Voice Recognition – Are We There Yet?

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Voice recognition apps for smart phones have come a long way, but is the technology ready for prime time in the cockpit? Not so fast, says Rockwell Collins’ advanced concepts guru. 

Like other avionics makers, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company has been researching voice recognition systems similar to those found in the consumer electronics world for a variety of cockpit functions, including tasks as simple as switching radios or as complex as interacting with navigation maps or inputting taxi routes to a flight computer.

“We’ve been monitoring [voice recognition software] for well over 10 years,” says Matt Carrico, senior engineering manager of advanced concepts at Rockwell Collins. “The promise has always exceeded the performance. I don’t see that changing very soon.”

Issues, particularly with more complex commands like a taxi route clearance, include the typical pauses and “uhmms” that humans interject into phrases or sentences. “It throws off the recognizer,” says Carrico. “We have some work to do to get it to work with natural language.”

That challenge applies even for a task as simple as switching radios, or in pilot’s speak, selecting Comm 2 as the active radio over Comm 1, or vice versa, “in part because there are so many better ways to do it,” says Carrico. “If voice finds its way into the cockpit its going to have to really demonstrate somehow have to show that it somehow reduces workload. Radio tuning doesn't reduce workload enough to justify.”

A big part of the issue is word recognition in a very multicultural industry where English is the chosen language, but accents are will remain. Carrico says state of the art speech recognition systems apply to a limited number of accent groups. That means certain words spoken by pilots of French, Russian or Chinese origin may not be recognized with the same accuracy as pilots whose native language is English. “So far that’s been a problem for recognizers,” he says.

“Our customers tell us if it only works for our English speaking population, it’s no good,” Carrico says. “They sell these aircraft all over the world. They expect them to work all over the world with all kinds of crews.”

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