A chronic shortage of certified pilots has impacted Canada’s aviation sector for too long. Vision-science experts associated with the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) are doing their best to make that a thing of the past through groundbreaking research.

WISA received $200,000 to support this study, entitled Vision Gaze Stress and Pilot Performance. The funding is part of an overall Government of Canada investment of nearly $9.2 million, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), as part of the Aerospace Regional Recovery Initiative. WISA is supporting a total of 39 Research for Impact projects to help solve sector-specific challenges.

Dr. Irving

Led by Dr. Elizabeth Irving, a professor with the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, the researchers are trying to validate more realistic and relevant vision standards for pilots — without compromising the necessary safety standards.

If they succeed, they could boost the aviation workforce by bringing in more new pilots, retaining more experienced ones and enabling faster, more economic flight training. To make this goal a reality they’re partnering with a Canadian small business with expertise in biometrics — Waterloo region-based startup EXO Insights. Several months into the project, the results are extremely promising.

"There’s a pretty good chance that vision standards are unnecessarily stringent," says Irving. “Based on their vision, we could be discriminating against people who could do the job, and that is limiting the pool of people to become pilots. Also, we are potentially, unnecessarily decommissioning trained, functioning pilots based on their vision.”

Even before COVID-19 upended Canadian aviation in 2020, the supply of pilots fell short of the industry’s demand. A 2018 Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace report predicted the industry would need 7,300 new pilots by 2025. The pandemic exacerbated an already critical situation.

Training simulator

Revised and science-based vision standards for pilots could have a transformative impact. That’s where WISA comes in. As of July 2023, Irving and her team have completed two experiments related to pilot vision standards using a flight simulator in the WISA Sim Lab at the University of Waterloo. Essential to those experiments were the participants involved — more than 30 student pilots at the University.

In the first experiment, researchers examined the effects of degraded vision on flight performance during a simulated airport landing on a clear sunny day. To do this, they artificially limited each participant’s vision using a lens that scatters light and blurs objects. Based on the data they obtained, the researchers found that pilots with comparatively poor vision were well able to land a plane.

"Unless we got rid of vision entirely, people could land a plane with hardly any effect on their performance," says Irving.

In the second experiment, the researchers examined the effects of further degradation of vision on flight performance during a simulated airport landing. In this case, the landings occurred in bad weather conditions that included rain, wind or a combination of both. This time, the test participants found it harder to land. In some instances, it was difficult for them to find the airport.

EXO Insights will enhance the study by measuring participants' biological responses, such as heartbeat, eye movement and stress, to provide additional data going forward. These measures provide objective data associated with the participants’ perception of stress, task difficulty and workload management. Assessment provided by a flight instructor will be compared to objective flight performance data from the flight simulator. The collaboration between WISA and EXO Insights is producing robust results. "The combined data becomes a very powerful assessment tool," says Irving.

Irving and her team's discoveries have been thought-provoking and open doors for further exploration, she emphasizes. Nevertheless, Irving clarified that additional research is necessary before proposing any changes to the medical requirements for pilots based on this study.

"Eventually change may happen," remarks Irving — which would create a more sustainable, diverse workforce and a more sustainable aviation sector.