News Release

SMU researchers partner with CAE USA to improve pilot training

Business Announcement

Southern Methodist University

DALLAS (SMU) – Researchers at SMU’s AT&T Center for Virtualization are testing the effectiveness of an innovative approach they developed to improve pilot training and better understand what stress factors pilots may experience in the cockpit.

Through a partnership with CAE USA, a technology company that specializes in flight simulation and other digital immersion technologies and platforms, SMU (Southern Methodist University) researchers developed a method to use cognitive load sensing and machine learning to capture how pilots react to various scenarios in a flight simulator. This includes measuring pupil size, heart rate, and other physical reactions to determine the pilot’s levels of interest, stress, or fatigue.

The researchers are now comparing the physical observations recorded by the flight training staff and the students’ self-evaluations to the results of the SMU biometric analysis. The findings are expected to yield the first real-time analysis of student situational awareness, and will be used to improve flight training.

Pilots traditionally are asked several questions after each flight simulation exercise to determine how difficult certain steps of the training are and to gauge their reactions to it. However, surveys and how pilots answer the questions in them can be very subjective.

“Our theory is that biometrics during the simulation will result in much more objective and accurate measurements than asking users some questions after the simulation to gauge their experience,” said Suku Nair, Ph.D., director of the AT&T Center for Virtualization at SMU.

Nair is working with a colleague in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, Eric Larson, Ph.D. An associate professor of computer science and recognized expert on machine learning, Larson is the principal investigator on the study.

“Accelerating learning with biometric sensing is a difficult, unproven hypothesis,” Larson said. “This research seeks to understand how sensing can be used to understand a learner’s mastery level in a difficult task, like flying an aircraft. We hope to advance the research field by being the first group to show whether personalized, automated learning can show efficacy in an actual learning scenario.”

Nair and Larson believe this application of biometric sensing and machine learning can be used in ways to measure user experience in other industries.

“You can use the technology to see how a reader reacts to an advertisement,” Nair said. “Is the reader excited or curious? That immediately helps marketing companies better understand the customer experience and how best to engage them.”

Sandro Scielzo, Ph.D., a principal Human Systems scientist at CAE USA, said it was Nair and Larson’s research background and proven expertise in applying biometric-based machine learning at SMU that caught CAE USA’s attention.

“Our research will yield the first real-time measure of situation awareness, a critical high-order cognitive construct for dynamic, high stakes domains such as military aviation,” Scielzo said. “For example, our machine learning classifiers could identify a breakdown in perception, allowing the remediation of poor visual scans. A breakdown in comprehension could also be mitigated by ensuring students remain within the zone of maximal adaptability via real-time training complexity adaptation. Thus, mission readiness could be achieved more effectively and rapidly,” Scielzo said.

“A great benefit of working with SMU is that not only do they have talented faculty, but also highly motivated students who want to make a difference,” Scielzo said. “And SMU is in our ‘backyard’ making it easy to coordinate and execute complex human-subjects experiments. I want to personally thank Drs. Nair and Larson for their support during these four years of research. It may seem a long time, yet I have no doubts that this is only the beginning,” Scielzo added.

“This research is just another example of the increasing role virtualization plays in improving lives, and SMU is fortunate to work with industry leaders like CAE USA to help test innovative solutions,” Nair said.


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty, and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities, and the world. 


About the AT&T Center for Virtualization at SMU

Virtualization is the creation of devices and machines that have no real, physical existence apart from their existence created or simulated by software. Established in 2016 by a generous contribution from Dallas-based global communications company AT&T, the AT&T Center for Virtualization at SMU delivers solutions to critical industry needs, educates the next generation of virtualized network technology experts, and supports Dallas’ emergence as a global information technology hub. The center draws upon the knowledge and talent of researchers and students from across all of SMU’s schools and centers of excellence to conduct interdisciplinary research to address important technical, economic, and social issues.



CAE USA’s Defense & Security business unit is at the leading edge of digital innovation providing training and mission support solutions across multi-domain operations – air, land, maritime, space, and cyber.  Our training and operational support solutions are developed and delivered to customers who operate in complex, high-stakes environments where mission readiness and successful outcomes are critical.  Our acquisition of L3Harris’ Military Training business in 2021, including Link and Doss Aviation, has enabled us to create the world’s leading pure-play, platform-agnostic training and simulation company serving the global defense market.

CAE USA is a high technology company, at the leading edge of digital immersion, providing solutions to make the world a safer place. Backed by a record of more than 70 years of industry firsts, we continue to reimagine the customer experience and revolutionize training and operational support solutions in civil aviation, defense and security, and healthcare. We are the partner of choice to customers worldwide who operate in complex, high-stakes, and largely regulated environments, where successful outcomes are critical. Testament to our customers’ ongoing needs for our solutions, over 60 percent of CAE USA’s revenue is recurring in nature. We have the broadest global presence in our industry, with approximately 11,000 employees, 160 sites, and training locations in over 35 countries. Follow us on Twitter @CAE_Inc and @CAE_Defence Facebook:

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