Helping air traffic controllers

Grantee Spotlight: Arathi Sethumadhavan, PhD

Aviation accidents are devastating to the victims’ families and communities. The importance of reliable aviation technology and the employees that use it is immeasurable in keeping air travel safe.

As a doctoral student at Texas Tech University specializing in experimental psychology/human factors, Arathi Sethumadhavan, PhD, studied the cognitive and social issues involved in human-automation interaction in the domain of air traffic control. Her dissertation research, supported by the $3,000 APF/COGDOP Ruth G. and Joseph D. Matarazzo Scholarship, examined the differences in the situational awareness and performance of air traffic controllers when they worked with different automated systems to direct air traffic.

Dr. Sethumadhavan found that when the automated system was unreliable, it took air traffic controllers significantly longer to detect an upcoming collision. Poor performance following automation failure was mediated by the controller’s lowered awareness of the situation. Even after experiencing an automation failure, individuals working with higher order automated systems continued to have lower situation awareness and were slower in responding to subsequent failures. These results have practical implications for the design of automated air traffic control systems and operator training. Steps need to be taken to reduce the likelihood of these automated systems failing and increasing the controllers’ situational awareness.

“I am grateful to the American Psychological Foundation for the APF/COGDOP Fellowship Ruth G. and Joseph D. Matarazzo Scholarship. The scholarship supported the completion of my dissertation research, which has implications in determining the appropriate degree of automation that should be introduced when designing Next Generation Air Transportation Systems, to reduce the workload of the human operator while at the same time not keeping the operator so far ‘out of the loop’ as to invite disaster if the automation should fail. I was invited to present my work at multiple international conferences and also won the best dissertation award from Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology) . So thanks again to the American Psychological Foundation for paving way for my accomplishments!”

Dr. Sethumadhavan’s work has been published in journals such as Human Factors and the International Journal of Aviation Psychology. She now has a successful career at Medtronic, a world-renowned medical device manufacturer.