Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite, March/April 2024

Prof. Karen Feigh, Associate Chair for Research, Georgia Institute of Technology

At Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Karen Feigh leads basic and applied research into cockpit design and pilot workload. She noted, “As an aerospace engineer, I’m kind of an unusual one in terms of my sub-specialty. I’m a cognitive systems engineer, more broadly known as a human factors expert.” Feigh’s faculty role gives her a seat in the Georgia Tech Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence (VLRCOE). “Right now in vertical lift, I mostly work on novel symbology sets for the control of helicopters. We do a lot of testing and evaluation in the simulator.”

The university simulator integrates a 270-degree visual system and a two-seat cockpit with the computer resources to test new flight symbology. Feigh observed, “We’ve got a new generation of rotorcraft coming along that are going to be faster and fly lower. More is going to be demanded of them. To manage pilot workload, things which may be manual now will be either fully automated or partially automated. That includes the flight controls.” Current VLRCOE funding sponsors work on multimodal cueing. “That is looking at how you would integrate multiple modalities — visual, auditory and haptic feedback from the control systems — into comprehensive symbology sets or feedback pilots could manage.”

Cockpit symbology was a successful outcome of the previous fiveyear VLRCOE program. Feigh explained, “We land helicopters on the backs of ships. That was our entire Task 10 in the last VLRCOE, to develop symbology to aid shipboard landing. We were told originally that what made the task hard was that the ship is moving, heaving, rolling, and turbulence is coming off the superstructure, and that makes for a really challenging dynamic environment.” Experienced naval aviators gave another answer. “What they told us was, ‘We can’t see the damn ship.’” Nose-high approaches and small chin bubbles deny pilots deck references. “We provided symbology to show them where the ship was. It looked like a rib cage that extends above the deck and moves with the ship, along with a few other visual aids. The pilot flies into the rib cage and descends. They loved it and did really, really well in simulation.”

The doctoral researcher working on that naval helicopter symbology task was a former US Army aviator, and is now working at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). Feigh noted, “That’s often the way academics transition technology to programs. We transition the people, our graduate students.” She added, “I have students who have come out of our college of computing, the mechanical engineering department, the aerospace engineering department and the math department. I currently have an electrical engineering student. A US Air Force major, a test pilot, is in our lab. Students come from all over, and when they hear about what we’ve been doing, it really resonates with them.”

Resonant Research
Karen Feigh grew up in an aviation household. “I am an Air Force brat. My dad, [now retired] Lt. Col. Keith Feigh, was a C-130 pilot. I started high school in Cabot, Arkansas, and finished in Poquoson, Virginia, right outside Langley Air Force Base.” Geography and economics drew the would-be engineer to Georgia Tech. “My parents wanted me to go to a school this side of the Mississippi. Since I was interested in aerospace engineering, we went on a tour of the top aerospace engineering schools. Georgia Tech offered a very prestigious President’s Scholarship. I put in my application, came down for an interview, and was awarded that scholarship.” Karen Feigh’s mother, Kathy, was a pharmacist, and the research chair recalled, “MIT was going to cost my mother’s entire take-home paycheck, and Georgia Tech was almost free.”

Georgia Tech provided career direction for the future aerospace researcher. “When I went to college, I was torn between aerospace engineering and material science engineering. I was quickly dissuaded from material science engineering after taking my introductory material science course.” Feigh received her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2001. “At that time, we did not have any rotorcraft embedded in the undergraduate curriculum, but I had done undergraduate research under both Dr. [Dmitri] Mavris and Dr. [Amy] Pritchett, and that’s how I found out about graduate school. If you had asked me as a freshman how people became faculty members, I had no idea. I was introduced to graduate students and research and said, ‘This is interesting.’”

Feigh continued, “I also started thinking about what sub-areas of aerospace did I like. I liked aero design work, but at that time, new designs for aircraft were taking 15 to 20 years, and half of them were canceled half-way through their programs. I found out that there was this area of human factors or cockpit design with symbology, displays and humans working with automated systems. I started doing some research with Amy Pritchett, who was our human factors person at the time.” Her undergraduate counselors suggested advanced studies in the UK, and Feigh won a Marshall Fellowship to pay for school in Great Britain. “I looked at Cranfield University, which was primarily dedicated to aviation, and had a full cockpit simulator, completely devoted to aviation. When I got over there, I was working with the faculty in charge of that flight simulator, and I wanted to do pilot-subject studies. He said, ‘Engineers don’t do that; psychologists do that.’”

Feigh’s research at Cranfield centered on free flight. “People were very interested in airplanes with GPS and flight management systems charting their own flight plans that didn’t have to be tethered to old jet routes.” With her Master of Philosophy in Aeronautics, Feigh considered doctoral studies in the UK. “I found out there are things that you learn in a US PhD program you don’t get in a UK PhD program. The skillset I would come back with was not the skillset American companies or academic institutions would be expecting.”

Feigh returned to Georgia Tech for her PhD in the industrial and systems engineering department with a specialization in human-integrated systems. “It wasn’t until the end of my PhD process that my advisor lobbied me pretty heavily to consider an academic career.” A stint in industry sealed the deal. “I took a job at Honeywell because I wanted to answer the question for myself — industry or academic. I said, ‘At least if I’m going to be an academic I get to choose, kind of, what we work on, and I get to set my hours a little bit more.’”

Dr. Feigh took a tenure-track position back in the Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering. Once on the faculty, she joined the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (IRIM). Feigh recalled, “The man leading it at the time, Heinrich Christiansen, was a phenomenal gatherer of talented people. He was instrumental in my getting involved with IRIM, and it stayed a really important place for me over my years.”

Professor Feigh today teaches graduate courses in cognitive engineering and the evaluation of human-integrated systems. “The cognitive engineering course focuses on what information do people need — how do they integrate and manipulate that information to create situational awareness.” The integrated systems evaluation course teaches how to perform human-inthe-loop testing. Feigh noted, “You cannot just get a subject and test. You must first put together a protocol of what you’re going to do and put that before a review ethics board just to make sure you don’t endanger test subjects.”

Autonomous Assistants
Vertical flight poses unique piloting challenges, according to Dr. Feigh. “Rotorcraft are inherently unstable, so you constantly have to be correcting for them. Further, we ask rotorcraft pilots to fly in really bad conditions. We ask them to fly at night, close to the earth where they have a lot of obstacles to avoid. Often there are two crewmembers with very specific roles, and they have to coordinate all of their activities, often times flying with one or two other helicopters. The level of coordination and mental workload that has to happen in these vehicles is just incredibly high. And we’re about to make them faster, which means the amount of time pilots have between them and disaster is getting smaller.”

Feigh continued, “I expect to see in the next-generation rotorcraft more pilot help with autopilot-style things. You might have an auto-land and auto-takeoff capability. You’ll definitely have some hover-hold, but I definitely think we’re not going to have autonomous helicopters that are doing any kind of complicated missions for a while. When you think about tactical or attack helicopters, the control will still be with the pilot for a long time, I think.

“That said, I do have a project that says, in 10 or 15 years, let’s say we do have a fully autonomous flying helicopter for cargo purposes, and something happens where all of a sudden you need to put people in back. What kind of interface would you need and what could we expect of a well-trained crew that is not going to fly with those people? Imagine medevac scenarios where you put emergency medical technicians in the back of an autonomous helicopter.”

Rotorcraft autonomy for advanced air mobility is also still in the future, said Feigh. “We’re getting close, but my caveat is, in very controlled situations. Can a single aircraft take off, reliably fly a mission and land? We’re getting very, very close to that. We’re quite a ways off from having a lot of these things really flying independently in our national airspace. That’s going to take a bit more time.”

Ideally, autonomy research can help busy pilots. “I would start with a blank sheet of paper and think about how do we create automation for helicopters without creating a thousand different control modes. If you get into a modern fixed-wing aircraft, there are something like 200 modes. The training for pilots, a lot of it, is just keeping them up to date with what all those modes are, what they do, and how you turn them on or off. The most fundamental thing we need is envelope protection. We might be able to save dozens of lives a year if we could just get envelope protection working on rotorcraft.”

Karen Feigh joined the Vertical Flight Society when she joined the VLRCOE. “I think one of the benefits is you do get to know key players in the specialty areas, in the crew systems group, in the handling qualities group. If I want to call them up and bounce an idea off of them, that’s really helpful. When I go to the VFS conference every year, I’m getting a snapshot of all of the rotorcraft work that’s being done in Europe and North America. That’s kind of cool.”

Active in the VFS Crew Stations and Human Factors Technical Committee and an Associate Editor of the Society’s Journal of the AHS, Dr. Feigh was recently selected to be the Forum 82 Technical Chair when it is held in May 2026 in West Palm Beach, Florida.