Cockpit Task Management

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Oregon State University

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Synopsis: Cockpit Task Management (CTM) is the process by which pilots manage the many, concurrent tasks that must be performed to safely and efficiently fly a modern aircraft. CTM is a significant factor in flight safety and our research is aimed at understanding and facilitating CTM. This website describes our studies, findings, and recommendations..
Keywords: cockpit task management, CTM, task management, attention, attention management, workload, strategic workload management, human factors, engineering psychology, cognitive psychology, aviation, flight deck, timesharing, multitasking
Authors: Ken Funk <> Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA 
Kurt Colvin <> Department of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California, USA
Jennifer Wilson <> Research Integrations, Inc., Tempe, Arizona, USA
Candy Suroteguh <> Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
Rolf Braune <> Braune & Associates, Inc., Redmond, Washington, USA
Last Update: 6 Jun 00

This page describes Work in Progress and its contents are subject to change.

Introduction Commercial air transportation has an admirable safety record, yet each year thousands of lives and millions of dollars of property are lost in air crashes. About two-thirds of these aircraft accidents are caused, in part, by pilot error. While many of these errors are errors in performing cockpit (or flight deck) tasks, a significant number of them are errors in managing cockpit tasks. This website describes our efforts to understand and facilitate Cockpit Task Management. for details, see
Definitions and Basic Concepts
Our research has followed a systems approach in the definition of Cockpit Task Management and the development of methods to facilitate it. A system is an entity that can be described in terms of input, output, and state (e.g., an airplane, an engine, an autopilot, even a human pilot). A goal is a desired system or subsystem behavior (e.g., a safe, on-time arrival at the intended destination, which is the mission goal; a timely turn to an ATC-requested heading; or the correct configuration of the autopilot to make the turn). A function is a process performed to achieve a goal (e.g., fly the mission, turn to the requested heading, set the target heading in the autopilot). A task is a function performed by a human, as opposed to a machine (e.g., set the target heading in the autopilot). Background
Cockpit Task Management
A Preliminary Theory
The cockpit is an environment, in which potentially many important tasks compete for pilot attention at any given time. Cockpit Task Management (CTM) is the process by which pilots selectively attend to tasks in such a way as to achieve the mission goal. It determines which of perhaps many concurrent tasks the pilot(s) attend to at any particular point in time. More specifically, CTM entails initiation of new tasks, monitoring of on-going tasks to determine their status; prioritization of tasks based on their importance, status, urgency, and other factors; allocation of human and machine resources to high priority tasks; interruption and subsequent resumption of lower priority tasks; and termination of tasks that are completed or no longer relevant. A Preliminary, Normative Theory of Cockpit Task Management
First Steps in Understanding Cockpit Task Management In our early CTM research we conducted several empirical studies to better understand its nature and significance. In a review of 324 National Transportation Safety Board aircraft accident reports, we determined that CTM errors occurred in 76 (23 per cent) of the accidents. In a review of 470 Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) aircraft incident reports we found CTM errors in 231 (49 per cent) of the incidents. In a part-task flight simulator study we found that CTM performance was inversely related to workload. From these studies, we concluded that CTM is a significant factor in flight safety and deserves further study and facilitation. Preliminary Cockpit Task Management Research at Oregon State University
Objectives Given that CTM is significant to flight safety, the broad objectives of our research are to
  1. develop a better understanding of CTM in order to
  2. develop means to facilitate CTM and thereby improve flight safety.
Towards a Better Understanding of Cockpit Task Management
Automation and Cockpit Task Management
Based on our early findings and on those of aircraft automation research, there is reason to believe that the level of automation on the commercial aircraft flight deck may affect CTM performance. We compared two samples of 210 Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) incident reports to this potential effect. The first sample consisted of reports submitted by pilots flying advanced technology aircraft and the second by pilots flying traditional technology aircraft. We explored CTM in relation to automation by looking at task prioritization errors. We classifed twenty-eight incident reports from the advanced technology sample and 15 from the traditional technology sample as containing task prioritization errors. We found this difference to be statistically significant, which suggests that CTM may be more challenging and prone to error in advanced technology aircraft than in traditional technology aircraft.  


An ASRS Incident Report Study of Flight Deck Automation and Cockpit Task Management

To further explore this issue, we conducted a part-task simulator experiment to determine the effect of the level of automation and pilot's level of automation proficiency on CTM performance. Nine airline transport pilots served as subjects in this study. Every pilot flew three scenarios, each scenario with a different level of flight deck automation, in the simulator. We measured each pilot's CTM performance by identifying the number of task prioritization errors committed in each experiment run. We compared the average number of errors at different levels of automation and automation proficiency to determine the effect of those factors on CTM performance. We found that level of automation affected CTM performance as a function of flight phase. But we found no effect of automation proficiency (as measured by "glass cockpit" hours) on CTM performance. A Simulator Study of Flight Deck Automation and Cockpit Task Management
Related Research Until quite recently, our research efforts have concentrated primarily on the external manifestations of CTM: accidents and incidents, and the results of attention allocation as reflected in directly observable aircraft and system parameters. We have come to realize, though, that to most effectively facilitate CTM and thereby avoid accidents and incidents due to misallocation of attention, we must now look to the internal mechanisms that drive the CTM process. Many areas of psychology, sociology, and cognitive science research are potentially useful in developing a better understanding. These areas of research include attention, memory, dual-task performance, time-sharing, (multiple) resource theory, workload, workload management, interruptions and distractions, (general) task management, and crew resource management. We are currently reviewing this literature with an eye to refining our understanding of CTM. This website will be updated to reflect our findings.
Factors Affecting Task Prioritization A primary research question identified in the literature is what factors affect task prioritization on the commercial flight deck. A human performance approach to CTM was explored through the experimental psychology literature, with the objective of developing a deeper understanding of the prioritization process. We performed two experimental part-task simulator studies using commercial airline pilots. The objective of the first study was to simply identify possible prioritization factors. The second study then gathered empirical evidence for actual use of these factors. From the results, a model of task prioritization emerged with Status, Procedure and Value as the primary factors that affect task prioritization.

Study 1: Initial Identification of Factors That Affect Task Prioritization on the Flight Deck

Study 2: Further Investigation of Factors That Affect Task Prioritization on the Flight Deck

On-going and Future Research at Oregon State University We are continuing to explore factors that affect CTM behavior are developing a quantitative, normative theory of CTM in order to compare actual pilot performance with "optimal" CTM. As our knowledge of CTM increases through our own studies as well as our review of related research, we will be developing more complete and formal theories and models of CTM As we progress, we will publish our reviews, studies, findings, theories, and models on this website.
Facilitating Cockpit Task Management
Computational Aids
Although there are many potentially effective ways to facilitate CTM and thereby improve flight safety, we chose first to investigate the use of computational aids. Our first aid, the IAAS Task Support System, was not originally intended to facilitate CTM but actually led us to our awareness of it. The Cockpit Task Management System (CTMS), on the other hand, was specifically designed to help pilots initiate, monitor, prioritize, and terminate tasks. Towards those ends, the CTMS provided information about task state (upcoming, active, terminated), status (satisfactory or unsatisfactory performance), and priority. In a part-task simulator experiment subjects flew the simulator under both aided (with CTMS) and unaided (without the CTMS) conditions. With the assistance of the CTMS, mean task misprioritization rate, mean subject response time, mean unsatisfactory aircraft control, and average number of incomplete tasks during simulator flights were all reduced. We broadened the concept of CTM to include goal management, calling the composite process Agenda Management, and developed an experimental aid called the AgendaManager (AMgr) to facilitate it. The AMgr was designed to help pilots detect and resolve goal conflicts and to properly prioritize and perform tasks. In a part-task simulator evaluation comparing the AMgr with a model of a conventional warning and alerting system, subjects managed goals and tasks significantly better with the AMgr than with the conventional system. The IAAS Task Support System

The Cockpit Task Management System

The AgendaManager

Other Means to Facilitate Cockpit Task Management While we will continue to explore computational aids as means to facilitate CTM, we realize that this may not be the most expedient approach to solving the problem of poor CTM performance. We hypothesize that as we develop a better understanding of CTM, simply making our findings known to line pilots will encourage them to develop personal strategies to improve their own CTM. We may discover that pilot selection methods can be enhanced to identify individuals with superior innate or acquired CTM skills. There is some reason to believe that good CTM is trainable and we are optimistic that training methods can be developed to enhance CTM performance. Finally, airlines may be able to utilize our findings to develop operational procedures to optimize CTM. We will continue to publish findings and recommendations relevant to improve CTM on this website.
Task Management
Extending the Concept of Cockpit Task Management to Other Domains
Our research has focussed on the selective attention to multiple, concurrent tasks in the aviation domain. But the cockpit shares characteristics with many other workstations. Operators of nuclear power plants, communication systems, automated factories, and military sensor, weapon, and command and control systems, like pilots, are faced with multiple, concurrent tasks that compete for their attention. They too, like pilots, must selectively attend to these tasks and we believe that the task management challenges faced by pilots are likewise faced by other operators. Unsatisfactory task management performance in the cockpit is likely mirrored as poor task management performance in these other workstations. We hope that our understanding of CTM and our solutions to CTM problems will be helpful in other domains.
Bibliography In conjunction with our review of related research, we are compiling a bibliography of documents related to CTM. For each of the major sources we find, we are preparing short summaries to support or own work as well as to provide others with helpful background information. Bibliography


This work has been funded by the US Naval Weapons Center (now the Naval Air Warfare Center - Weapons Division) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA grants NAG 2-875 and NAG 2-1287). We gratefully acknowledge the support of our technical monitors, Dale Robison (NWC), Kevin Corker and Barbara Kanki (NASA grant NAG 2-875), and Key Dismukes (NASA grant NAG 2-1287).


The views expressed in this website are those of the authors and are not official positions of Oregon State University, the US Navy, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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