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Camosun leads unique pilot safety monitoring project

“They’ll fly right into a smoke column and they say it’s like turning the lights off in a room, pitch black and all you can see are embers.”

Pilots battling forest fires across the province endure unique stresses and challenges, explains Rich Burman, Interaction Lead for the Camosun Innovates team. “They’ll fly right into a smoke column and they say it’s like turning the lights off in a room, pitch black and all you can see are embers,” he says. “Their heart rates go up significantly in the space of a few seconds.”

Burman and his Camosun Innovates colleagues are working on a collaborative project with partners Conair Aviation Group, University of British Columbia and Latitude Technologies to monitor pilot fatigue and to improve overall flying safety. Phase 1 was led by UBC and Camosun is leading the project’s field-focussed Phase 2, which monitors vital signs of pilots battling forest fires in real-time, using wearable technology such as heart rate monitors and Fitbits.

During British Columbia’s 2017 forest fire season, Camosun Innovates team member Sydney Chapman travelled to air tanker bases across the province to work directly with pilots. The “on the ground approach” was essential to project success, explains Leigh Barratt, Project Manager for Conair. “No research goes well from the office when it’s field-oriented,” he says. “It was extremely important to have somebody out, face to face, talking to the pilots, collecting data from them, adapting to their needs, helping them with their equipment, and answering questions about the research.”

“It’s been an eye-opening and exciting experience,” explains Chapman, whose expertise in Athletic Exercise Therapy underlines the project’s interdisciplinary approach. “I was going to different bases and representing Camosun, keeping pilots motivated so that we could gather their data.” In all, 13 pilots participated throughout the season and Camosun has gathered invaluable individual stress and fatigue data that is now in the process of being analysed.

Transport Canada officials are watching the progress of the project with interest. “The reason that we entered into this research project was that the federal regulators are changing the regulations for pilots regarding the amount of rest required for a work shift within a specific time period,” explains Barratt. “ The proposed changes to the regulations are directed at commercial airline pilots and do not help us manage fatigue.”

Barratt explains that flight currency is extremely important to Conair’s pilot team. Whereas a commercial pilot might fly 200 hours concentrated in a six-week period, firefighting pilots might only reach 200 hours total of intense flying segments spread out over a 4-month season. The number and type of take offs and landings are also vastly different. Consequently, the requirements for rest days need to be tailored for their specific circumstances. Transport Canada is aware of the unique challenges faced by firefighting pilots, and Barratt hopes that solid data from the Camosun-led project will lead to a Transport Canada exemption from the proposed regulatory changes. “They said to us—if you can build your own pilot fatigue risk management system that works for your industry, and is scientific, then we’ll buy into it.”

The ultimate goal is to develop a system that will alert pilots when they should and should not fly. “We want to enhance the safety of our flight crews,” says Barratt. “We are working to develop a system that allows both management and pilots to identify when they need rest, and so we can improve the safety of the individuals and the overall program.”

Barratt believes that Camosun’s focus on applied learning and research gives them an edge when working under challenging real-world conditions. ”I really appreciated the flexibility, adaptability and the speed with which Camosun could change directions to suit the projects needs,” he says. “I’m rather impressed with the team that Camosun put together. They have been well organized, hard-working and have always been there for us when we’ve needed them to problem-solve.”

He notes that pilots are flying planes worth millions of dollars with sophisticated equipment onboard to monitor all aspect of aircraft performance. “They have all sorts of load monitoring equipment on the airplanes right now, but none for the pilots. So why wouldn’t you monitor the health of the individual who’s actually operating that piece of equipment—it just makes sense,” he says.

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