_TECHNOLOGY Neuroscience

Reading Minds on the Fly
A team of researchers has successfully measured the brain activity of pilots in real-time, a potential boon to designing better, safer machines and pilot-machine interactions.

_Hasan Ayaz

Ayaz is an assistant research professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems.

Can you imagine an aircraft that reads its pilot’s mind and reacts in real-time? This is something that future technology could be capable of, and the first step was taken by a team of researchers at Drexel and a partner institution in France, who have successfully measured the brain activity of pilots in real-time using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS.

The study — published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience — shows that measuring brain activity in a real-life situation is feasible, and more importantly, that it delivers better information than observing operators in a simulated activity.

Researchers split 28 pilots into two categories: The first group flew a real aircraft, while the second group operated a flight simulator.

In both cases, the researchers monitored the pilots’ brain activity as they completed a series of memorization tasks from pre-recorded air traffic control instructions, which varied in levels of difficulty.

“Unfortunately, many human-machine interfaces expose users to workload extremes, diminishing the operator’s attention and potentially leading to catastrophic consequences.”

— Hasan Ayaz

The results showed that the pilots in the real flight condition committed more errors and had higher anterior prefrontal cortex activation than pilots in the simulator when completing cognitively demanding tasks.

“The exciting thing is we can now quantify this,” says Hasan Ayaz, an associate research professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems.

In the future, understanding the underlying neurocognitive process of pilot-plane interactions could help to make simulators more realistic, as well as improve the safety and efficiency of aircraft-pilot interactions, he says.