Engineer Blends Research Success with Community Commitment

July 2018
Breanna Hall
Breanna Hall

Breanna Hall was a track star in college, and her ability to move at record speed has followed her into her career at MITRE. In just three short years, she has conducted her own research project, contributed to automation improvements in air traffic controllers' tools, and provided career guidance to teens interested in aviation.

Hall joined MITRE shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in human factors engineering—the study of designing equipment, devices, and processes that fit the human body and its cognitive abilities. "I came to MITRE because of the wide range of research opportunities the company offered," she says.

Expanding the Scope of a Tool's Usefulness

In her first year here, Hall researched alternative uses for a MITRE-developed tool. That tool—the Closed Runway Operation Prevention Device (CROPD)—employs speech recognition technology to detect instances where an air traffic controller accidentally issues a clearance to a closed runway. The tool then issues an alert so the controller can correct the error without incident.

"Through automated communications monitoring, the tool can catch mistakes and get them corrected before the pilot takes any hazardous action," Hall explains. "I researched how CROPD could be applied more broadly to identify safety issues on the airport surface." Hall identified several other scenarios where the tool may be helpful. For instance, she says, "it could be used to detect read-back errors."

In air traffic control operations, pilots are required to "read back" the controller's instructions to ensure they heard them correctly. "If the pilot reads back the instruction incorrectly and the controller doesn't catch it, the tool could potentially detect the error and issue an alert."

In light of Hall's findings and those of other MITRE researchers, when MITRE applied for a patent for CROPD, we renamed the tool. It's now known as the Audio Monitor and Event-Conflict Signaling System (patent #: 8,983,761) to indicate its applications beyond closed runway clearance detection. Hall and her colleagues are looking forward to getting the patent into broader use to further increase aviation safety.

Improving Automation for Air Traffic Controllers

Later, Hall led and contributed to the development of air traffic controller automation improvements in multiple air traffic control domains, including tower operations and those that occur over oceans.

Hall participated in MITRE's Early Career Research Program, where employees pursue a research project of their own design. Hall's proposal looked at quantifying the complexity of air traffic controllers' tasks.

"At the time, there was little research on measuring the changes in complexity that result from such proposed changes. I wanted to study that."

During her research project, Hall designed a way to measure the amount of time it took controllers working in air traffic control towers to perform certain tasks. It also evaluated the cognitive load associated with those tasks. Specifically, she studied the tasks associated with controllers' use of a paper-based method—known as "flight strips"—to track aircraft on the ground, on the runway, and in the air. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is shifting toward electronic tools that could serve the same purpose more efficiently.

Hall's research supports comparisons between the workload associated with the paper-based system and proposed electronic tools. The information helps researchers understand how to best design the electronic tools to reduce controller workload.

Hall has since applied the method she used for measuring task times and cognitive load in the assessment of new controller tools in other air traffic domains, from facilities that handle flights 30 to 50 miles from an airport to those that handle air traffic over the world's oceans.

Inspiring Future Aviation Engineers

In addition to her many contributions to MITRE's work program, Hall finds time to give back. "For the last two years, I helped host the Aviation Career Education (ACE) Academy's visit to MITRE," she says. "It's a program that supports middle- and high-school students interested in exploring a career in aviation by introducing them to organizations that do that kind of work."

In 2018, the Career Communications Group presented Hall with a Becoming All You Are award for both her technical accomplishments and civic contributions. These awards recognize individuals who have demonstrated excellence in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, as well as a commitment to contributing to their communities.

Hall, who also volunteers as a track coach, hopes some of the students she's supported might someday consider a career at MITRE.

"There are always opportunities here to learn new things, so anyone who is a continuous learner, like I am, will appreciate the growth they can achieve at MITRE."

—by Marlis McCollum