Lately the subject of airlines transitioning to aircraft without pilots has been a hot topic. Everyone seems to want to weigh in on the subject and fear usually is the theme of most of the articles. Will it become a reality? How will airlines make the transition? How does this change the air traffic control system? These are all valid questions but some of the more general issues still are begging to be answered. Will the general public get on an airplane with no pilots?
In order to answer that 64 million dollar question we have to look at a few other issues before we can give a good answer.
Follow the yellow brick road
If it were only to easy to follow the yellow brick road to our destination of pilot-less aircraft, we probably would not be asking as many questions about the plausibility of flying aircraft without pilots. The challenge of the concept is much more complex than that. Aircraft systems and proximity systems are already capable of attaining this type of automation. One of the biggest hurdles is changing the air traffic control system from a system that is human based to a system that is computer or software based. The problem is further complicated when you take a hard look at the source of the change. That source is the US Government, and those wheels spin very slowly. I am not being down or negative minded about the government and its slowness to enact change, but we are talking about sweeping changes in a massive worldwide system that will impact every aspect of aviation that we know today. There is no golden yellow brick road to follow, the path has yet to be forged and built. This is not just about US airspace either, it has to be a global effort which further complicates the matter. To shorten the story, this is going to take much longer than most people think. The media loves to talk about how great it would be for airlines to be able to do this, but there are numerous obstacles to overcome.
The Human Factor
The human or crew factor is a much bigger factor than most of the general public or even journalists understand. There are several reasons for this as well:
1. Machines break. There is not an airplane in the world that does not have some sort of maintenance issue. I am not referring to bigger issues such as electrical failure or engine failure, but more of smaller issues that require human decision making. All machines have to be monitored or managed by humans. Granted automation is an amazing thing, but human decision making cannot be programmed by computers. Traditionally, when something breaks, there is a procedure to solve the problem. If the problem cannot be solved, then the flight crew collaborates and makes a decision about whether or not to continue. Granted certain things do not require much thought about continuing or not, but there are several more serious issues that do.
2. Passenger comfort. Have you ever noticed when it gets bumpy during flight that the pilots either climb or descend to find a smoother ride for their passengers? Probably not since most pilots really do not announce that sort of thing, it is just part of the customer experience. A human has to decide this based on ride reports and weather conditions that exist. I am not sure if an automated system is going to be able to interpolate reports of rides from other flights because there would be no pilots to report them. Turbulence or ride conditions can be forecasted, but that does not always make them valid. How many times has it been forecasted to rain on a certain day and it never did?
3. There has to be a leader. With a crew based system, there has to be a leader, which is usually the Captain. If you remove the crew concept, who then is in charge? People need leaders whether they admit it or not. The leader is where accountability ends, there has to be someone who intercedes and leads the flight. If you have people on a plane, (passengers) then you are going to need a leader. We would be hard pressed to find people who would rally around the computer for a solution to a real problem.
4. Experience. I am sure you can program limitless scenarios into a computer program. However it is harder to program experience as a concept. People are comforted by the guy with grey hair. Why? Because he has the mileage that comforts people’s fears. There are still a lot of people that have a healthy fear of flying. They need to see someone that they can equate to as an expert and a professional.
5. Emergencies. Lastly when there is some sort of non normal event ( fancy talk for emergency) a real live person can facilitate judgement by interpreting the event. Let’s say you have a rejected takeoff due to a blown tire. Quite possible you could program that into the computer to reject the takeoff and bring the aircraft to a stop on the runway. But the problem does not stop there. Normal crews then work together with the air traffic control to problem solve and keep the incident from escalating to the next level. What if the tire catches on fire? Pilots cannot see that but most times the tower can tell you if there is smoke or flames. Pilots also rely on the eyes and ears of the flight attendant crew to tell them what their observations are. Putting all these pieces together the crew can then decide to evacuate the aircraft or not. These examples are where real human reasoning needs to take place. This is only one of countless scenarios that exist but they all need to be addressed.
The Technology of Planes Without Pilots
Technology is growing at an impressive rate and if you keep up with the news, you will quickly learn that keeping that technology secure is sorely lacking. So much so that it begs to ask the question, can an aircraft be hacked? To answer that question you would have to only know a couple of things about today’s technology. Modern aircraft such as the Airbus 320 run on various computer systems. The flight management system of that aircraft runs at the speed and sophistication of an old 486 computer circa 1980’s. The need has not occurred to change those over to better faster or more secure computers because they work well already and it would cost more money. So why do that? There is virtually no security in these systems as they operate today, to hack into this system today would most likely be child’s play.
Consider this, there have been systems that are much more secure such as payment merchant accounts at various banks, certain nuclear plants, Sony pictures, the White House and numerous other highly defended systems that have been hacked and breached. The level of intellect and ability to hack computer systems is impressive and growing in the world. Hacking this type of operation would be easy to say the least. Various groups and certain countries have already made it known that they are active and intent on harming lives and stealing data. In order for aircraft to be completely secure, we need to make enormous changes and do it fast. Unfortunately this is where the criminal mind has a unique advantage because the payoffs are so big. Money is not an issue and complex systems and viruses can be developed faster than we can react to them. We are always playing catch up and are always on the defense when it comes to security. It won’t take long before the first incident will happen for us to understand that we need the ability to have a kill switch and operate the aircraft manually by a crew. This is exactly how automation of autopilots on today’s aircraft work. There is the ability to turn it all off and fly manually. This removes the threat completely and may be the only real solution to the security dilemma.
If we move towards a “pilot-less” future there has to be a considerable amount of retraining to occur. Most think that the bulk of that training would be in the air traffic control system and the various users of that system. I don’t think that is where the real challenge is going to be. The real challenge of retraining is going to be that of the general public, the end user. You have to retrain the public and teach them about how the system has changed and how it is now better. People resist change and it is going to be much harder to change the minds of common travelers as a whole that flying is safe with no pilots. This will not happen overnight and it will have a big impact on revenue for airlines. It will be a Public relations nightmare to change the entire concept of air travel. These kinds of sweeping changes can only be done in smaller layers that are built over new foundations. Those layers of change are what will take as much time to introduce as it will for the government to recreate the air traffic control system.
The bottom line is, this is going to take a while. There are numerous hurdles for us to overcome before this become a reality. Having airplanes fly with no pilots is a great concept and certainly attainable, however getting the general public to wrap their emotions around that concept may be a lot harder. Stating this goal will only happen by laying down new layers of advancements. The foundational layers that get us to the end result is what is going to be time consuming. This is not going to happen soon.
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