The Future of Autopilot is Here


Posted Thu, Jun 27, 2013


Cruise Control: The wide-body Boeing 747-8F  is equipped with the latest auto-flight systems. (Curiosity photo)

Autopilot in commercial aircraft has served as a secondary copilot for decades. Today, only 80 seconds of a two hour flight are manually operated on commuter flights in the U.S.

The belief that commercial pilots may take on the secondary role is a hot debate throughout the airline industry.

“In my experience, one of the best periods I saw with auto-flight systems and pilot skills was around 2003-04,” says former US Airways pilot Chris Menné. “It was clear that the automation had reached a capacity to do all these things but we [pilots] were still encouraged to have our skills. We had the confidence and the skills to disconnect [autopilot] and keep going—or reconnect it, there was this nice relationship between the person and this machinery.”

Menné obtained his pilot license in 1978 and flew commercial airlines from 1987 until 2008.

“It became cheaper to train pilots just to depend on the automation, instead of having the hand flying skills to coordinate with the automation,” Menné says. “They were being trained to depend on the automation first. Their hand flying skills would be used for better weather…in some ways it’s safer, but there is a lost capacity. These younger generations of pilots simply are not having the opportunity to develop their skills to be able to [manually] fly an airplane based on watching the instrumentation in front of them—which requires a real sophisticated measure of feel and control.”

Seasoned pilots who share Menné’s perspective may come off as unwelcoming to emerging technology—but a study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2011 supports this meager outlook.

Former executive Air-Safety Chairman of the Airline Pilot Association (ALPA) and Airline Capt. Rory Kay published a report with the FAA, outlining what has been deemed as “automation addiction” among younger generations of domestic pilots.

This hazardous tendency has cost the lives of hundreds of passengers in 51 accidents preceding the 2011 report. “We’re seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the-art planes,” Kay says.

Menné believes that the utilization of automation kind of reached a peak. “The pilots are still needed to lift the aircraft off the ground. It’s still better to have a person do it because that is one of the most dangerous phases of flight. You are building energy. If something goes wrong at that point, autopilot simply can’t process that fast enough to recover with out human interaction.”

Menné’s description of a dire situation rings true in the majority of the 51 accidents mentioned in the FAA report.

One case mentioned in the report is the Air France flight 447 which nosedived over 37,000 feet into the Atlantic on June 2009—killing all 228 on board. A panicked decision and disagreement between the captain and copilot was deemed to be the source of the crash. An analysis carried out by France’s Bureau of Investigations revealed that there was no mechanical issue with the plane—confirming the plane would not have crashed had the pilot responded correctly.

Broadcast systems intended to increase awareness and communication between aircraft—with or without a pilot in the cockpit are on the horizon. This technology to counter the lack of coordination between manned aircraft and UAV’s has already been tested within the U.S.

In a press release from Oct. 25, 2012, Kimberly Kasitz of General Atomics announced, “The successful demonstration of an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)-based surveillance system that provides pilots with enhanced situational awareness and supports GA-ASI’s overall airborne sense-and-avoid architecture for its Predator® B RPA.”

“The purpose of the test was to demonstrate that the Predator/Gray Eagle®-series aircraft can fly cooperatively and safely in the National Airspace System (NAS), allowing Air Traffic Control (ATC) to know their location and flight profiles precisely,” Kasitz says.

The satellite-based system utilized in this test is actually already in use by some domestic aircraft. But this was the first implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) on a drone. The FAA wants all domestic aircraft to use this technology by 2020.

“We believe ADS-B will play a key role in a future sense-and-avoid system and will support the FAA’s ‘Next Gen’ initiative, so this is a step in the right direction,” says Aircraft Systems Group, GA-ASI President Frank W. Pace.

On May 13, a private British airplane autonomously flew through UK airspace with a pilot intervening only for take-off and landing of the plane. A system similar to ADS-B was utilized for what has been dubbed the “Flying Test Bed.”

The airline industry seems to be in the midst of a paradigm shift—one that may take decades to complete a proper transition. Between the lack of manual pilot training and developing stages of a more efficient communication system amongst aircraft, turbulence may occur in this alteration of aerial transportation.

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About Ted Heron

I'm a free lance writer with a passion for science. I'm working on a bachelor's in Biology with a minor in Journalism.

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