Emotional and cognitive assessment of aircrews

Billy Wilt

A multidisciplinary team of sleep and bioengineering specialists led by Teresa Paiva (CENC) and João Sanches (IST) is developing a project to create a technological application for monitoring and assessment of operational readiness of airline crews of commercial passenger and cargo airlines for security and planning purposes.

The quantification of attention, sleepiness, fatigue or stress levels is critical in workers involved in hazardous tasks, such as pilots, professional drivers, air traffic controllers or heavy machinery operators, such as crane operators or forklift operators. Rigorous characterization of these professionals’ readiness for the tasks they are involved in, as well as their emotional state (depression, anxiety, exhaustion, denial, anger, etc.), are essential, both for security reasons as for planning, management and profitability purposes.

The assessment of emotional states has traditionally been made on clinical grounds and based on information obtained from queries and psychological tests. Due to recent developments of portable data and signal acquisition and processing systems, including smartphones and tablets, it is now possible to acquire and process in real time other types of information, such as physiological data, e.g. electrocardiogram, temperature and galvanic skin responses, as well as behavioral data, such as activity/rest, mobility and muscular stress. Moreover, biomarker data collection using non invasive saliva samples inserts new measuring possibilities.

Along with the traditional psychological assessment, now collected in electronic format, this type of data – which are hardly influenced by individual bias, whether conscious or unconscious – can promote the development of more reliable and rapid methods operating in real time.

The goal of this research project is to design, develop and implement methods aimed at real-time characterization and quantification of attention, alertness and sleepiness states based on physiological, behavioural and psychological data, which are continuously obtained from a non-invasive and portable dedicated system. The main purpose of the application is to monitor and evaluate operational readiness in crews of commercial passenger and cargo airlines for security and planning purposes.

The system will provide a full and long-term psychological and biological profile that can be used in the planning of shifts and rest periods of pilots, but should also allow real-time detection of critical cognitive states, including slowing, inattention and sleepiness, which increase the risk of catastrophe.

In this context, this project intends to approach, to develop and to characterize the general concept of cognitive/emotional state of the team rather than just the individual. The aim is to simultaneously monitor all crew members and evaluate the team as a whole, thus maximizing its performance, in view of a balance between effort and performance. The interdisciplinary team developing this project involves biomedical engineers, psychologists, biologists and physicians with extensive work done and published in this field. It is a partnership between the IST, the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon and CENC (Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology Center).


João Sanches – Institute for Systems and Robotics; IST (School of Engineering of the Technical University of Lisbon, Department of Biomedical Engineering)