By DONALD WITTKOWSKI Staff Writer
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Kenneth Allendoerfer donned a silly looking skullcap that had a bunch of electrodes and wires sticking out of it.
While the cap might appear funny, the information collected from its sensors actually is part of some serious research involving one of the nation’s most stressful jobs — air traffic controller.
Allendoerfer and other researchers work in a Federal Aviation Administration laboratory that uses virtual reality to solve conflicts between humans and machines.
Testing in the virtual world helps avoid many of the mistakes that accompany more traditional ways of designing and building new systems. In aviation, a mistake could come at a huge cost.
“We model fresh ideas in a virtual reality. We do it before any significant money is spent,” said Dennis Jefferson, a computer scientist who oversees the lab.
The entire complex is called the Research Development and Human Factors Laboratory. It is located at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center 10 miles west of Atlantic City.
Step inside and you’ll find a world of synthetic humans, 3-D imagery, simulated air traffic control towers, electrode-laden caps and other high-tech wizardry designed to make the nation’s commercial aviation industry safer and more efficient.
“We want to make sure the humans fit in with the technology,” Allendoerfer, the manager of the FAA’s human factors branch, said of the overall purpose of the lab.
Virtual reality has become an important tool in the design, visualization and evaluation of complex aviation systems. Researchers stressed that airports, air traffic controllers, airlines and the flying public all have benefited from the lab, built in 1992 at a cost of $4 million.
Greater demands are expected to be placed on aviation in coming years as the national airspace system becomes more complex. One of the lab’s key research projects involves the so-called NextGen air traffic control system — the transition from the old, radar-based network to one that uses satellites to guide planes with more precision.
Digital communication will be a key piece of NextGen. It will reduce the need for time-consuming radio transmissions between air traffic controllers and flight crews. Ben Willems, an FAA engineering research psychologist, believes that digital messages will eliminate some of the mistakes between controllers and flight crews during radio communications.
“There are many places in that process when the human can make mistakes,” he said of radio transmissions.
Controllers would be able to concentrate on more of the “hard stuff” of their jobs — such as rerouting planes — if they are freed from some of the burdens of radio communications, Willems said.
According to some predictions, controllers may have to handle three times as much airline traffic in the future as they do now. Willems explained that the lab exposes controllers to a much higher workload in a simulated environment to see how they cope.
“We literally put them through the wringer,” Willems said.
The skullcap modeled by Allendoerfer, for instance, measures the electrical activity in the brain while controllers sit at simulated workstations, pretending to do their jobs. The lab also has devices to monitor a controller’s heart rate and the amount of oxygen in the brain to determine the amount of stress they are under.
In most workplace surveys, air traffic controller ranks as one of the nation’s most stressful jobs. Peter Dumont, president of the Air Traffic Control Association, said the FAA’s virtual reality lab has proved to be an immense help to controllers. The lab’s testing “puts the human in the loop” from the very beginning in the quest to develop new technology, he noted.
“Instead of trial and error in the field, they are developing it in the simulated environment,” Dumont said.
New workstations and other technology that could radically change the way controllers do their jobs are being developed at the lab. The virtual environment includes computer people that mimic real humans. These “synthetic humans” help to refine equipment and facilities before they are placed in the field.
“It’s easy to put something in a virtual environment before we put it into actual construction,” Jefferson said.
Design flaws can be eliminated during the computer simulations. The synthetic humans, nicknamed “Jack,” are equipped with high-tech gadgets to make sure workstations, consoles, desks, chairs and other furniture will fit properly for real people. For instance, Jack can use a “dynamic finger ruler,” a laser light that extends from his finger to measure the distance of an object he is reaching for.
One of the most extraordinary parts of the lab is a room that features a virtual mock-up of airport air traffic control towers. One simulation replicates the panoramic views of the Boston skyline that controllers would have from the tower at Logan International Airport. Boston landmarks, such as Fenway Park and Hancock Place, are mixed with virtual images of planes taking off and landing at Logan’s runways.
A series of computer screens stretch across the wall to create airport simulations that look like a gigantic video game. Researchers can simulate emergencies and other scenarios to watch how air traffic controllers will respond.
“From a safety point of view, you’re unlikely to make mistakes,” Allendoerfer said of the advantages of testing in the virtual world.
Mistakes made by air traffic controllers in the real world could be catastrophic. Every day they are on duty, they can have thousands of lives in their hands.
Dumont, of the Air Traffic Control Association, said the FAA lab is crucial for studying factors that affect controllers, including their workload and how they interact with technology.
“It certainly is a job that carries a lot of responsibility and takes a lot of training. It is certainly considered a stressful job,” he said.