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Better pilot training using eye-tracking

06 November 2023

Can technology that follows and records a person's eye movements and focus points, so-called eye-tracking, improve the training of pilots? Yes, in several ways, shows a new research report funded by the Swedish Transport Administration.

Eye-tracking, the technology used to record and measure the movements of a person's eyes, has been used successfully in several industries. In the automotive industry, it has been used both in the development of autonomous cars and to increase road safety by monitoring the driver's attention and fatigue.

Similarly, eye-tracking has also been used in several maritime projects to improve safety, navigation strategies and performance. One of them is the project Evaluation of eye-tracking as support in simulator training for maritime pilots which investigated whether and how eye-tracking can be used in the training of pilots. At Lindholmen's simulator facility in Gothenburg, user studies and observations were made with student pilots and instructors who had to perform navigation tasks with specially designed eye-track headsets/glasses on their heads.

“In this way, it was possible to follow what the student pilots look at when they navigate - how much and how long they look out, what instruments they look at and how quickly they move their eyes between different sources. In psychology, it is well known that what we pay attention to via our senses is used when we process the information and make decisions about how to act”, says Anna-Lisa Osvalder, researcher at Chalmers who led the project.

One idea with the simulator exercises was to compare how student pilots acted compared to experienced navigators (in this case the instructors) during the exercises. Therefore, the eye movements of both groups were recorded.

“They then had debriefings where the students had to go through their films and explain why they acted the way they did on the bridge, for example during a port of call. Then they got to see how professional navigators solved the same situation.”

Did the exercises work well?

“Yes, the students were very focused on their task. There were two of them on the bridge, one giving instructions and one steering and I don't think they noticed they had the glasses on. Previous simulator studies have shown that it works that way.”

Both students and instructors thought it was positive to have a visual element as support during debriefing - otherwise it is usual to only use an oral discussion.

“I was involved on a few occasions and thought it was a very good discussion in class. The students could also discuss and see each other's eye movements and solutions. So the exercises are both about learning by doing and learning by viewing. As a student pilot, you can see how someone else has solved a call in the best way.”

Simulator training is only one part of pilot training and Anna-Lisa Osvalder and her colleagues have also looked at other aspects. An important part is the so-called tacit knowledge that experienced pilots have acquired during a long career - is it possible to transfer such knowledge to students?

“We came to the conclusion that it is difficult. Imparting the technical skill to steer a ship is one thing, but the pilots also highlighted the social competence as something very important. You need to be able to communicate with captains from different countries and cultures, some want the pilot to take over completely, while others want less help. It's about learning the social game and you can only do that by gaining experience.”

“The students walk alongside experienced pilots during their practice. It's a bit grand of an apprenticeship system. This means that the pilots, who act as mentors, must be verbal and interested in sharing their experiences. I think it's important to think about that”, says Anna-Lisa Osvalder.

The project Evaluation of eye-tracking as support in simulator training for maritime pilots has been carried out by:
Anna-Lisa Osvalder, Rikard Eklund & Cecilia Berlin – Chalmers
Charlott Sellberg, Elin Nordenström & Markus Nivala – University of Gothenburg
Gesa Praetorius & Johanna Larsson – VTI
Anders Johannesson, Andreas Edvall, Fredrik Karlsson & Lars Axvi – Maritime Administration

To the report

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