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Texting takes off for pilots

Gareth Mitchell, presenter of BBC World Service technology programme Digital Planet, reports on an experimental system to bring text messaging to the flight deck.

"Flight VS01 is holding its current path and flight level."
I am holding a joystick and controlling an aircraft on a simulator running on a computer. This message has come in, not over the radio, but as text on a screen to my left.
I am at the University of Nottingham with John Wilson, Professor of Human Factors at the Institute for Occupational Ergonomics.
"Traditionally, we know that pilots communicate with the ground and air traffic controllers communicate with planes through voice, through radio communications," said Professor Wilson.
"We're asking how much we can use written information which comes up on computer screens. How much can we use that together with voice in the future?"
The Nottingham researchers have created a basic flight simulator in which users receive information and commands either as voice or text.

Synthetic voices

I am trying it out. To recreate the challenge of controlling an aircraft, I use the joystick to track a randomly moving target on screen.
At the same time, I must interpret messages coming in either through my headset as radio commands or as text on the computer screen.
Dr Alex Stedmon is running the simulation. From the trials he has done so far, he is getting an idea of when text or voice is most appropriate.
"From the pilots and air traffic controllers, we found that in situations of high demand such as take off and landing then direct radio link or speech-based communication is better," he said.
"It's much more direct and pilots can interpret the situation much better.
"Whereas maybe in low demand situations such as transit over the Atlantic where the workload is low then text-based information might be more appropriate," said Dr Stedmon.
As well as comparing text to voice, Alex Stedmon has been trying out synthetic voice versus human.
As voice is most useful at demanding times like the beginning and end of flights, pilots prefer the human voice to synthesised speech.
In an emergency, the intonation of human speech conveys urgency more potently than a voice synthesiser.

Innovation overdue

The team has been working with air traffic controllers at nearby Nottingham East Midlands airport.
According to Air Traffic Services Manager, Jon Cox, controllers increasingly face information overload.
"Every country is divided into myriad sectors and each has one controller who controls 10 to 15 aircraft at a time whilst also interacting with other air traffic controllers on other sectors," said Mr Cox.
The Nottingham team has simulated air traffic controllers' workstations and added a facility for text sent back from aircraft.
Initial results suggest that it might be possible to reduce the amount of radio communication by relaying basic information such as aircraft altitude and heading as text.
But there are no plans to do away with radio communication all together. Several aircraft share a radio channel with a controller at any one time.
One advantage of everyone hearing everyone else's communication is that individual pilots build up a picture of where all the aircraft are in relation to each other. That would be hard to emulate through text-only communication.
The research is still a long way from the flight deck but Mr Cox thinks that innovation in the area is long overdue.
"Communication between controller and flight deck is one of the most important aspects of the whole system and yet it is over 50 years old," he said.
"It's a fairly ancient system but as the skies get busier and busier, more and more is being said to more and more people so there's more scope for error.
"Any kind of research into improving communication has to be really good stuff."

You can hear more on this story on the current edition of Digital Planet on the BBC World Service with Gareth Mitchell. The programme is also available as a podcast from the BBC News website.

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