Objective: The objective was to examine the relationship between cockpit automation use and task-related and task-unrelated thought among airline pilots.
Background: Studies find that cockpit automation can sometimes relieve pilots of tedious control tasks and afford them more time to think ahead. Paradoxically, automation has also been shown to lead to lesser awareness. These results prompt the question of what pilots think about while using automation.
Method: A total of 18 airline pilots flew a Boeing 747-400 simulator while we recorded which of two levels of automation they used. As they worked, pilots were verbally probed about what they were thinking. Pilots were asked to categorize their thoughts as pertaining to (a) a specific task at hand, (b) higher-level flight-related thoughts (e.g.,planning ahead), or (c) thoughts unrelated to the flight. Pilots' performance was also measured.
Results: Pilots reported a smaller percentage of task-at-hand thoughts (27% vs. 50%) and a greater percentage of higher-level flight-related thoughts (56% vs. 29%) when using the higher level of automation. However, when all was going according to plan, using either level of automation, pilots also reported a higher percentage of task-unrelated thoughts (21%) than they did when in the midst of an unsuccessful performance (7%). Task-unrelated thoughts peaked at 25% when pilots were not interacting with the automation.
Conclusion: Although cockpit automation may provide pilots with more time to think, it may encourage pilots to reinvest only some of this mental free time in thinking flight-related thoughts.
Application: This research informs the design of human-automation systems that more meaningfully engage the human operator.