|FOCUS ON THE FACULTY
SCIENTIST DESIGNING SOFTWARE TO MAKE FLYING SAFER
|By Chris Harris|
"It was either get a tattoo and a motorcycle or take flying lessons," replied Wayne Staats, assistant professor of computer science, when asked how he became interested in flying.
Staats, who has been teaching at the College of Charleston for two years, takes his flying pretty seriously as he possesses a commercial pilot's license, as well as his own plane.
"People do dumb things in airplanes," Staats says. Because most aircraft accidents are caused by human related error, Staats has initiated a research project to study causes of these crashes-- and new ways to better prevent them from happening. Staats, who has a background in electrical engineering, has put together a small team to study aircraft accidents. His team includes one graduate student, two undergraduate students, and himself.
"He has taken to heart President Higdon's call to increase the opportunities for undergraduate research and is one of the pillars of our department in this respect," says Dr. George Pothering, chair of the College of Charleston's computer science department.
What Staats and his assistants are doing is creating a program that will detect when a pilot is maneuvering a plane in an unsafe manner. "Our goal is develop decision support systems," Staat says, "that provide feedback so an intelligent decision can be made." He says the program is able to warn a pilot when the plane is not flying correctly.
The program examines a flight as it is in progress. "Real time data is used to look at the flight path," Staats adds. By using real time data a correction can be made by the pilot instantly. Pilots often use misjudgment because of spatial disorientation.
Spatial disorientation is the number one cause of all human related airplane crashes and is the team's main focus. Spatial disorientation, described by Staats, is when "pilots become unaware of up and down...human senses give false feedback." With the program the team is developing, incorrect maneuvers can be corrected before there is a serious problem.
The project, called "Applying Artificial Techniques to Detect Spatial Disorientation in Pilots," has received financial support from the College of Charleston's summer undergraduate research program and the South Carolina Space Consortium Grant. "What I appreciate most about Dr. Staats is the efforts he makes to engage students in his research, and just as significantly, how he works to provide funding for students during summer research," Pothering says.
The research is hands on, with the laboratory going airborne on occasion. "I actually take students up in my plane and let them experience what spatial disorientation feels like," according to Staats.
The research continues and its actual use on planes, so far, would be limited. "Our biggest problem is that small planes lack black boxes," Staats said. He says only larger planes contain the real time data software needed to examine the plane's flight path.
However, the team continues developing a program that detects erratic flight patterns. With Staats help, one day the program will be used in all planes big or small to help keep pilots and their passengers even safer.
Wayne Staats (right) with student research
assistant Brad Barnes in San Jose,
Calif. where they visited NASA's
AMES Research Center last summer.
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