As Canada searches for a way to address its lingering pilot shortage, University of Waterloo researchers believe a solution to help reduce the cost of training is in sight.

With Government of Canada funding, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), experts at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics are employing novel technology to investigate how eye movement patterns change as student pilots learn to fly. Their research will contribute to a more objective assessment of a pilot’s skill level and make pilot-training cheaper, more efficient and inclusive.

Although the study is currently in progress, doctoral student Naila Ayala has already established differences between novice and expert pilots that could lead to improvements in pilot training, which could help put new pilots in the air sooner.

Dr. Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo Dr. Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo

“Harnessing technology such as eye tracking for the occupational assessment of skill levels is the next frontier in aviation training,” explains Dr. Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo, associate director of WISA’s social pillar and professor in Waterloo’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. “I think with this research we will have a more objective way of evaluating student pilots and potentially make the training period shorter.”

An authority in visuomotor and gaze behaviour whose research is rooted in systems neuroscience, Niechwiej-Szwedo has previously shown that tracking eye movements can reveal how an individual processes information, which is tightly linked with ensuing behaviors. In 2019, she began applying this knowledge to the field of pilot training.

Her research at WISA is timely. Canada needs new pilots — according to one estimate, more than 7,000 by 2025. Growing the pool of potential student pilots and improving how they are trained could help fill this gap. Eye-tracking might be a valuable tool on both counts.

WISA is applying funding provided by FedDev Ontario to support Niechwiej-Szwedo’s research team, which has developed a synchronized system allowing a seamless recording of eye movements and flight performance data in a high-fidelity flight simulator.

To do this, Niechwiej-Szwedo partnered with AdHawk Microsystems. The Waterloo-based company invented a new type of low power, research grade eye tracker that uses a micromirror system to scan the eyes with a beam of light instead of using less efficient camera-based methods.

eye tracking example

Expertise is associated with a distinct pattern of gaze behaviour. (Ayala, Zafar et al., JEMR 2023)

Phase one of this research involved graduate students at Waterloo — including Royal Canadian Air Force officer Capt. Laura Lester — who contributed their expertise to develop the experimental protocol that is now being used in a longitudinal study. This study, conducted by doctoral student Claudia Martin Calderon, employs continuous or repeated measures to follow individuals over prolonged periods of time.

In phase two, the research team will gain new insights into how eye movement and gaze behavior change as student pilots learn new skills. Each student participant is being tested three times in the flight simulator — first when they start training, next after 10 hours of flight-training time and finally after they’ve received their private pilot’s licence. How a student pilot’s eyes move, their scan patterns and the duration of eye fixation are all registered at these three stages. This research will provide the crucial insight into objective biomarkers associated with skill learning and the development of expertise.

The information gleaned from these tests could explain why some student pilots can act on information better, fly a plane more efficiently and learn faster than others do. Such results could revolutionize pilot education.

For instance, the length of time and cost currently required to obtain a pilot’s licence can both prove formidable obstacles to aspiring students. But if Niechwiej-Szwedo’s research results in pilot education based more on competency and less on an arbitrary number of hours in the air, those obstacles could be surmounted and the time and cost required to become a pilot reduced. That would make pilot training more accessible to people who currently lack the funds. It could also save fuel and help the environment.

“Aviation training is already top-notch; however, the implementation of eye-tracking technology could advance pilot training to a new level by providing instructors with information currently not available,” Niechwiej-Szwedo says. “For example, examining eye-scan patterns could reveal why some pilots are making errors during a flight. Perhaps student pilots are simply failing to look at the relevant information at a critical time, and this behaviour could be trained.

“There is significant interest in this technology from industry,” she adds. She hopes to establish how effectively her method of eye-tracking can work in pilot training by spring 2024.

WISA received nearly $9.2 million from FedDev Ontario and is supporting 38 Research-for-Impact projects, including Niechwiej-Szwedo’s research.