavy fog or a blizzard with the need to constantly consult the control panel and it's not something for the faint hearted.
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Working with Jarvis Bagshaw Ltd, HeliOffshore is conducting a program to optimize helicopter pilot training and standard operating procedures by using eye-tracking technology.
"This is the focus of HeliOffshore's uniquely collaborative eye-tracking research, which started this month," says Gretchen Haskins, chief executive officer of HeliOffshore. "We are using state of the art techniques to understand more about how pilots monitor cockpit instruments during flight."
For the first phase of the program, 26 pilots from Bond Offshore, Bristow and CHC Helicopter were placed in Airbus Helicopters UK's Aberdeen-based H225 helicopter cockpit simulator, where they were put through a series of instrument flight scenarios. During these scenarios, the pilots were being given different tasks that all need to be monitored.
Without visual cues, the pilots must rely on their instrument readouts for data, the question is, what instruments are they looking at any one time and how efficient is their monitoring. To learn more about this, the pilots are wearing glasses equipped with infra-red tracking devices. These flash IR light into the pilot's eyse and uses the reflections to determine what they are looking at.
"Some light disappears into the pupil and some of it bounces off the iris, cornea, eyelid or surrounding skin,"says Francois Lassale, HeliOffshore's operations director. "These areas reflect different levels of infrared light, which is picked up by the camera and then analyzed to reveal which instruments are monitored during which periods of flight."
HeliOffshore will present its results at its annual conference in Prague in May.