Situational awareness – SA, locative cognition, third-person mental modeling are all names for a very important understanding of unmanned flight. One of the greatest challenges for manned and unmanned pilots is in understanding their environment, processing extremely important information, continuing to access less vital but still important information, and using all sensory inputs to develop a continuously updating understanding of their role, their environment, the condition of their aircraft, and the “next moments” of flight. To enable continued safety and precision, drone pilots need the best practices for training and technology.
The Situational Awareness Challenge: Overcoming the Primitive Within
What do you do when a flight gets tricky? Your heart drops and, physically, your body goes into fight or flight mode. The stimulus causes an adrenaline reaction and your mind quickly filters out “unnecessary” information – information not needed for survival. An example helps illustrate where this comes from:
You’re an early human walking through a forest. You’re identifying flowers and plants for food, you’re watching your step and hearing the sounds of water. Clearly there is a stream near-by and the water is moving rapidly. Your village is just on the other side of the hillock, so you could catch some fish and… wait, what is that? Holy crap a wolf! You have seconds to figure out what to do. The water is no longer important to you, now you’re looking to get away, and all thoughts of mouthwatering fish have left. You’re running, fast, and the flowers no longer smell, the plants are no longer divided into edible or non-edible. Your decisions are limited – run or stop. Hide or run.
You may look at this and have some thoughts. Of course you don’t care about the flowers or water, we’ve heard this all before. However, look beyond. The flowers no longer smell. The plants aren’t being automatically identified as edible or poisonous, not because they no longer carry those traits or you’ve forgotten how to decipher their clues, but because your mind is preoccupied in prioritizing the most important tasks ahead of it: where to put your foot; where the wolf is moving and the sounds coming from; how far to the village. This same sensory focus, or elimination, represents the same reactions pilots, soldiers, drivers, divers, quarterbacks, and politicians all face. How they overcome them is also the same: training and technology.
For pilots, anomalous events represent these very stressful moments. They are usually failures in mechanics or environmental conditions that you are unprepared for, less trained on, or simply represent a higher risk of death or injury if allowed to affect your flight. While winged wolves have yet to make an appearance, other conditions and events will occur during flight, and both the technologies someone uses as well as the training a pilot undertakes can be the difference between accidents and injury, or near-miss.
Trained pilots will tell you that the more practice you have, the more information you can continue to process. They will also say that checklist oriented processes – those that are trained to and outlined and organized – maintain greater depth and breadth of information processing during those high stress environments. You don’t have to have identified and trained specifically for the event, but knowing what in your environment to check, or that you already have knowledge of your environment and can recall it, allays the fear, keeps “tunnel vision” away, and promotes easier, safer, flying.
Mental modeling occurs when you take an environmental input, apply your personal reasoning to that input, and create an output – your decision. You take in information, you develop an understanding of your environment and yourself, you apply any constraints or problems, and you make decisions. This occurs during flights, before and after flight, during breakfast, at home, etc. It is constantly occurring and constantly updating.
What is important for us to understand is that you have full control over this mental model. The more structured the information, the easier it is to access that input during a stressful environment. An example of this is your movie library of DVDs or files on your computer. If the files or DVDs are in a well-structured order, you can very easily move from the top level down to your needed information. You can navigate the folders, and easily find the specific information needed in a stress-free way – the information is not surprising, it is accessed, the attention needed to access it is minimal. That leaves other mental resources for flying your drone, assessing the situation, and providing feedback to those around you for greater communication.
What I’m getting to is that anything you can do to limit stress during volatile conditions will prevent information loss, and help you maintain access to information that is perhaps not directly related to your UAV (speed, height, heading, etc.) but should impact your decision (people on the ground, wind speed and direction, other aircraft, battery life, signal strength, GPS lock). There are a number of ways to maintain your information access, and I have identified a few people that relate specifically to education and training:
1) Pre and Post flight Briefings: Discuss the flight before you take off and identify any obstacles or conditions that may change or impact your flight operations. Identify the roles of each person in your crew and how they will communicate with one another during the flight. Clearly identify responsibilities during anomalous events and discuss who will take command of those around you.
2) Conduct an Operational Risk Assessment: You don’t have to identify every hazard and evaluate it for likelihood and severity, but go through hazards that you may expect and some you may not expect to occur. Look at what the impact might be, and then understand how you can prevent those hazards from occurring. By understanding risk before a flight, you are attuning your mind for the information you need – your tunnel vision will diminish and your mental model will be more complete for each flight.
3) Education and Airspace Knowledge: Perhaps the most important technology developments beginning to hit markets are in knowledge development for UAV pilots. There are a number of smartphone apps and computer programs designed to allow better flight planning and pilot orientation. These apps create better understanding of your environment, cross-check your flight plan against FAA regulations and guidance, and can even offer insight into where to get more information, who to call to file NOTAMS, and air traffic in the area. By incorporating these airspace resources into flight planning, any pilot can have immediate understanding of where they are flying, who is in the area, and safe landing zones in case of an accident. It promotes flight environment understanding and provides a base level of knowledge of where you are, who else is there, and where it is safe to be.
Applications to Check Out
Air Map – www.airmap.io/ – Brought to you by a former test pilot and Pepperdine Lawyer, this application brings airspace integration knowledge to your fingertips. They track your flight plan to let you know if you’re entering into a restricted spot, or need to contact local authorities. Further, they allow you to contact Air Traffic directly for that area in order to file NOTAMs, ask for permission to enter controlled space, or provide information during emergencies or unplanned failures. They even allow for real-time map awareness via web browser found HERE. It’s pretty cool.
Botlink – http://botlink.io/ – Another application with the same goal in mind is Botlink. These guys demoed their software at AUVSI 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was blown away. It was really the first software to hit the market and has some interesting characteristics. As they highlight, their model actually has all aircraft in the vicinity as well as any aircraft that are headed into your vicinity based on the speed, bearing, and flight plan data. While this information may be over kill for many – as a UAS shouldn’t really be flying in the same flight levels that commercial manned flights are – it still affords greater information at low access costs to any pilot.
B4UFLY – http://www.faa.gov/uas/b4ufly/ – A third and final app that I am encouraging my students to download is FAA’s B4UFLY smartphone app scheduled for Beta test in Summer 2015. This app is stated to crosscheck your status and flight plan with the restrictions of airspace in the area. It also provides a flight planner and offers who to call directly for more information or to request permission. Ultimately, it seems to have a lot of overlap with the above applications; however it will be interesting to see if operators without certifications choose to download the app. I can imagine much apprehension to downloading a government app; especially without certifications or authorizations already.
It will be interesting to see who becomes the industry standard – or what other players will enter the fray. I would imagine rather than standalone products, these airspace awareness apps, or airspace management apps, will become common place elements of a much larger fleet management systems – or – FMS. An FMS May include any number of elements that will offer easily access information for both the Unmanned Aircraft, the Ground Control Station, and the environment within which the flight is taking place. Perhaps parameters dictated by certifications or authorizations. The options are truly endless, but ultimately functionality, need, and the problems users face will dictate the clear leader in the field.
As long pilots to understanding their airspace and the other stakeholders in the area, we’ll see this vastly growing industry continue to develop. We can combat situational awareness costs with these specific tools and improved flight behaviors to prevent accident, encourage safe practices, and provide protection to a phenomenal opportunity.