Would you fly in a Pilotless Airplane?

By Owen Zupp

“Would you fly in a pilotless airplane?” is a question I am being asked frequently.

It’s a simple question regarding a rather complex issue. Planes, airplanes, aeroplanes, aircraft or whatever you choose to name them have been evolving since powered flight began. In the early days the term ‘stick and rudder’ defined the pilot’s skill to manoeuvre his airplane in the three dimensions. The crowds ‘ooh-ed’ and ‘aah-ed’ at the magnificent men in their flying machines and without the pilot’s expertise, the machine was little more than fabric, wood and noise.

As aircraft became more sophisticated the workload on pilots increased and as the commercial element grew, aviation was expected to provide levels of reliability and punctuality that had not previously existed. Night flying and flight in bad weather was no longer a novelty, it needed to become yet another skill. Navigation systems and autopilots emerged and crept into the defended realm of ‘stick and rudder’. All the while the pilot remained at the helm, steadfast and true.

However, as aircraft inevitably suffered their share of tragedies, pilots were seen to be fallible. As aviation technology grew exponentially and gradually the pilot began to be perceived as the weakest link. Human error became the catch-cry as pilots were shown to have made fatal errors in some of the world’s most high-profile hull losses. Ultimately the balance tipped for many and the call for pilotless airliners emerged in order to remove human error.

In some quarters, the issue has been oversimplified and hearsay translated into misinformed ‘fact’. It is commonly portrayed that modern airliners ‘fly themselves’ and while they are far more automated than they once were, the days of flying themselves are still some time away. On any given day, automated descents can still call for some pilot intervention as speed limitations, crossing requirements and shifting winds still present a challenge for the computations of a flight management system. Additionally, the manufacturers still appreciate the need for man and machine to co-habit the flight deck as a number of drills call for the autoflight system to be switched off as the first order of business.

That being said, anyone who has seen an airliner under autopilot control perform a fully automated landing, or ‘autoland’, in zero visibility cannot help but be impressed. Its precision is enviable and its end result undeniable. Similarly, the weaving, ‘threading of the needle’ Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approach can carefully guide an airliner through towering terrain with supreme accuracy. It is in this defined environment that aircraft ‘automatics’ thrive. They are programmed and they perform impeccably without doubt or emotion.

Already Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are making a significant impact in a variety of applications. In military, surveillance and search and rescue (SAR) roles UAS vehicles are already performing admirably for differing reasons. In certain military situations they are eliminating the need for placing a human in harm’s way, while in surveillance and Search and Rescue duties, the aircraft are able to hold station over a defined area for extremely extensive time periods without the fatigue considerations that normally affect crews.

Still it is difficult to conceive the computer that is capable of catering for all potential situations. The sky is a fluid, changing environment and the human eye is still capable of interpreting signs therein that cannot simply be encoded as data or forecast with absolute reliability. Similarly, what happens when multiple or statistically rare events occur beyond the capability of the computer’s grasp? Captain Sullenberger’s Airbus A320 ditching on the Hudson River, or QANTAS QF32’s uncontained engine failure are justtwo examples that come straight to mind.

Furthermore, there is an element of culture and trust in play. A good many people still have reservations about the ‘ghost in the machine’ in many land-based applications and have difficulty in relying upon faceless digital code to transport them safely high above the earth’s surface. Is the travelling public prepared to climb on board an airliner void of a pilot even if the statistics suggest that it may be safer? After all, they are now trusting a computer programmer where they once trusted a pilot. A programmer who may well be tucked up in bed on the dark, wet night when it all goes wrong. Human fallibility will always exist, it is only its position in the chain and its level of influence that will alter.

The cases ‘for and against’ have their own merits and pitfalls. It would seem logical that the future will continue down the path already ventured down by virtue of technology’s growing influence. Unfortunately, both man and machine have their own ‘bugs’ and the task ahead will be to define the correct balance between the two to minimise the risk in all situations.

Pilots will need to be cognisant of the appropriate time to manually intervene and then the best means to do so. Monitoring rather than manipulating the systems and flight path will become an increasingly more substantial role for pilots as it has already. That being said, as we approach the changeover between monitoring and manipulating, we must guard against pilots losing their basic flying skills as they are assigned a more supervisory role over the conduct of the flight. It is these same basic skills that will be needed to supplement any shortfall in the automation and typically aviation will call for the pilot to perform these skills under the most trying circumstances and with minimal notice.

Herein lies the conundrum, for pilots to maintain that level of expertise, but only intervene when absolutely necessary. It is already being recognised by major aviation bodies as automation grows deeper and deeper into the flight deck. Somehow, we must find the balance between trusting the automation and still trusting the human to use their judgement to resort to ‘stick and rudder’ skills when the situation dictates.

So tell me, would you fly in a pilotless airplane?

By Owen Zupp

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