By Elise Lagerstrom, Human Factors / Flight Safety
It has always been a challenge for me to explain my degree and career path. The conversation usually starts with “Where did you go to school?” to which I reply “Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.” As it turns out, very few people outside the aerospace industry are familiar with Embry-Riddle, so I feel the need to make sure to include the descriptor “aeronautical university.” Typically, the conversation continues along a normal path, to which my next response is that I have a degree in Human Factors. This response is also met with a similar level of skepticism and confusion as the original question.
I have found in life, and even at Insitu, that describing myself as a “Human Factors practitioner” actually offers little clarification. The definition of “Human Factors” can be region-, industry-, and even company-specific.
In short, it can be boiled down to the following: Human Factors is a discipline that applies an understanding of human abilities and limitations to the design of the built environment.
The longer definition of Human Factors (based off the FAA’s definition) is the scientific discipline that utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to generate and compile information about human capabilities and limitations and apply that information to equipment, systems, facilities, procedures, jobs, environments, training, staffing, and personnel management for safe, comfortable and effective human performance.
The application of Human Factors in product development at companies like Insitu is accomplished through analysis, design and evaluation. We provide an analysis of our users’ characteristics, behaviors and needs. We then correlate this analysis with task demands and environmental characteristics and apply Human Factors design principles (requirements) to ensure the system supports safe and effective human performance.
Human Factors approaches hazards and engineering problems in a hierarchical fashion. Our first objective is to apply human-centered design to ensure safety. If an anticipated hazard cannot be designed out of the system, an attempt is made to remove the hazard through the use of safety guards, such as warning labels. Finally, if we cannot eliminate or guard the user from an anticipated hazard, we provide documentation and/or training. This hierarchy is utilized because the approach prioritizes the most effective mitigation (design) to the least effective (warn/train).
Currently at Insitu, Human Factors has been concentrated primarily to Flight Safety. Within the Flight Safety Team, we investigate and analyze the Human Factors that contribute to mishaps. Flight Safety uses a tool called the Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) to categorize causal and contributing factors present during a mishap. This system allows you to see the development of trends throughout the entire mishap chain of events—from the mishap itself back through the variables that contributed to the error that was made. This is great for a retrospective analysis of mishaps. That said, in order to move to proactive and preventative approach, we need to start applying Human Factors throughout the product development lifecycle. Human Factors consultation starts at product conceptualization and continues through post-market surveillance. This is to ensure human-centered design standards and principles are integrated into our systems to increase performance.
In short, Human Factors practitioners are both researchers and design specialists. Our group here at Insitu plans to engage in a number of activities to ensure we are infusing Human Factors principles into designs that support performance and prevent error to increase overall system reliability.
How do we make this happen? During product conceptualization, Human Factors can anticipate user strengths and limitations from a task, environmental and resource perspective. Next, various analyses determine the requirements to be incorporated into system design and ensure the human is being accounted for as a critical component of the system—yes, the human is still a critical component, even in unmanned operations! As the design progresses, evaluations should be conducted iteratively to understand if the design successfully incorporates requirements that support performance without introducing unsafe hazards. Human Factors activities throughout the product development process give rise to a high degree of confidence that the design is safe and effective. By the time a Human Factors requirements verification and design validation are conducted, we know the system design supports human performance, is effective (competitive) and safe.
Human Factors is more than a buzzword. It encompasses far more than human error, warning labels or training. Successful human-centered-design of our systems will help us serve our customers, both internally and externally, and will propel us through milestones yet to come. We are in the business of pioneering, let us be a model for human-centered design in unmanned systems.