Measuring the cognitive state of airplane pilots subjected to a high level of stress

The start-up Semaxone has developed technology to monitor the physiological and cognitive state of people working in highly constrained environments. It is particularly suitable for aircraft pilots to measure their ability to correctly mobilize their resources, in the event of an incident occurring on their aircraft. Meeting with the founder of this company.

Guilhem Belda is a computer engineer, graduated from the University of Avignon and passionate about aeronautics since childhood. He wondered how it was possible to design systems to improve assistance to people working in highly constrained environments, such as airplane pilots. In 2018, he created his start-up to develop technology capable of monitoring the physiological and cognitive state of people living in this type of environment. After several years of research and development, he is about to market his system. Interview with the president and founder of Semaxone.

In the center, Guilhem Belda, president and founder of Semaxone, surrounded on his left by Jacky Montmaint, from the EuroMov Digital Health in Motion laboratory, and on his right by Gérard Dray, from the Institut Mines Télécom Alès. Credit Semaxone

Engineering Techniques: Why is it important to monitor how people behave in a constrained environment?

Guilhem Belda: In the event of an incident, aircraft pilots, for example, must be able to mobilize their skills and cognitive resources to deal with this situation, despite a high level of stress. In addition to this cognitive aspect, constraints from the environment can intervene, such as a change in temperature, oxygen level, strong accelerations, etc. They will disturb the pilot’s body and impact his comfort and his health. Despite everything, he must be able to adapt and mobilize all his resources quickly and correctly, because this will condition the safety of the aircraft. Faced with these constraints, we are developing monitoring technologies to retrieve data on a person’s physiology in order to interpret their operational and cognitive state.

What types of measurements do you perform?

We collect cerebral data, at the level of the prefrontal cortex, an area which acts as a sort of conductor of the brain. For this, a headband is placed at the level of the person’s forehead and equipped with a sensor. We use spectroscopy, a technology that exploits light sources, to assess the level of oxygenation of the cortex and continuously to monitor its evolution. This technology is already used to observe brain areas, but not in a constrained environment, as we do. This method is developed in partnership with EuroMov DHM, a research laboratory specializing in the analysis of physiological measurement in motion.

Then we collect voice data. The voice carries meaning both linguistically and para-linguistically. We look for all information other than language, to enable us to characterize a person’s condition. For example, when an airplane climbs in altitude, the pilot’s breathing becomes different, his syllables are longer. From these little clues, we make correlations with his physiological state. This is a field of research that has existed for many years, but again not in a constrained universe. In this area, we work in partnership with the Avignon Computer Laboratory (LIA), which specializes in voice analysis.

Semaxone, sensor, i-Naval operation
The sensor developed by Semaxone positioned on the forehead of an officer during the i-Naval operation Credit Semaxone

How do you interpret this data?

We first carried out numerous experiments to acquire data, whether in the laboratory and in a chamber to simulate high altitudes, for example, but also in real conditions. In total, we have more than 200 hours of flights analyzed, among others with pilots who do aerobatics.

Then, we process this data using a machine learning type AI algorithm to train our numerical model. It will analyze the loops of interaction between the domain of brain vascularization and that of speech production and breathing. We now have a library allowing us to know how the different cognitive signals of a pilot behave according to different situations, in particular his mental and cognitive load, or his working memory… At the level of physiological phenomena, we are interested much like how a pilot’s body behaves when subjected to high altitudes or accelerations, such as in a fighter jet. During these significant accelerations, which can go up to 5g (gravity – unit of acceleration, editor’s note) or even 10g, the gravitational force that applies to a pilot will influence the blood level in the brain. We are able to observe this phenomenon and determine if the pilot manages to maintain a level of reflection and performance despite this constraint.

Semaxone, brain activity, aerobatics
A study of the cerebral activity of a pilot subjected to sudden accelerations during aerobatics. Credit Semaxone

What are the potential applications of your technology?

They are mainly of two kinds. First of all, in the field of pilot training. The idea is to collect data during their training and then analyze how they react to different extreme situations. When we observe that he still has room, the intensity of the training can be increased, depending on his abilities. Our measures are personalized and the aim is to be more efficient and more comfortable for the pilot in training. Thanks to our system, we can observe, on the prefrontal area of ​​the brain, the difference in load between experienced pilots who have reached a good level of mastery of the situation, compared to young pilots who are discovering it.

The second application is at the level of the integration of our system on board aircraft, on pilots, with the aim of transmitting information to manufacturers so that they can take countermeasures. For example, if a pilot finds himself mentally overloaded, it is possible to highlight the really priority information to him. Another case: when a pilot is at high altitude or following accelerations, his brain can be in a state of hypoxia, that is to say, lack of oxygen. The countermeasure may consist in informing him of this, so that he descends in altitude, because he does not always notice it. The manufacturer may also decide to set up an automatic oxygen backup system.

What stage of your project are you at?

We are in a development phase and we are looking for partners and customers. Discussions are underway with major manufacturers to consider equipping airliners. We also have exchanges with nuclear operators who are interested in equipping their staff with our technology. The medical sector is also a potential target, particularly the field of surgery. It may be interesting to equip the person performing the surgery, but also the patient. There are already instruments to measure cerebral oxygenation, but they are used occasionally during an examination. Thanks to our system, we can observe this phenomenon continuously.

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