Automation and Human Centricity – Three-tier human centricity. Position paper.

There should be little doubt or argument that the journey towards further automation in Air Traffic Control is well on its way and is set to continue. Also, there is little doubt that many of the future solutions will have, at least, some of their components based on Artificial Intelligence techniques.

If we look at SESAR´s Level of Automation Taxonomy (LOAT) model as displayed below,  

most modern ATC Systems are somewhere between B4/B5: High level – full automation support of information analysis and C1: Artefact-supported Decision Making.

The end goal for most R&D projects is to arrive to D8: Full automation of action sequence execution for all ATC tasks.

This raises a few items to consider and this is what we at Ingenav think about this:

  1. Until D8 is reached on all ATC tasks (whether it will be desirable for it to be reached is the subject of item 2), humans will be part of the system and the system will need to be Human-Centric.
  2. It is questionable whether, even if technologically possible, it would be desirable to reach D8 and have a non-human-in-the-system ATC chain.

Developing these items, a little further we need to consider:

  1. A three-tier Human-Centric approach is necessary:

Human-Centricity needs to be seen holistically:

The design of an ATC system needs to be done through a human-centric approach. The result, i.e. the ATC system itself needs to be human-centric. And with the growing autonomy coming about, one shall not forget that the end-user of ATC is not the air traffic controller but the airspace user: the human who flies the aircraft. These are the three tiers – from the design, to the product itself, to its output.

Starting from Tier 3: Human-Centric design:

The design of an ATC system shall be led by its usability and by its interaction with the holistic system first. Rather than having a technology-led design in which the “what can be done” is defined first and the “how” is done later, human-centric design requires agile development cycles between definition – prototyping – human in the system testing – adjustments – redefinition and advancements. The design team needs to incorporate from a very early stage operational expertise that understands the business and the process and that co-lead the design. This should be the case even when the functionalities that are being developed would be in the high Ds in accordance with LOAT as these will always interact with other processes where the human is involved.

Tier 2: Human-Centric system:

The result of the design – i.e. the product, needs to fully integrate the human as part of the system and not its operator or the mortar which glues together the imperfections created by the other parts. A Human-Centric system understands how the human works and integrates the human´s processes into the overall system. Principles such as relevance, timeliness, prioritized and rationalized for human understanding should be key in all the interactions of a human-centric system.

Tier 1: Human-Centric outputs:

It may sound obvious but it is often taken for granted: an ATC system acts as an intermediate; it is a safety net and an efficiency boost to air traffic and airspace users (that is the objective of ATC!). It is airspace users who execute the instructions generated by ATC. Until further notice, aircraft will be flown by humans. The instructions provided by ATC need to keep that in mind. So far, this has been taken for granted because the human-in-the-system at the ATC level automatically made the adjustment. However, in a scenario where some of the instructions are not generated by a human, the system has to keep in mind they will be executed by one.

It is important to insist on Human-Centricity and the human-in-the-system principle and not to see the human as an external agent who acts as an operator or a mediator, or even worse as a corrector of imperfections. It is important to take the learnings we have made in the past decades and build on them rather than to try to discard them because we believe that advanced automation will make the human somehow less important.

Question 2: is it desirable to arrive to D8?

The quick answer to this is that we don´t know. To date, we do not have the maturity to understand what a fully autonomous system, which in turn is an intermediate between vigilance and execution, would mean. The gap to get there is still too big and we need to narrow this gap in order to understand better the ramifications. Of the ramifications, we are able to identify to date one can include resilience, of such a system and degraded modes, interconnectiblity, responsibility, certification, the holistic concept of operations of the airspace user and societal (is it, in fact, desirable and productive from a societal perspective to try to eliminate the human from the system?).

R&D in this area must continue and needs to be holistic and not just technology-driven. We can do a lot of things but should we apply them? By continuing R&D, the sector will mature further and whilst bridging the gap, we will also understand the opportunities and the threats that such changes would bring. If we ever reach D8, it should be an evolution and not a revolution.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, work is in progress towards advanced automation in the lines of decision-making support and basic autonomous execution of tasks. Human-Centricity is primordial in the development of such tools and this human-centricity needs to be taken care of in 3-tiers: at design, at the system and at output levels. Achieving D8: full automation of task execution for all tasks making up ATC should be an R&D goal and not an operational one at this stage. The gap between the current paradigm and that one is too wide and we do not have the maturity to understand the ramifications of such a change. R&D needs to be holistic and not just technology-driven. A stepwise approach towards understanding will be necessary.

 

PS Ingenav is currently participating in a project with a Core European ANSP and ATC system manufacturer to introduce Decision Support Operational ATC tools using amongst other historical data and machine learning principles. In this project, a 3-tier Human-Centric approach is being applied.

Work in time of a pandemic

For us, the beginning of the rest of our venture started during the week of the 9th of March. During that week we were supposed to take part in the World ATM Congress in Madrid, we were supposed, as we did in previous years, to meet and catch up with a number of friends, suppliers and clients. The congress got cancelled one week prior.

During the week of the 9th of March, academies to which we were giving support suspended their training. Workshops which we were planned to facilitate got postponed…Roughly 80% of our contracted work got postponed to a newer date. (same happened to our planned income).

Importantly, during the week of the 9th of March, we had instructors working for us in Spain, Sweden and Belgium who had to find their way back to their places of residence in other countries. One of them got stuck whilst his country closed its borders to commercial international flights. He had to be repatriated via a service organised by his country´s embassy. We were all worried. The first priority was to get everyone home. That all went finally well. We then cancelled the OJTI/STDI – CA Refresher courses which were planned to take place at our premises in Madrid.

During the week of the 9th of March, a year, which was pencilled as a good year, was redrawn in being what it is at the time of writing: a year of instability, of great unknowns, of the knowledge that things will be different for a very long while, of the knowledge that we don´t know how they will be different.

Since the week of the 16th of March, we have been doing what we can do: we have restructured our balance sheets and taken measures to survive as long as possible, using our company cash surplus and adjusting everyone´s incomes in a thin balance between keeping everyone afloat and the company itself afloat. We have started planning on ways of how we could strengthen our knowledge, work on the back-log of things we had, imagine our business in the medium to longer term. Work on those things which will make us better.

We have started offering free support to student air traffic controllers worldwide who have seen their training be suspended, as is our own way of giving something back of what we know, during these hard times. We are trialling, together with other schools and ANSPs,  Rose´s PORT: A fully-fledged online ATC simulator, developed by our partner Rose-Simulators. We have created a facebook page to exchange a different kind of partner/user, and we have just created this blog.

Content-wise we are looking at how we can deliver some of our courses through distance learning. We are adding a Competency Component to our ARM (ATCO Resource Management) Suite, and more and more things.

Things are not all bleak, even if they are truly difficult times; having to survive by eating in on the little fat you managed to save in the previous years, and living worried that all that we worked for in the past years will be dismantled by a force majeure. This experience is hopefully serving us to reinvent ourselves, to offer better services in the future, to reflect on our place in the world, as individuals, as professionals and as a company. 

Hope we see the other side of the tunnel. If we fail it will not be due to not trying to do our best. If we succeed, even if we will come out thinner, our fibre will be stronger than it has ever been.

More to come on this blog, on the rest of our social media and on our daily contacts with all our friends and partners….hello Ingenav-blog you are the child of a new era.