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Thoughts in flight: Automation use and pilots' task-related and task-unrelated thought  (2014)
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Objective: To examine the relationship between automation use and task-related and task-unrelated thought.

Background: Studies find that cockpit automation can sometimes relieve pilots of tedious tasks and afford them more time to think ahead. Paradoxically, automation has also been shown to lead to lesser awareness. These results prompt the question of what pilots think about while using automation.

Method: Eighteen airline pilots flew a Boeing 747-400 simulator along an assigned route while we recorded which of two available levels of automation they used. As they worked, pilots were verbally probed about what they were thinking. Pilots were asked to categorize their thoughts as pertaining to: (1) a specific task-at-hand; (2) higher-level thoughts about the flight (e.g., planning ahead); or (3) thoughts unrelated to the flight. Pilots' performance was also measured.

Results: Pilots reported an overall smaller percentage of task-at-hand thoughts (27% vs. 50%) and a greater percentage of higher-level thoughts about the flight (56% vs. 29%) when more automation was used, but many of these higher-level thoughts occurred while pilots struggled with the automation in the midst of an unsuccessful performance. When all was going to plan, using either amount of automation, roughly 30% of pilots' thoughts turned to topics unrelated to the flight.

Conclusion: The findings indicate that although automation can provide pilots with more time to think, pilots may not use their mental free time to rise to higher levels of awareness.
Application: To inform the design of human-automation systems that more meaningfully engage the human operator.
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airline, automation, effect, pilots, task-related, task-unrelated, thought
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Human Factors 56(3), 433-442
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Curator: Phil So
NASA Official: Jessica Nowinski
Last Updated: August 15, 2019