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Should passenger aircraft become fully automated (pilotless)?

With growing automation in the cockpit of the modern jetliner, and pilots becoming mere 'cockpit managers/monitors' , we approaching the age of The Pilotless Cockpit sooner than we think.
Should passenger aircraft become fully automated (pilotless) ? If yes why, If no why ?

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  • Jan 15 2014: Hudson river? Bird strike during climb out? Lots of people are alive because of the professionalism of Chesly Sullenberger. Ask one of the survivors of this incident! All commercial pilots have to undergo regular medical examinations and competence checks. The pilot of an airliner has a lot of help, and it is true that during a routine flight the job involves monitoring automated systems. This is to reduce the fatigue related problems. However, when something goes wrong, he really earns his corn. It is quite difficult and expensive to become a pilot. As a result almost all pilots are very enthusiastic flyers - they have invested a lot in the job. It is quite true that pilot error is the cause of many crashes. But it is also true that many more incidents which would cause crashes are avoided by the actions of the pilot.
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    Jan 11 2014: Too many unexpected and unprogrammable things happen in air traffic and weather. And how do you teach the computer to select a spot to ditch an aircraft?
  • Jan 16 2014: I see there is a TED talk referring to the Hudson river event as a "Miracle landing". I'm sure it felt like that, but in fact it was the product of a large amount of knowledge, extreme professionalism, expert handling and fully engaged crew with instant response in the front end of the aircraft. Listening to the recording of the air traffic control conversation, the men on the ground could not have handled this - they had only just understood the situation when the aircraft was lined up on final approach. . When things go smoothly, remember the aviator's adage: "The superior pilot is the one who uses his superior knowledge to avoid situations which require him to use his superior skills." I would fly with Mr Sullenberger anywhere any time. Not so with a computer or ground crew in command.l.
  • Jan 11 2014: http://planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm
    Half of all plane crashes are caused by Pilot Error. That's a good enough reason for me to vote for automated planes! Computers don't get tired, drunk, drugged, mad or need BJ's. And they can be monitored by computers and professionals on the ground. What most people fail to comprehend is that computers already do most of the flying and that the reason most planes crash is "because" of human intervention.
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    Jan 8 2014: Absolutely, with live remote backup pilots standing ready to assist if an emergency occurs. The result would be even greater safety than we have now.
  • Jan 16 2014: Hi Martin

    Its a matter of perception

    Re your comment quote; "I believe it would be more and more prudent to move to a automated piloting system with a human backup, from a human piloting system with an automated backup as technology advances".

    The aircraft is fully automated in regard to piloting and landing the aircraft after take off; therefore when the human pilot switches on the automated pilot; the human pilot goes on to standby and so becomes the human back up: When the human pilot switches off the automated pilot, the automated pilot goes on to standby, and becomes the automated backup.

    Cheers Carl
  • Jan 16 2014: we dont have anything 100% in life....
  • Jan 16 2014: Certainly, they will.

    The computers have to be designed to reliably and safely deal with what we know will/could happen as well as what we do not know will/could happen.

    We're not quite there yet.
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    Jan 15 2014: I believe it would be more and more prudent to move to a automated piloting system with a human backup, from a human piloting system with an automated backup as technology advances.

    However, it would be insanity to move to remove the human entirely. in the case of passenger aircraft.
    • Jan 15 2014: Hi Martin

      This is how it works now; with the automated pilot always on standby, and the pilot deciding when during the flight to switch it on or off.

      Cheers Carl
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        Jan 16 2014: Hi Carl,

        You may have misread my order of preference, that being automated as primary with human as backup.

        The reason for this is that having an automated pilot constantly in operation, and constantly monitored by a qualified human with override, would mean more flaws and advantages would present themselves in a safe manner resulting in continuous improvement and upgrading of the automation.

        As you point out, this would be a deviation in the current system of doing things.

        Cheers!
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    Jan 15 2014: No.
    Transport involves the application of energy by imparting a velocity to the mass of the human for the purpose of traversing space. The transport time involved is directly proportional to the energy imparted for a given space. Thus the more efficient the transport, the more energy required to accelerate AND Decelerate that body.
    The ongoing viability of the human following rapid deceleration must be considered when factors out of the aviation industries control plays a part in unexpected almost instantaneous deceleration to zero.
    Given that the mass of the earth compared to a plane full of homo sapiens is a ratio of near mathematical impossibility (dividing by zero being mathematically 'illegal'), one can safely assume that the opposite motion of the earth upon impact with said metallic human-capsule projectile, will almost entirely (given the lack of rebound elasticity) and uniformly render all human physiological processes in afore-mentioned biological entities (homo sapiens) redundant.
    This would be defined as a 'seriously not good' rated 10/10.
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    Jan 15 2014: Commercial, passenger aircraft should never be fully automated. In this technology-is-good-and-getting-greater mode of thinking, we are managing to take the human element out of almost everything. Friends from Norway over to the States last month, December 2013, said they haven't seen a human bank teller in years as machinery has taken over. This is only one example. I find this tragic. Would I miss bank tellers? No, I probably would not. It is the direction that bothers me. The assumption that humans can and possibly should be eliminated in more facets of life is a downward spiral. Without human involvement we become uninvolved; and that is a tragedy to think about. It is already happening all around us, every day, and I for one want to keep my friends because I need them.
    • Jan 16 2014: Hi Gregory

      Agree entirely e.g. as you mentioned ATM; supposedly these machines were originally introduced to increase the efficiency and speed of customers being able to access "Their Money" and withdraw "Their Money" from the Bank; while also reducing transaction costs for the customer.

      This of course then caused the sacking of tens if not hundreds of thousands of tellers and administration personnel world wide increasing banking profits enormously in the process: Then as evils cunning moves and grows slowly and surreptitiously; first small ATM charges were introduced, then increased ATM charges; and finally in Australia a $2, 00 fee was introduced on a take it or leave basis; and allowed and thus approved of by the Corporate and Banking owned Political Parties.

      Which means that you literally have to "buy your own money back" from the Banks: Who are using and gaining interest from our salaries, even before they are paid into our accounts ("Futures") and based on the fact, that that our salaries/money are a dependable and permanent supply.

      Therefore we not only have to buy our own money back, they are actually charging us interest on our own money; that they are using in the meantime, in every which way of cunning and capitalistic deceit, to swindle us out of our earnings.

      And in this ever increasing capitalist/privatizing process of using, and swindling the common people out of their rightful earnings, and the profits of the commonwealth (Minerals and natural resources) of their nations;

      Our so called public servants play the leading role; as although they are paid by us to serve our best interests; instead they choose in every way imaginable, to serve the best interests of their Banking and Corporate masters = Greco-Roman based University Establishment/Old Boy Capitalism.

      Cheers Carl
  • Jan 14 2014: I would rather trust a well-tested automated system over a human being I don't know. Pilots are like humans in any other profession - some are well-trained, experienced, trustworthy and reliable... others are careless, distracted, and not trustworthy. Pilots are not paid well by airlines looking to cut costs, many are not up to date with the latest flying technology and many already rely on the autopilot to fly the plane 90% of the time. I would argue that for most of the flight, pilots do sit there enjoying the view while the autopilot flies the plane.

    Automated drones and guided missiles use software to figure out how to fly under different conditions and arrive at their destination. Sensors on the body of the plane can do real time checks on ice formations, cracks, leaks or any other kind of damage far better than a pair of eyes walking around looking.

    Of course, no system is 100% perfect, but neither are humans. However, software runs most of the world today, and you already trust it to control more than you know. Money is controlled by banks & stock exchanges running software, the military automates as much of its equipment as possible and tests it under rigorous conditions.
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    Jan 14 2014: LOL, pilots don’t just set there enjoying the view.
    There is a reason planes have so many controls, they are not there just for looks.
    (do image search for “757 cockpit”)

    Can a computer spot, ID and judge a cloud formation and determine rather to fly above it, around it, or through it?
    Can the computer do a pre-flight walk around, checking for ice or damage?
    Pilots do more than just telling passengers that they will be landing in 10 minutes.
  • Jan 14 2014: I believe they have a working partnership that makes the flight a smooth experience. Both have excellent traits when put together. One without the other would not be as effective. They are good to keep each other in check
  • Jan 14 2014: We have the technology to be able to fly planes remotely, and automated. Planes fly all the time out of London Heathrow Airport where the pilot sets start location and altitude and then the plane does the rest. This includes landing. so yes they should be automated.
  • Jan 14 2014: Interesting question, there was a report from a senior pilot who trains other pilots on the 777. He stated that on a 6 hour flight he touched the controls only 6 times. I agree I feel more comfortable with a good pilot up front but we need an updated training and maintenance plan to make sure the skills are kept up to date.
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    Jan 14 2014: Maybe some years from now? Or, maybe we are already there. I feet safe if I know there is an intelligent, trained, caring, and lucid pilot flying my airplane.
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    Jan 14 2014: Technically speaking, modern aircraft is already controlled by a software/electronics, human pilot just provides input (aka fly-by-wire). Artificial pilot software could easily do the very same task of flying the plane, provided everything goes according to the plan. This includes the problems the pilot-software knows how to handle. Software never gets tired and never asks for a salary. However, human beings have the ability to critically solve problems they were not familiar with. When facing an unknown problem, a software may not be as effective, if not completely useless. Also, there has not been an incident of a human brain being hacked over the net.

    But it would be a totally different story, if the pilot-software was an artificial intelligence equivivalent to that of a human. Now imagine, having a true intelligence, what would an aircraft think about carrying people around, or about why it must do what it is being asked to do. Limitations could be placed but then it would not be a true AI, would it?
    • Jan 15 2014: Hi Farrukh

      The term artificial intelligence is rubbish; digital computers simply use a yes or now/0 or 1/on off principle of programming; they do not, nor will they ever be able think/emote as we do, because we are analogue = positive - neutral - negative = logical - emotional - rational; with the emotional aspect both creating and providing the grey areas that must exist, between the black and white; in order to possess empathetic and sympathetic reasoning, based upon our previous physical and emotional experiences, and learning.

      E.g. The top computer program did not beat the top chess player, based on its intelligence; it won because every possible move and counter move, and every known sequence; had been programmed into it.

      I really get sick of mathematicians and nerds, trying to convince me that they are so intelligent, that they have been able to invent artificial intelligence;

      When in fact they are so lacking in brightness; they have been unable to figure out, over the last "two thousand three hundred years" (Archimedes 287 - 212 Bc) that;

      Given a 120cm diameter length, multiplied by 3

      The circumferential length of the a 360 degree circle, will be 360 centimeters

      Ergo: Each degree will measure exactly I centimeter in length.

      Cheers Carl
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        Jan 16 2014: Hi Carl,

        I tried to hint for it at the end of my post, but put together into a single statement, it was saying "a software can fly a plane but you have to do the thinking for it beforehand". I could have just said that initially, but I find it interesting to find out how the community responds when it can be interpreted different ways by different people.

        When an idea of artificial intelligence is in question, it is always an interesting thing to think about.
        If by "rubbish" you mean it's not a mind, then you are right. It's just a property of a mind, a mind does all the thinking not the intelligence. AI has as much reality to it as anything is just a blob of subatomic particles, or a piece of imaginary information. In context of computing, it is just an abstraction of a property of a sequence of information, when provided to an electric circuit as a set of electron flows, that changes the state of that circuit, such that changes on its state imitate intelligent behavior.

        Now something similar to think about - a biological brain. A bio-electrical/chemical circuit, when provided with a stream of information from the outside environment in form of electrical and chemical signals, changes its state such that it displays a property of inteligence. So brain is a signal processing machine, regardless the type of the signals it processes. So are the man-made computers, but far simpler - not complex enough to be comared with with a bilogically evolved circuit, aka "brain".

        In the end, it all depends on how one would define terms,
        but this was an interesting and fun conversation.

        -Farrukh
        • Jan 16 2014: Brain Yes: Brain = RAM + Hard Drive

          Mind No: Mind = You - I - We sitting in front of the computer (Ram+Hard drive)

          I - You - We = Animal/Mammal/Lemur/Primate

          Higher Minds: Emotions and Imagination = Motivation + Logic & Rationality = Reasoning/Analysis & Creativity

          = Holistic Intelligence.

          Which means that being called a monkey, rather than being called a computer; is in logic the far more complimentary. of the two terms.

          But because we are emotional creatures, we consider the former an insult, and the latter a compliment.

          Which does not alter the fact; that we have got it the wrong way round.

          Cheers Carl
  • Jan 12 2014: Capital NO, my reason are, human being invented computer. And no machine is 100 percent perfect. Capital NO, my reason are, human being invented computer. And no machine is 100 percent perfect.
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    Jan 11 2014: No,
    1) computer glitches
    2) mechanical problems
    3) corporate liability - having staff on board ensures CEO's don't make risky changes that may effect safety.
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    Jan 11 2014: Automation in the cockpit is good but should an aircraft be completely pilotless? Absolutely not! Computers can also go wrong. We need both.
  • Jan 11 2014: Air travel is one of the safest modes of travel. It would seem to me we should first ask whether we should be directing resources toward automated driving. It's absolutely unfathomable to imagine the diversity of ineptitude that routinely uses the roads across the globe. ;-)
  • Jan 11 2014: I watch the program Aircraft Investigations on a regular basis.

    And many crashes have been caused by computer and pilot conflicts, whereby the pilot has not been able to overcome the mindless computer and save the aircraft:

    This is not a cut and dried matter; computerization has brought and does have great benefits in the aviation industry; however as we are all aware our computers do crash; therefore it follows that when they crash on board an aircraft, so does the aircraft, unless the pilot manages to overcome the computer crash and save us.

    I am sure all in the aviation industry would agree, that good pilots and complimentary computer automation, lies at the heart of air safety.

    And as to automated aircraft being used, and being controlled from the ground, with hundreds of lives at stake on board the aircraft; and those on the ground, being unable to directly access local conditions via their five senses as a pilot can (And then apply, his/her knowledge of aerodynamics relative to those local flying conditions); there is no way you would ever, get me to fly in a fully automated aircraft.

    Cheers Carl
  • Jan 10 2014: But maybe if it happens,but during system failures we will not be able to help,hence we need manual handlers!
    • Jan 10 2014: Unless the failure is in the computer in charge of the flying itself, there's not much a pilot could do that a computer couldn't.

      Computers are also less likely to fail then people (they don't fall asleep, have heart attacks, episodes of depression, try to drink or have sex on the job...)
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    Jan 9 2014: Before that happens a country needs to switch to a GPS aircraft navigation system, with safety back-ups in case a solar flare, volcano eruption, or any other unforeseen issue. Than cargo aircraft should be done first to prove its safety.

    P.S. fully automated (pilotless) trains controlled remotely will likely be the next step towards fully automated large aircraft. That and Amazon drones.
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    Jan 9 2014: This topic comes up every few years but I don't think it will ever become a reality. Possibly if airlines run 1000's of pilotless flights through all conditions and prove it can work. Planes now always have 2 pilots, 3-4 on really long flights in case of emergency or problems with pilots. That tells me things can happen.
  • Jan 9 2014: As yourself this question,

    With the way software is being written now, how often do you have to upgrade, a) Your browser, b) Flash, c) Your phone.

    Now do you really want the same level of modern day in forever beta land software to be running the plane your flying on?

    Then ask yourself, did the commercial airline, that your flying on, upgrade to the latest versions, or did they not pay for support...

    Will the authorities say one day....the crash happened, because of two incompatible beta systems, that caused the fuel not to pump to the engines when at 30,000ft. But both companies are working on it, and should soon have a patch to resolve it. Meanwhile our thought's and prayers go out to those family members that died in the crash.
    • Jan 9 2014: Its hardly the same thing.
      Not because the programmers involved are any different, but because the industry standards are completely dissimilar.

      Aviation is held up to much higher standards in practically everything. Nothing gets into market without proper testing, for the simple reason that failure can cause hundreds of deaths. Even completely ignoring the moral aspect, the potential lawsuits alone means it makes no economic sense to send a product to market without thorough testing. Some accidents still occur, but mostly as result of things like shoddy maintenance and human error, not the equipment being poorly designed.
      The regulating bodies are also much stricter. Hell, I'm not sure they exist at all for most software.

      It also really helps that when developing software to fly an aircraft, you would know exactly what hardware you're developing for. A standard computer program needs to work on ten different operating systems, and thousands of potential hardware combinations, with an known number of other programs running in parallel--that's the cause for most bugs right there, and a system designed for an aircraft would have none of those problems.

      Just take the military's unmanned drone program for example. You don't exactly hear about them crashing left and right--bugs are rare, and usually non-critical.
      Now compare this to the pilots who over the years managed to do everything from fall asleep to having sex while on the controls. Computers don't do those sorts of things.

      Of course, those are all still moot points, because as I've explained bellow, the public will always irrationally prefer a human at the wheel, because most people don't know the first thing about how technology works, and are therefore slow to trust. A human pilot is a marketing advantage.
      • Jan 9 2014: Your right and simultaneously wrong.

        Of course aviation and the military are held to higher standards, the question IS for how much longer? What your not realizing is that the Steve Wozniak's and their abilities to write professional code, is fast disappearing, the 'art' of software engineering as you so eloquently put, is now just 'programmers'.

        That's too why your seeing multiple systems in perma-beta... lack of quality staff.

        Here's another example for you Qantas Airlines, impeccable record, right? Then they change the maintenance from local highly trained staff with skills and understanding - to subcontract the whole lot to China. Remember those two near fatal incidences they had, that happened not long after the transfer happened. Coincidence?

        And what i say, about beta might not, right now be true for airlines and military, but soon it will. Just like the drone that crashed in Iran, first test cases are appearing right now.

        Skills cost money, experience takes time, and that's one thing bean counters don't realize.
        • Jan 9 2014: The drone in Iran didn't crash, the Iranians utilized a flaw in its navigation system to take partial control of it via electronic warfare. Malicious action is very different from a bug.
          Besides, considering the sheer number of drones in the air, their crash rate is actually lower then manned aircraft--taking human error out of the equation is a big plus, and in most emergencies resulting from a technical fault in the plane's hardware, there's not much a human pilot could do anyway.

          As for the airline that decided to subcontract to China, that's actually one of the things that a computerized pilot wouldn't care about. The software only has to be developed once, after all, and subcontracting it would save a mere pittance on development costs, more hassle then its worth even without the potential for ending up with an inferior product, so that's not an issue.

          Also, why would we be running out of programmers exactly? If anything, they're becoming more common, as more tech savvy youths enter the job market, and the more technophobic older generation is slowly phased out. Programming is a skill that can be taught like any other, and the high salaries usually mean there's no shortage of volunteers.

          The real reason airliners aren't automated is purely marketing. The customer base prefers a human pilot, because they trust it more then an automated one for reasons which are not entirely justified or rational.
          Seeing as automation of the pilot's job doesn't actually save all that much money, the resulting loss of customers to competition which didn't automate means there is a financial incentive to stay with human pilots. And in the private sector, that's all that really matters. Again, the technology for replacing the pilot completely is around for twenty, maybe thirty years now--there's a reason it hasn't happened, and its a purely economic one.
      • Jan 10 2014: Thank you for the laugh of the day....

        "as more tech savvy youths enter the job market"

        if you'd ever written software, and been in that industry, you'd know that statement is the biggest joke going. Knowing how to operate technology, is NOT the same as being able to create. No matter what the $ offered.
        • Jan 10 2014: Using is not the same as creating, but there a significant enough fraction of the population learning creating as well as using. Not a big fraction, but then, not many people are interested in math and science either, yet we still manage to train new engineers without fail.

          Why on earth would programmers be a non-renewable resource? Its a skill set that can be taught like any other.
          Most of the programmers are younger simply because its a relatively new field--hasn't really caught on until recent years.

          I certainly hope you can come up with an explanation better then "today's youths isn't what it used to be".
  • Jan 8 2014: Its a good idea from an engineering standpoint, but a horrible idea from a marketing one.
    Most people are too frightened of entrusting their lives to an automated system, and will prefer airliners with pilots. This is despite the fact that a pilot can fall asleep, have a heart attack, be unprofessional, make mistakes under pressure, or have a whole other list of assorted problems that a computer doesn't have (after proper trials and tests a computer is much more reliable then a pilot, even including bugs and technical faults).

    The technological capacity to fully automate the piloting of airlines is nothing new. It could have been done twenty years ago, and no one would have batted an eyelash at the technology involved.
    They didn't do it because of marketing, pure and simple. Case in point, the military, with no such restraints as customers, has taken the opposite route, automating their piloting as much as possible.
  • Jan 8 2014: no, too dangerous. automation cannot supply the creativity needing to avoid disaster in an emergency.

    on the same topic my car that i've had for a couple years now has a system that's connected to the cruise radar and "alerts" me when it senses something in front approaching too quickly, the idea being it'll alert drivers to ensure they brake in time to avoid hitting the car in front. what actually happen though is it creates more dangerous situations, because reality isn't that simple, there's always more going on than just your car and the one in front. 3 times now i've set the system off, each time i had to accelerate in a hurry and close on the car in front in order to avoid being hit car a car coming from the side (twice changing lanes without looking, once from a side road), and just as i'm escaping the danger it bleeps loudly, distracting me. thankfully it isn't connected to the brakes or it would've "helpfully" stopped me right in harm's way. these systems are very dangerous and really should be prohibited.
  • Jan 8 2014: deffinatly not

    even the most failsafe system fails at some point, even if the role of a pilot is just to be a backup its needed, a computer will never go with a hunch based on experiance, or make attempts that seem totally illogical to solve a problem