Aircraft automation has been thrust to the forefront of many aviation related conversations in the past months due to the devastating Lion Air and Ethiopian Boeing 737 Max crashes. Now more than ever, since The Wright brothers took to the air some 116 years ago, questions are being asked about the level of automation on passenger aircraft.
Older commercial airliners, such as the Beechcraft 1900, which are still in service mostly as small commuter aircraft, often do not have any autopilot installed. By contrast, modern commercial airliners have automated systems that can augment or even replace pilots’ performance, managing engine power, controlling and navigating the aircraft, and in some cases, even completing landings.
The preliminary reports on both the 737Max crashes are pointing to automated systems being the root cause of the of both the disasters. Regardless of those findings, the public may not know how much automation Is already part of flying today and the trend is for commercial aircraft to become more automated in years ahead.
Research has shown consumers are willing to interact with automated systems on all types of vehicles, including aircraft. This is evident in the excitement shown around the “urban air mobility” concept. This involves a system of small two to four passenger fully autonomous air taxis that could carry passengers on short trips throughout cities without a human pilot on board. Trial runs are already underway in 64 cities world wide and are being received very favourably be commuters.
One problem may arise in highly automated aircraft is that the pilots can lose track of what’s actually happening. This is presumably what happened in 2009 when Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. Airspeed sensors failed, causing the autopilot to turn itself off, the pilots weren’t able to timeously identify the problem and as a result failed to recover in time to prevent the aircraft plunging into the sea.
Some experts also believe that a pilot’s lack of awareness was a factor in the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 outside Buffalo, New York. While approaching the landing, pilots may have missed the fact that the plane was slowing down too much, and again didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.
Pilots who spend a lot of time in the cockpits of planes with highly automated systems may also lose some sharpness at actually flying aircraft, good old rudder and stick instinct is lost or severely degraded. The average pilot of a Boeing or Airbus commercial aircraft manually flies the plane for less than ten minutes of the entire flight, take-off, the initial climb to about 1,500 feet and then the final stages of the landing
Airlines and manufacturers say they would save money and alleviate the current shortage of qualified pilots if they could reduce and ultimately eliminate the number of pilots in the cockpit. The train of thought for some is that a pilotless aircraft can further save money by making the pointy end more aerodynamic. I personally will always feel more at ease if there are pilots upfront that will try everything in their power to save the day or share my fate in the eventuality of a system failure.
Several companies are developing fully autonomous aircraft, including Amazon and UPS, which they want to use for deliveries. Boeing and Airbus are designing self-flying air taxis, which would be used for flights of about 30 minutes and carry between passengers and have tested prototypes. A company called Volocopter has been testing autonomous air taxis in Germany since 2016 and plans to conduct test flights in downtown Singapore this year. Ridesharing giant Uber, helicopter maker Bell and many other companies are also expressing interest in similar vehicles.
We all have to face facts automation is not going away, by all accounts, it is becoming more prevalent in the cockpit. Autonomous flights are probably going to become commonplace in the next few decades whether we like it or not.
Despite the notable crashes involving autopilots, the industry leaders appear to believe that the automation of the future will be safe, or at least safer, for the flying public. Human error unfortunately remains the most common cause of aircraft accidents, and people are prone to make the same mistakes again. They also may have trouble taking over from automation if the computers run into problems. Automated systems, however, can be reprogrammed not to make the same errors a second time. One statistic that seems to be overlooked is the amount of near misses that have been recovered by the human pilot in the aircraft, manging to manually fly the aircraft out of danger after a automated system failure.
Large commercial airplanes will likely go pilotless later than smaller private aircraft, because of the amount of time and money required to produce them. But smaller air taxis simply are not economically viable if they require a human pilot on board. As aviation automation engineering and technology continues to advance toward full automation, companies and customers alike will need to evaluate the risks and benefits, financially, in terms of safety – and emotionally.