(Title Image from 'Skytechnics)
“Would you fly in a pilotless ‘plane?” is a question I am being asked frequently lately.
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 aeroplane 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. Similarly, the weaving, ‘threading of the needle’ RNP approach can carefully guide an airliner through towering terrain with supreme accuracy. Its precision is enviable and its end result undeniable. It is in this defined environment that aircraft ‘automatics’ thrive. They are programmed and they perform impeccably without doubt or emotion.
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? The Airbus A320 ditching on the Hudson River, or QANTAS QF32 are two examples that come straight to mind. Here the human processor still held the upper hand.
Furthermore, there is an element of culture and trust in play. Firstly, 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. Aircraft systems will become increasingly automated and the manipulative input of the pilot will decrease. Even so, as we approach such a changeover 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’ when the situation dictates.
So tell me, would you fly in a pilotless plane?