Thales’ radical concept for controlling air traffic

Thales has revealed what could be the future of human-machine interfaces for air traffic controllers. The company is certainly thinking outside the box, demonstrating a controller console that seems like something out of a science fiction movie.

The company exhibited its “Shape” concept during last week’s World ATM Congress in Madrid. It has packed a range of advanced technologies into the demo, but the most eye-catching – literally – was the eye tracker technology that allows controllers to select aircraft on their displays just by looking at them.

The eye tracker is located just below the screen, and once it is calibrated to a user, it follows their line of vision to determine which aircraft target to highlight.

Another feature of the system is that it has no keyboard or mouse. Instead, it uses a touchpad in front of the controller, which works in conjunction with the eye tracker. Large zones on the touchpad can be pressed in certain ways to perform desired actions on the selected aircraft. The whole system is designed to allow controllers to keep their eyes on the display screen at all times, without needing to look down at the touchpad at all. Another aim is to speed up the interaction between the controller and the system.

For example, touching one part of the pad will select a highlighted aircraft. Touch another area to activate monitoring tools, and with the other hand select a value for different input options by swiping. A task such as ascertaining the distance between two aircraft can be performed simply by looking at one target, selecting it, then looking at another target. It all sounds tricky, but it is actually pretty intuitive – there really is no need to watch what your hands are doing.

Voice recognition is used to pick up flight identification numbers during controller conversation. If the system recognizes a flight number, it will highlight that aircraft on the display. And communication from a pilot will be in the right earpiece if the aircraft target is on the right-hand side of the display, making it easier for controllers to identify flights.

Thales has previously used the eye tracking technology in an inflight entertainment system concept. However, Shape represents the first time it has bundled all these different technologies into an air traffic control demonstrator, and the company believes it is the only one of its kind. It’s not something that will be going into production any time soon, but it does show what may be possible.

Pictured below is the touchpad and screen, with the eye tracker in the small white box below the screen (from a photo I took at the show).

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This close-up gives a better view of the touchpad.

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Thales shot this video at the World ATM Congress, showing the system in action.


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