NASA is advancing an airliner flight deck of the future that features one seat in the cockpit for a captain and one on the ground, occupied by an operator filling the role of either “super dispatcher” or first officer. The research, while rife with political and public ramifications that could far outweigh the technical challenges, is far less science fiction than it was three years ago.

At NASA’s Ames Research Center, where researchers are unencumbered by present day mores, a third major study (SPO-3) since the research began in earnest in 2011 did not reveal any showstoppers. The project gained new momentum in May, when the center awarded a one-year contract to an industry team led by avionics and data link provider Rockwell Collins to further the concept. 

Under the single-pilot understanding for distributed simulations program, the team will research the crew capacity, ground and flight deck resource management, physiological monitoring technologies and automation needed to make SPO viable, in addition to addressing technical, certification and policy issues that will emerge. Rockwell Collins will also use its live, virtual and constructive technologies to enable distributed simulations of SPO, in which participants will use a mix of simulators—and potentially, in five years, live aircraft—in dispersed geographic regions to test a scenario. The company will also experiment with its voice input and synthesis technologies for the workstation.

The state of the art in SPO is a product of nearly 20 years of foundational research on distributed flight deck operations work begun in the mid-1990s with NASA’s advanced air traffic management concepts for “Free Flight,” a system that would allow airlines to choose their own flight paths. Research was directed at “human-centered, error-tolerant automation” to enable decision-making between pilots, controllers, and dispatchers for gate-to-gate planning.

Although Free Flight in the early 2000s evolved into the FAA’s NextGen program, ideas developed in that era on how to better share workload between the air and the ground directly contributed to NASA’s latest generation SPO concept of operations (conops), which 30 commercial airline flight crews evaluated during a one-month simulation at NASA Ames in July and August 2014. 

In SPO-3, the conops revolved around a specialized two-position ground control station where the operator when sitting in the right seat fills the role of “super dispatcher” for as many as 12 single-pilot airliners in cruise flight. If one of the 12 aircraft enters an “off-nominal” state due to an issue or anomaly, the ground station operator moves to the left seat and becomes a ground-based first officer dedicated to that aircraft. NASA’s Langley Research Center is focused on the airborne solutions for SPO. NASA decided to keep the ground station separate from air traffic control. “We conceived this as a way of supporting operations from the airlines’ perspective,” says Walt Johnson, research psychologist and lead for the flight deck display research laboratory at NASA Ames. “Everything that we are doing is trying to keep this as transparent and seamless to air traffic control as possible. It’s a big challenge to try and add or change air traffic control roles.”

Why 12 aircraft per super dispatcher? Johnson says researchers arrived at that number by visiting airline operations centers and talking to dispatchers, watching the number of aircraft they handle on a daily basis. An important part of the SPO-3 study was to find out “whether we should start out with pilots or whether we should start with dispatchers (for the ground operator) and what are the required skills,” says Vernol Battiste, a senior research psychologist with San Jose State University working on the project. Pilots in the previous study, SPO-2, made their desires clear. “I need someone on dedicated support that has been where I’ve been, that can feel what I feel and know what the issues are,” says Battiste of the pilots’ input. “We decided to go with pilots initially and train them to be dispatchers.” Battiste says the amount of dispatcher knowledge needed for the study was “relatively modest.”

The NASA SPO ground station provides the connectivity, tools and situational awareness aids that allow the operator in the super dispatcher role to manage the same number of aircraft as today but with value-added functions during normal operations. By having an aircraft’s flight plan, weather and other data feeds, the super dispatcher can use the workstation tools to suggest route changes to gain more favorable upper atmosphere winds or avoid turbulence, and send the suggestions directly to the aircraft in a format for direct insertion into the flight management system (FMS) upon the captain’s concurrence. 

A key element of the ground control station enabling the new functionality is the NASA-developed cockpit situation display (CSD), a multi-function screen that depicts aircraft positions, routes and hazards, including terrain, predictive weather, hazard advisory areas and traffic in 2-D or 3-D on the screen. The CSD also includes a “pulse predictor,” light pulses along the routes of nearby aircraft that show the position of each going forward in time, an indicator of potential traffic conflicts on a new route the super dispatcher might be contemplating. The pulse predictor also shows the movement of weather to determine if a reroute will remain clear of storms.

In addition to contingencies, the conops calls for a ground operator to take the first officer role during certain portions of a flight where teamwork is critical, including arrivals, departures and taxiing. Given the variety of local terrain, weather and airspace issues, NASA is also considering a “harbor pilot” ground controller who would take over from the super dispatcher at the top-of-descent point down to the gate. 

In normal operations, the super dispatcher is there to watch the operations and offer advice or help for the pilot. In a contingency, which has to be triggered by the captain, the super dispatcher transitions into dedicated support mode as a first officer in the left seat of the ground station; the pilot and first officer then conduct a briefing over an open microphone loop to assign duties, including who will fly the aircraft (the first officer flies via inputs to the autoflight system in the mode control panel representation in the ground control station). The super dispatcher can then brief the captain about information available in the ground station, including the most viable diversion choices given the environmental conditions and aircraft’s physical state. 

A new ground station capability introduced in SPO-3 is the emergency landing planner (ELP). Originally designed by the Intelligent Systems division at Ames as an emergency landing spot finder for an aircraft that had been damaged, ELP will recommend the best diversion airport given the weather and the conditions at the various candidate airports. “It’s not going to land the aircraft for the pilot,” says Johnson, “but it will optionally devise a flight plan for them and can send an FMS update.” One issue pilots in SPO‑3 noted about ELP was that the software did not indicate its logic in selecting the best alternative. Johnson says NASA is working with the Air Force Research Laboratory on a new version that will generate an explanation of its choice for the pilot or ground operator.

The latest conops pedigree comes from lessons learned in the earlier SPO‑1 and SPO-2 studies. As part of SPO-1, which used only desktop simulators, NASA separated the captains and first officers with nothing but an open microphone for coordination. “We flew them through some highly challenging off-nominal scenarios—weather, wheel well fires and diversions,” says Johnson. “We saw how well two people could manage one aircraft when they weren’t sitting right next to each other. We didn’t put any technologies in to make it easier, because we wanted to see where the problems were.” 

Researchers determined that there were crew resource management (CRM) issues when the pilots were separated—for instance, there were times of momentary confusion about who was the pilot-flying. “We designed a set of CRM tools and other mitigations to try and address this,” says Johnson. Along with those CRM tools, SPO-2 featured the first-generation ground control station, with separated pilots flying more challenging scenarios.

One aid gives the captain or the ground-based first officer a dedicated display for recognizing new inputs to the aircraft’s heading, speed and altitude through a mode control panel, which either pilot can perform in a dedicated mode. When the captain inputs a speed change, for example, the equivalent field on the first officer’s display flashes the new information. In a two-pilot cockpit, the first officer would point to the information to confirm the change. In this case, the first officer uses the open microphone to confirm along with touching the field on the screen, which the captain would do as well on a dedicated display in the cockpit. “In SPO-2, they found that by putting in the checks, the frequency of verbal communications went up,” says Johnson. Researchers also found during that experiment that an aircraft in trouble required a dedicated ground operator. “They belong to the captain; they can no longer support those other aircraft,” says Johnson.

SPO-3 investigated two concepts related to the roles of the ground operator. In one scenario, the super dispatcher managing 12 aircraft transitioned into dedicated mode as first officer for a problem aircraft, passing off the others; and in the other scenario, the super dispatcher kept the 11 nominal aircraft, passing off the problem aircraft to a specialist. Input from pilots showed the two scenarios to be roughly equivalent, which surprised Johnson. “We thought that holding on to the original aircraft and handing off the rest, you would have more situational awareness and that would be better,” he says. “To the extent we found anything, we found that when they (went into dedicated mode with one aircraft), they had a hard time forgetting about the other 11, especially if there was an impending task.”

In future studies, NASA is planning to investigate some type of physiological monitoring of the captain, along with the video feed already installed for SPO-3. Ground operators found the video, showing the captain’s seat and the control panel in dedicated support mode, to be “somewhat useful” for inferring the pilot’s actions. A similar video feed on the super dispatcher position was “totally useless,” as that operator uses a mouse.

Monitoring for the captain would include alerting for non-responsiveness; however, the threshold for the ground controllers taking over the aircraft when not in dedicated mode would be necessarily high, as the captain remains in charge of the safety of the flight in the SPO conops. “Is he sleeping, is he dead, or has he gone into oxygen deprivation and he thinks he’s fine and blue birds are flying around the cockpit?” says Johnson. “The person on the ground, if he sees these monitors going off, he can hook in and say, how are you doing?” 

A version of this article appears in the January 15-February 1, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.