STRESS*, a SESAR-funded project, is examining the stress factors and impact on performance of controllers when using new technologies to manage increasing volumes of air traffic. The results of the project will provide important guidance on how to best design technologies that are compatible with human capabilities and limitations, ensuring the right balance between humans and automation in the future air traffic management system. 

Air traffic control is becoming increasingly automated. This means that technologies are expected to autonomously (or partially) manage tasks that are currently carried out by human operators and/or to support humans in their decision making. This new scenario will inherently change the role of the technology, its interactions with the operators and the capability of the operators to judge the quality of the information provided. This will also imply the need to assess and revise the skills required to perform tasks – as well as of how tasks, roles and responsibilities are allocated among the operators (both in the front-end and in the back-end) and between operators and machines.

Funded by the SESAR Joint Undertaking within the framework of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the STRESS project aims to better understand the stress that controllers face and how interaction with new technologies may impact their performance. The ultimate goal is to support the design of technologies which will be used by controllers to manage the future air traffic scenario.

The project, which started in June 2016 and will finish in June 2018, is coordinated by Deep Blue, an Italian research and consultancy specialised in human factors, safety, validation and scientific dissemination and brings together several other European partners: Eurocontrol’s safety unit; Sapienza University of Rome, providing expertise in the measurement and analysis of neurophysiological signals and definition of indexes of human mental states and cognitive performance; the Ecole Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC), the French National School for Civil Aviation, providing first quality access to ATM experts and a long-standing expertise in innovative interaction technology; and Anadolu University, whose faculty of Aeronautics and Astronautics state-of-the-art simulation environments.

Between 6 and 9 June, project partners conducted a series of validations on stress and attention in air traffic control at Anadolu University. The objective of the study was to validate neurophysiological indices developed by the project that monitor the mental states of controllers in real-time while performing conventional air traffic control tasks. In particular, the study investigated two of the most impacted human factors in the framework of the paradigm shift to higher automation levels expected for the future: the stress level and the type and level of attentional focus.

A total of 16 air traffic control students took part in the validation activities, and were asked to manage a realistic operational scenario developed to induce different levels of attention and stress. The users’ neurophysiological signals were recorded continuously, and the data collected then compared with behavioural and performance data (looking at how controllers handled the traffic) and subjective data (feedback from experimental subjects and external experts) to verify that the indices are capable of assessing attention and stress.

The data gathered will now be analysed over the coming months to validate the project hypothesis. In the next phase, STRESS will use the validated indices to assess the air traffic controllers’ performance in high automation scenarios. The outcome will be the main input for the preparation of guidelines for future ATC systems design, with a focus on automation.


*STRESS: human performance neurometricS Toolbox foR highly automatEd Systems design. This project has received funding from the SESAR Joint Undertaking under grant agreement No 699381 under European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme