The unfortunate B737MAX crashes of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines and the mystical disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 in 2014 has baffled aviation experts and left people wondering about how much of their travel is actually at the mercy of these machines and how much is left to the flight crew.
Let’s face it. Automation is never going away. The future of aviation is even more automated.
Thereby, it is only fair that one evaluates the good, and the not-so-good side of automation.
Airlines and manufacturers would vouch for the fact that automation would cut costs, save money while at the same time also alleviate pilot-shortage problems-perhaps even reducing the number of pilots in the cockpit. In their defence, redesigning the front of the aircraft to be more aerodynamic would save them more, even if it meant doing away with the room for pilots, or probably shifting the flew crew to another part of the aircraft.
Here are a few advantages:
- Automation supposedly relives the flight crew from repetitive or non-rewarding tasks for which humans are less suited, thereby simplifying the job of piloting
- Improves flight path control and reduces weather minima
- Another advantage, and this is the most obvious one- reduces crew workload thereby allowing them to focus more on concentrating to keeping awareness with their environment and communication with colleagues during take-off, cruise and landing phases
- Overall operating costs are slashed considerably since most of the work is now done by computers
While automation has contributed to the airline industry’s stellar safety record in recent years, it has also been a factor in many of the crashes that have still occurred around the world.
For years now, we have increasingly added avionics and mission systems to the aircraft, and much of the pilot’s new workload is based on monitoring and evaluating feedback from multiple systems. Scientifically, the evaluation of this automated feedback (s) is beyond the realm of the human brain. First of all, it pushes us beyond our brain’s ability to focus, select, and sustain attention. Monitoring multiple data outputs simultaneously can lead to “selective attention”, which might lead to neglecting other critical tasks at hand.
When a flight crew’s attention is diverted from the task of flying, the chance of error increases. Thereby, the FAA enacted a mandatory rule, in 1981, known as the “Sterile Cockpit Rule“- which prohibits flight crew from indulging in unnecessary conversation in the cockpit during the critical phases of flight, i.e take-off and landing.
Automation has created new opportunities for mistakes to be made, by pilots who don’t understand what the machine is doing and are not necessarily paying attention.Stephen Casner, a research psychologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California
When advanced avionics systems were first introduced, it was hoped that those new systems would eliminate pilot error. Experience has shown that while advanced avionics systems do help reduce many types of errors, they have also created new kinds of errors.
Here are a few disadvantages:
- Basic manual and cognitive flying skills can decline because of lack of practice and feel for the aircraft
- Unanticipated situations requiring manual override of automation are difficult to understand and manage, can create a surprise or startle effect, and can induce peaks of workload and stress
- Manual data entry errors can occur when using Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs)-unfortunately, there is no system check of the consistency of the computed or entered values and technology gives a certain sense of false confidence.
- Flight crew may not be sufficiently informed of automation failures or malfunctions hence, in the unlikely event of an automation failure/disconnection, the crew might be in for a surprise and fail to respond adequately.
Theoretically, an airplane can fly from point A to point B on its own. Owing to the volume of flights around typical airports, the original flight plan must change as the plane nears its destination and that’s typically where the pilots need to understand what the automated system is doing.
We have this odd paradox that this system, designed to make it easier for us, bizarrely makes it harder, as we program and reprogram the computerCasner said
Reportedly, pilots now spend more time learning these automated systems than practising hands-on flying, so newer pilots are less comfortable with taking manual control when the computer steers them wrong.
The automation in the aircraft, whether it’s a Boeing or an Airbus, has lulled us into a sense of security and safety. They become a systems operator rather than a stick-and-rudder pilotKevin Hiatt, a former Delta Air Lines pilot who later ran flight safety for JetBlue
The flight crew may not exactly know or recognize quickly enough what is happening to the aircraft, and by the time they figure it out, it may be too late- he further added.
This brings us to the term “automation dependency“- described as a situation in which pilots who routinely fly aircraft with automated systems are only fully confident in their ability to control the trajectory of their aircraft when using the full functionality of such systems- often indicating a lack of manual flying and aircraft management competence.
The dark side
Flying has become much safer now with many attributing it to advancements in automation. However, it carries a dark footnote too.
The overall decline in plane crashes masks the recent arrival of “a spectacularly new type of accident”Raja Parasuraman, a psychology professor at George Mason University and one of the world’s leading authorities on automation
In worst-case scenarios, automation places added and unexpected demands on pilots-when they are abruptly forced to take manual control of the aircraft-though very rare makes them prone to making errors.
Extensive studies and research by scores of psychologists, engineers, and other ergonomics, or “human factors researchers have led to the conclusion that a heavy reliance on computer automation can erode pilots’ expertise, dull their reflexes, and diminish their attentiveness, leading to what Jan Noyes, a human factors expert at the Britain’s University of Bristol, calls “a deskilling” of the crew.
Pilots can be distracted by their interactions with onboard computers, and they can “abdicate too much responsibility to the automated systems”Kathy Abbott, a FAA Scientist
The pilots may have to interpret computerized alarms, input data, and scan information displays even as they’re struggling to take manual control of the plane and orient themselves to their circumstances. The tasks and attendant distractions increase the odds that the aviators will make mistakes- a phenomenon which the researchers commonly refer to as the “automation paradox“.
The irony behind automation arises from a growing body of research demonstrating that automated systems often increase workload and create unsafe working conditionsMark Scerbo, a psychologist and human-factors expert at Virginia’s Old Dominion University said
The pilots themselves aren’t oblivious to the automation effects.
Interestingly, the worries seem to be more pronounced in pilots who started their careers long before advanced computers took over a major part of flying.
Rory Kay, a long-time United Airlines captain who until recently served as the top safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, echoes his fears stating the aviation industry is suffering from “automation addiction.”
We’re forgetting how to flyRory Kay said in an interview from 2011
Regardless of the degree of automation advancements, the key to autonomous flight will always be on its customers, or in other words, how willing people are to fly in self-piloting aircraft.
Studies conducted in 2014 point to the fact that people were much more likely to fly in airplanes piloted by at least a single pilot in the cockpit and less likely to fly with either a human flying the plane remotely or aboard a fully autonomous plane.
That said, a larger study in 2018 revealed that 30% of US consumers were willing to fly on an autonomous airliner while about 60% were unwilling.
Large commercial airplanes will likely go pilotless later than smaller private aircraft, because of the amount of time and money required to produce them.
Although smaller air taxis have already taken to the skies, operating them would be economically not viable if they require a human pilot on board.
Thereby, as automation technology progresses, and it will only advance further, everyone concerned- both, companies and customers alike, will have to take a stand on the risks and benefits, financially, in terms of safety–and emotionally.