Most aviation accidents are caused by human error. Human factors, such as eyesight, fatigue, decision-making, all pose challenges to air travel safety.

Leveraging institutional strength in psychology, kinesiology and vision science, research members of the University’s new Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) are working to offer evidence-based solutions to reduce pilot error. By building this comprehensive foundation of interdisciplinary research expertise, pilot training will be strengthened, and air travel will be safer for all passengers.

Inside the flight simulatorInside the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aviation's ALSIM AL250 flight simulator

“Human error is by far the leading cause of airline crashes and aircraft accidents, with an estimated 70-80 per cent of accidents due to pilot error,” says Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences and a member of the interdisciplinary research team at WISA. Common errors in piloting include failure to complete checklists, to notice important information during a flight, missed opportunities to communicate critical information with crew members, or miscommunication based on invalid assumptions.

“We know these errors can arise due to individual pilot characteristics, such as fatigue or inadequate training or experience,” Niechwiej-Szwedo says. “All these factors could influence and contribute to failures in decision making, which is a key process to understand in order reduce human error in piloting.”

Developing evidence-based solutions

Niechwiej-Szwedo’s research with WISA focuses on understanding changes in gaze behaviour and visuomotor coordination during a pilot’s training. According Niechwiej-Szwedo, an assessment of gaze behaviour in pilots may provide insight into their level of expertise and help quantify where the decision-making process breaks down. This will then flag which tasks may require further training for new individuals during their introductory pilot training.

Complementing this work, Elizabeth Irving, a professor in the School of Optometry and Vision Science, is investigating the interaction of vision with flight training to help improve it by establishing evidence-based vision qualifications for pilots.

“While the standards are currently very high for a pilot applicant’s visual qualifications, they are not based on any substantial research,” says Irving, who is also WISA’s interim associate director of social sustainability. “These arbitrary requirements have the potential to be discriminatory and unnecessarily reduce the available pool of applicants.” Using flight simulation, Irving’s research will develop objective metrics to determine how eyesight interacts with flight training and pilot experience, and the quality of vision required by operators to safely fly a plane.

Beth Irving

Elizabeth Irving | School of Optometry and Vision Science

Evan Risko

Evan Risko | Department of Psychology

Ewa headshot

Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo | Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences

Adding his expertise in psychology to the interdisciplinary mix, Evan Risko’s research with WISA is focused on making pilot training more effective by applying methods and insights from cognitive science. 

“Cognitive science paints a picture of the human as a deeply impressive thinking machine that is nevertheless subject to fundamental and intransigent limitations,” says Risko, a Canada Research Chair in Embodied and Embedded Cognition in the Department of Psychology. "These limitations include the amount of information we can hold active in working memory and biases in judgement and decision making." 

Wherever humans are involved, their limitations have the potential to compromise piloting performance, says Risko. “But we can leverage science and technology to reduce human error, as well as reduce the impact of errors when they do occur. And effective training based on how humans learn represents one of our best tools to reduce human error.” 

Combining expertise to create change

Launched in September 2021, WISA is a new research institute dedicated to fostering inter-disciplinary studies and cross-sector partnerships across the air transport sector. A unique portal for industry stakeholders, WISA will allow the aviation industry to access the University’s extensive knowledge base, provide evidence-based conclusions to help better understand stress points for pilots, and make recommendations to solve issues related to human error and safety in aeronautics.

"Interdisciplinary expertise is the key to reaching our goals. We need expertise in aviation to develop ecologically valid experimental protocols and tasks. Once the data from our work in kinesiology and vision science are collected, computer science tools will be used to build computational cognitive models." — Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo

Similarly, Risko adds that the task of translating research from cognitive science to aviation requires an interdisciplinary approach “that can bring together the insights from our respective fields with aviation and industry partners involved in training pilots.” 

​Irving agrees. “For this type of high risk, high reward research, many disciplines are necessary for success.”