Archives For The human machine interface

So here’s a question for the safety engineers at Airbus. Why display unreliable airspeed data if it truly is that unreliable?

In slightly longer form. If (for example) air data is so unreliable that your automation needs to automatically drop out of it’s primary mode, and your QRH procedure is then to manually fly pitch and thrust (1) then why not also automatically present a display page that only provides the data that pilots can trust and is needed to execute the QRH procedure (2)? Not doing so smacks of ‘awkward automation’ where the engineers automate the easy tasks but leave the hard tasks to the human, usually with comments in the flight manual to the effect that, “as it’s way too difficult to cover all failure scenarios in the software it’s over to you brave aviator” (3). This response is however something of a cop out as what is needed is not a canned response to such events but rather a flexible decision and situational awareness (SA) toolset that can assist the aircrew in responding to unprecedented events (see for example both QF72 and AF447) that inherently demand sense-making as a precursor to decision making (4). Some suggestions follow:

  1. Redesign the attitude display with articulated pitch ladders, or a Malcom’s horizon to improve situational awareness.
  2. Provide a fallback AoA source using an AoA estimator.
  3. Provide actual direct access to flight data parameters such as mach number and AoA to support troubleshooting (5).
  4. Provide an ability to ‘turn off’ coupling within calculated air data to allow rougher but more robust processing to continue.
  5. Use non-aristotlean logic to better model the trustworthiness of air data.
  6. Provide the current master/slave hierarchy status amongst voting channels to aircrew.
  7. Provide an obvious and intuitive way to  to remove a faulted channel allowing flight under reversionary laws (7).
  8. Inform aircrew as to the specific protection mode activation and the reasons (i.e. flight data) triggering that activation (8).

As aviation systems get deeper and more complex this need to support aircrew in such events will not diminish, in fact it is likely to increase if the past history of automation is any guide to the future.


1. The BEA report on the AF447 disaster surveyed Airbus pilots for their response to unreliable airspeed and found that in most cases aircrew, rather sensibly, put their hands in their laps as the aircraft was already in a safe state and waited for the icing induced condition to clear.

2. Although the Airbus Back Up Speed Display (BUSS) does use angle-of-attack data to provide a speed range and GPS height data to replace barometric altitude it has problems at high altitude where mach number rather than speed becomes significant and the stall threshold changes with mach number (which it doesn’t not know). As a result it’s use is 9as per Airbus manuals) below 250 FL.

3. What system designers do, in the abstract, is decompose and allocate system level behaviors to system components. Of course once you do that you then need to ensure that the component can do the job, and has the necessary support. Except ‘apparently’ if the component in question is a human and therefore considered to be outside’ your system.

4. Another way of looking at the problem is that the automation is the other crew member in the cockpit. Such tools allow the human and automation to ‘discuss’ the emerging situation in a meaningful (and low bandwidth) way so as to develop a shared understanding of the situation (6).

5. For example in the Airbus design although AoA and Mach number are calculated by the ADR and transmitted to the PRIM fourteen times a second they are not directly available to aircrew.

6. Yet another way of looking at the problem is that the principles of ecological design needs to be applied to the aircrew task of dealing with contingency situations.

7. For example in the Airbus design the current procedure is to reach up above the Captain’s side of the overhead instrument panel, and deselect two ADRs…which ones and the criterion to choose which ones are not however detailed by the manufacturer.

8. As the QF72 accident showed, where erroneous flight data triggers a protection law it is important to indicate what the flight protection laws are responding to.

SR-71 flight instruments (Image source: triddle)

How a invention that flew on the SR-71 could help commercial aviation today 

In a previous post on unusual attitude I talked about the use of pitch ladders as a means of providing greater attensity to aircraft attitude as well as a better indication of what the aircraft is dong, having entered into it. There are, of course, still disadvantages to this because such data in a commercial aircraft is usually presented ‘eyes down’, and in high stress, high workload situations it can be difficult to maintain an instrument scan pattern. There is however an alternative, and one that has a number of allied advantages. Continue Reading…

BMW HUD concept (Image source: BMW) Those who cannot remember the past of human factors are doomed to repeat it…

With apologies to the philosopher George Santayana, I’ll make the point that the BMW Head Up Display technology is in fact not the unalloyed blessing premised by BMW in their marketing material.

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This post is part of the Airbus aircraft family and system safety thread.

I’m currently reading Richard de Crespigny’s book on flight QF 32. In he writes that he felt at one point that he was being over whelmed by the number and complexity of ECAM messages. At that moment he recalled remembering a quote from Gene Kranz, NASA’s flight director, of Apollo 13 fame, “Hold it Gentlemen, Hold it! I don’t care about what went wrong. I need to know what is still working on that space craft.”.

The crew of QF32 are not alone in experiencing the overwhelming flood of data that a modern control system can produce in a crisis situation. Their experience is similar to that of the operators of the Three Mile island nuclear plant who faced a daunting 100+ near simultaneous alarms, or more recently the experiences of QF 72.

The take home point for designers is that, if you’ve carefully constructed a fault monitoring and management system you also need to consider the situation where the damage to the system is so severe that the needs of the operator invert and they need to know ‘what they’ve still got’, rather that what they don’t have.

The term ‘never give up design strategy’ is bandied around in the fault tolerance community, the above lesson should form at least a part of any such strategy.

Why We Automate Failure
A recent post on the interface issues surrounding the use of side-stick controllers in current generation passenger aircraft led me to think more generally about the the current pre-eminence of software driven visual displays and why we persist in their use even though there may be a mismatch between what they can provide and what the operator needs.

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Airbuses side stick improves crew comfort and control, but is there a hidden cost?

This post is part of the Airbus aircraft family and system safety thread.

The Airbus FBW side stick flight control has vastly improved the comfort of aircrew flying the Airbus fleet, much as the original Airbus designers predicted (Corps 1988). But the implementation also expresses the Airbus approach to flight control laws and that companies implicit assumption about the way in which humans interact with automation and each other. Here the record is more problematic.

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Why something as simple as control stick design can break an aircrew’s situational awareness

One of the less often considered aspects of situational awareness in the cockpit is the element of knowing what the ‘guy in the other seat is doing’. This is a particularly important part of cockpit error management because without a shared understanding of what someone is doing it’s kind of difficult to detect errors.

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