Full auto pilot: Is it really necessary to have a human in the cockpit?


The recent Germanwings disaster has once again reminded us that human pilots are not always failsafe. One only has to look back as far as 2012 to find examples of unruly pilots being subdued by passengers, and of course 9/11 highlighted the extremes of hijacking. With such incidents, the question is inevitably raised as to whether it is feasible or desirable to have commercial flights that do not require a human pilot.

With the development of new automated technologies, the workload in the cockpit has been dramatically decreasing – so much so that pilots self-report only touching the controls for about three to seven minutes during a typical flight. In fact, there exists a standard approach category (CAT III) in which the pilot does not touch the flight controls during approach and landing. This category most commonly exists during severe weather (e.g., heavy fog), which creates the most difficult conditions for approach and landing. If left to human pilots with physiologic limits to vision and reaction times, these landings could not happen.

And while there are cases of heroic pilots saving aircraft in emergency situations (most notably the US Airways Hudson River landing in 2009), human pilot error is responsible for 80 percent of all accidents in military and commercial flights.

Given the central role human error plays in most aircraft accidents, and the fact that intentional malicious acts like those in the Germanwings incident are possible, it is relevant to ask what can be done in terms of automation to improve safety, as well as to reduce costs.

Many airlines and government organizations, including NASA, have already been investigating reducing the number of pilots on a standard commercial flight from two to one. World-fleet-wide, over a 20-year service life of an aircraft, this move has possible savings of $6.8 trillion.

From a technical standpoint, even current commercial aircraft are able to fly themselves through most or all phases of flight. Large drones the size of commercial aircraft routinely fly themselves from takeoff to landing, including conducting emergency landings when equipment fails.

Moving to single-pilot operations (SPO), however, is very different from moving to pilotless aircraft. The idea of having no human pilot in the cockpit to deal with emergencies would likely not sit well with passengers. The concept of “shared fate” comes into play here: People are more comfortable with the idea that pilots in control will try their hardest to save their own lives, and thus save the lives of everyone on board. Given this psychological need, passengers will likely be resistant to the idea of having no pilot on the plane.

There are other reasons to maintain airline staff on board beyond flying the aircraft. Providing services and dealing with unruly passengers are just two of the items that require employees who are seen as a legitimate authority and keep order.

Because of this, what we may see is a transition of roles for the pilot and other staff on board commercial passenger aircraft. Instead of having a dedicated pilot, attendants may be required to be certified as pilots to allow them to both provide services in the cabin and be able to take over for the automation in the case of an emergency. The idea that one or more people on board are able to safely fly and land the aircraft may be enough to encourage acceptance of moving more and more functions to automation.

The shift to pilotless commercial passenger aircraft is not imminent, although commercial cargo does not suffer from the same limitations and will likely become fully automated in a shorter period of time.

The transition to single-pilot operations, however, is likely. Recent technological advancements in automation and the amount of money that could be saved by applying this technology make it a logical choice. The potential savings, coupled with both intentional and unintentional human error, will continue to motivate research and development in support of S.P.O., which will ultimately make for safer and more cost-effective air travel.

© The Mark News

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Don't see it. You need multiple backups. Also, it is not true that 80% are BECAUSE of human error, It may be a contributing factor but all crashes have more than one factor. Usually several factors as weather, controllers, mechanical, etc. The last crash at SFC was related to pilot error, auto pilot, mechanical issues on the ground, etc. Today, pilot rely on auto pilot too much and with inexperienced crews, they don't know how to fly without assistance. US has less of a problem because of DOD but there is a worldwide shortage of pilots so the next time you fly....... ask how much experience the pilot has. The most lifesaving crashes as in the Hudson and Rapid City was by very experienced pilots.

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I would like to keep the pilots, but get rid of the stewardesses and stewards that are rude, nasty, mean and not helpful at all.

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It might be very well possible to design commercial airplanes that don't need a pilot but good luck with trying to fill it with passengers.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

it is almost amusing how the article dismisses the fact pilots handled the situation of the Hudson river as irrelevant, any autopilot could Do it and 80% of all accidents are pilot error, implying a computer would make No errors. Also amusing is the implication that passenger feelings are the only reason for pilots being in cockpits.

Here is the problem. Computers Do not think. I work in this industry, decades of research and attempts and still the one thimg a computer can't Do is deal with unknowns. The human brain in milliseconds can correlate experience, information, practice, instinct into a correct decision about unknown situations. No amount of programming would have resulted in a computer doing what that pilot did in the hudson river incident.

Yes computers can be programmed to handle 99.999% of all actions needed for flight, take off and landing, including the correct action for a variety of problems.

However, since this is coded by humans, if the software has a human error, the plane will crash anyway. So removing the pilot merely transfers the human error to the software developers.

Security is no different. Sure, no pilot to assault would remove that threat only to leave the autopilot open to hacker assaults.

And no matter how much coding, so called artifical intelligence and learning logic is applied, there is still a .001% chance of unknown incidents, the sofware developers could not have imagined and is not coded and here the human is more likely to take correct action, the computer will more likely not take any action or the wrong one.

Sure, have that autopilot do all of the work but keep the pilots there because the reality is the human brain can handle the unexpected, where the computer will fail.

the day real artificial intelligence exists, when a computer really thinks and can match the brain for handling the unknown, then get rid of the pilots. today, computers are not even in the same realm as the human brain. It will likely happen but we are not there yet.

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it is almost amusing how the article dismisses the fact pilots handled the situation of the Hudson river

Good point. However, we may not have to wait too long for the AI onboard flights to make that kind of decision. The logic is surely "Can't land in preferred landing area due to engine failure > switch to nearest/preferred emergency landing area > land on Hudson river."

The article is clear that computers are already better at landing than humans - the humans switch to the computers when it gets too difficult for them, so in reality, the pilot take off and landing is nothing more than a glorified in-job training. The computer can usually do it safer and better.

Saying that, computers still go wrong. There are errors and having a human on-board can override that with the common sense that a computer can never have. We can also see what happens when you have pilots who rely too much on autopilot - the Air France 447 crash could have been avoided with sufficiently experienced staff who can see through the confused flashing lights. Air France did have that pilot, but he was asleep for nearly the whole time.

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I am reminded of the famous saying: "To err is humans, but to really mess up you need a computer"

Computers, like all tools, are work multipliers, so a computer lets one man do the work of a thousand... Or one line of bar code can crash a thousand planes.

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Well, obviously, human pilots are not technically needed any more, as is proven by all those drones out there. However, I don´t see how the public would accept a pilot-less jumbo jet at this moment. This will eventually happen, but it will take a long time.

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How is this. A well known young Australian Hacker has report that he hacked into the planes on board computer by using the USB port on to back of the seats. He claimed that he could hacked into the guidance system and could alter the flight path of the plane while it is in flight. I don,t know how true this is but no Airline as come out to counter the claim. It just get scarier each time I board a flight.

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Atleast an armed security guard anyway.

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