Cummings and Kelly: More Media Claptrap About Cockpit Automation

Yet more garbage about airplanes flying themselves. ‘Wired’ and ‘The Daily Show’ are the latest purveyors of The Myth That Won’t Die.

February 1, 2013

MIT’s CELEBRITY PROFESSOR is at it again. No, not Noam Chomsky. I’m talking about Mary “Missy” Cummings, the doyenne of drones, who has become a media go-to source on the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Late last month, Cummings was featured in a Nova documentary on PBS. A few days later she appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I don’t doubt that Ms. Cummings, a former F-18 pilot in the US Navy, is smarter than I am. Neither do I doubt that her work, both as a consultant and as a researcher at the world’s most prestigious technical university, is meaningful and important. If I had a question about the technology or applications of UAVs, she’s one of the first people I’d turn to.

However, both on the air and in print, she consistently exaggerates the realities of cockpit automation on commercial airplanes, reinforcing the stubborn myth that jetliners basically “fly themselves,” and hinting that remote-control airliners are just around the corner. She is either grossly unfamiliar with the day-to-day realities of commercial flying, or she pretends to be. There’s no other explanation for some of her assertions.

At one point on The Daily Show, Stewart asks Cummings a question about piloting as an “art,” and the roles of skill, talent and judgment in a modern cockpit. It’s a good question, and she at first gives an interesting and articulate response — about computers being better with mechanical aspects of flight, and humans being better in the decision-making aspects. Moments later, however, she goes completely off the rails:

“Most of the planes you fly in are drones,” says Cummings. “Any Airbus plane you fly in could easily be made a drone. The pilots don’t really fly them.” What they actually do, she says, is “push a lot of buttons.”

Really? This statement is so shockingly reckless that it makes one wonder if Cummings has ever actually set foot in a commercial airplane cockpit.

On the one hand it seems a matter of semantics; what does “fly” really mean? She’s right, we do push a lot of buttons and there isn’t terribly much time spent steering the plane manually. I think I understand what she’s trying to say, but the way she says it is irresponsible and extremely misleading. What the viewer comes away with is a notion that plane is controlling itself, that the pilots are merely “programmers” and that an Airbus is little more than a scaled-up drone with passenger seats. This is so wrong, for so many reasons, that I don’t know where to start.

Qualified as I am to rebut such nonsense, I fly Boeings, not Airbuses, so I’ll defer to Dave English, an A320 captain at a major airline:

“It just isn’t true,” says English. “That’s a terrible extrapolation of the (admittedly impressive) abilities of the autopilot, auto-thrust, and flight management computers. She sounds more like a breathless teenager than MIT faculty.”

She should know better. She has to know better. For somebody with Cummings’ credentials to say something like this in front of a national audience is shameless and disgraceful.

It wasn’t the first time. She said something similar on The Colbert Report in 2011: “Planes take off everyday with the pilot never touching the stick, ever,” she said. “From takeoff to landing.”

Except, again, that’s not true. It doesn’t happen on Boeings, and it doesn’t happen on Airbuses.

There is no such thing as an automatic takeoff. Not in any commercial plane, at any commercial airport, anywhere. Meanwhile fewer than one percent of commercial aircraft landings are “automatic.” And I put that word in quote marks because an autoland, as we call it, is in fact a fairly complicated maneuver during which the pilots are very much still in the loop.

“In ten years of flying the Airbus A320,” says Dave English, “I’ve flown maybe ten actual autolands.”

A year or so before the Colbert Report appearance, Cummings was quoted saying that cargo airlines were “chomping at the bit” to do away entirely with their pilots and begin operating remote-control freighter planes. She brought this up again the other night with Jon Stewart, maintaining that FedEx and UPS will be flying our packages around sans pilots within the next five to ten years. Ignoring the vast technological challenges that get in the way of this prediction, not the least of which would be development and testing of a currently nonexistent remote-control cargo plane that would be safe enough for use in our airspace system, I flew freighter jets for four years and I assure you my airline was not remotely considering such an idea.

“She’s possibly correct that remote-control cargo flights are somewhere on the horizon,” says Dave English. “But in five years? On commercial routes? No way. The professor trivializes aeronautical science and technology with these cheerleader claims.”

They also insult pilots and, on a deeper level, undermine the piloting profession.

Wait! It gets worse…

No sooner was I wrapping up the first draft of this post when I was alerted to a comment made by correspondent Kevin Kelly, over at Wired. In a December, 2012 article on Robotics, Mr. Kelley gives us this nugget:

“A computerized brain known as the autopilot can fly a 787 jet unaided, but irrationally we place human pilots in the cockpit to babysit the autopilot ‘just in case.’”

Wow. And I mean, wow. That one takes the prize. It’s the “irrationally” part that nudges it over the top. I hereby declare Mr. Kelly’s sentence to be the single most grotesque characterization of an airline pilot’s job that I have ever read or heard. It’s certainly more reckless, and far less true, than anything Missy Cummings said.

To say that a 787 — or any other airliner — can fly “unaided,” and that pilots are on hand to “babysit the autopilot,” isn’t just hyperbole or a poetic stretch of the facts. It isn’t just a little bit false. It’s totally false. And that a major technology magazine wouldn’t know better, and would allow such a preposterous statement to be published, shows you just how pervasive this mythology is. Such assertions appear in the media all the time, to the point where this garbage is now taken for granted. Over and over and over it’s repeated — usually by people who know little about the realities of commercial flying. I can spend hours complaining about it in my blogs and articles, but thanks to people like Missy Cummings and Kevin Kelly, millions of people will go on believing it.

And am I the only one who bothers to complain? The Air Line Pilots Association, for example, ought to go bonkers over this stuff. Every time one of these ridiculous quotes is made, the credibility and respect of pilots everywhere is eroded that much more. But rarely if ever does the organization chime in. Within hours of that Wired story coming out, ALPA should have been chauffeuring Mr. Kelly to a simulator or offering him a ride in a 787 jumpseat, all expenses paid. Afterwards, armed with a better understanding of the subject, perhaps he’d have written something a bit more enlightening.

What stuns me, too, is how regularly people will argue with me. A non-pilot will sit across from me and insist that I am the one who isn’t being honest! The thinking, apparently, is that precisely because I’m an the airline pilot, my argument isn’t to be trusted. I’m the one so eager to make my point, and so I’m the one who must be exaggerating. It’s excruciating. Yes, I’m an airline pilot, and yes that makes me an advocate in whose best interest it is to refute the claims of people like Kelly and Cummings. You can believe that if you want to, but I assure you that I’m being neither naïve nor dishonest. And by no means am I opposed to the advance of technology. What I’m opposed to are foolish extrapolations of technology, and the starkly distorted depictions of what my colleagues and I actually do for a living.

I’m not saying this is beyond our capabilities. We could be flying around in unmanned airliners, just as we could be living in cities on the moon or at the bottom of the ocean. But consider the costs and challenges. An unmanned plane carrying 300 people would be vastly different machine, with a vastly different mission, than a single-engine military drone. And for any widespread commercial application, you’re talking about gigantic changes to our civil aviation infrastructure, from the designing and testing a whole new generation of aircraft, to an overhaul of the entire air traffic control system. And after all that, you’re still going to need human beings to operate these vehicles remotely (don’t even think of presenting the idea of a fully autonomous aircraft requiring no human input at all). Ultimately, this isn’t a technological challenge so much as one of cost and practicality.

And in the meantime, contrary to what you’ll read and hear, our airplanes aren’t nearly as sophisticated and “automatic” as people think they are. 

I need an aspirin.

The most effective, and probably the most fun way of making my point, I think, would be through a demonstration in a flight simulator. Cost and practicality make that pretty much impossible, however, and so you’re stuck with me writing about it. If you’d like to hear more, below is a greater manifesto of sorts on this topic, borrowed from the Questions and Answers section of this website:

 

AIR TRAVEL HAS ALWAYS been rich with conspiracy theories and urban legends. I’ve heard it all. Nothing, however, gets me sputtering more than the myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation—this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.

This is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain how the idea even arose, yet it amazes me how often this contention turns up—in magazines, on television, in the science section of the papers.

But one thing you’ll notice is that these experts tend to be journalists or academics —reporters, professors, researchers, etc.— rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent and however valuable their work might be, are highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day realities of flying planes. Pilots too are occasionally guilty. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself,” one of us might say. We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like — in the process undercut the value of our profession.

Essentially, high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in the way that high-tech medical equipment assists physicians and surgeons. It has vastly improved their capabilities, but it by no means diminishes the experience and skill required to perform at that level and has not come remotely close to rendering them redundant. A plane is as able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself.

“Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology,” wrote the surgeon and author Atul Gawande in a 2011 issue of The New Yorker. “But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.” That about nails it.

And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean anyway? Typically I click off the autopilot around a thousand feet or so and hand-fly the rest of the landing. On takeoff, I fly manually at least through 10,000 feet, and sometimes all the way up to cruise.

The autopilot is a tool, along with many other tools available to the crew. You still need to tell it what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. I prefer the term autoflight system. It’s a collection of several different functions controlling speed, thrust, and both horizontal and vertical navigation—together or separately, and all of it requiring regular crew inputs to work properly. On the jet I fly, I can set up an automatic climb or descent any of about seven different ways, depending what’s needed. The media will quote supposed experts saying things like “pilots fly manually for only about ninety seconds of every flight.” Not only is this untrue, but it also neglects to impart any meaningful understanding as to the differences between manual and automatic, as if the latter were as simple as pressing a button and folding your arms.

The autopilot control panel of a Boeing 737 (color highlight)

One evening I was sitting in economy class when our jet came in for an unusually smooth landing. “Nice job, autopilot!” yelled some knucklehead behind me. Amusing, maybe, but wrong. It was a fully manual touchdown, as the vast majority of touchdowns are. Yes, it’s true that most jetliners are certified for automatic landings, called “autolands” in pilot-speak. But in practice they are rare. Fewer than 1 percent of landings are performed automatically, and the fine print of setting up and managing one of these landings is something I could talk about all day. If it were as easy as pressing a button, I wouldn’t need to practice them twice a year in the simulator or periodically review those tabbed, highlighted pages in my manuals.

A flight is a very organic thing—complex, fluid, always changing—in which decision-making is constant and critical. For all of its scripted protocols, checklists, and procedures, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue to handling an onboard medical problem. Emergencies are another thing entirely. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill situations that arise every single day, on every single flight, often to the point of task saturation. You’d be surprised how busy the cockpit can become — with the autopilot on.

Another thing we hear again and again is how the sophisticated, automated Boeing or Airbus has made flying “easier” than it was in years past. On the contrary, it’s probably more demanding than it’s ever been. Once you account for all of the operational aspects of modern flying, from flight-planning to navigating to communicating—the volume of requisite knowledge is far greater than it used to be. The emphasis is on a somewhat different skill set, but it’s wrong to suggest that one skill set is necessarily more important than another.

But, you’re bound to point out, what about the proliferation of remotely piloted military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)? Are they not a harbinger of things to come? It’s tempting to see it that way. These machines are very sophisticated and have proven themselves reliable—to a point. A drone is not a commercial jet carrying hundreds of people. It has an entirely different mission and operates in a wholly different environment—with far less at stake should something go wrong. You don’t simply take the drone concept, scale it up, build in a few redundancies, and off you go.

I would like to see a drone perform a high-speed takeoff abort after an engine failure, followed by a brake fire and the evacuation of 250 passengers. I would like to see one troubleshoot a pneumatic problem requiring a diversion over mountainous terrain. I’d like to see it thread through a storm front over the middle of the ocean. Hell, even the simplest things. On any given flight there are innumerable contingencies, large and small, requiring the attention and often visceral appraisal of the crew. I can’t imagine trying to handle these things from the ground, thousands of miles away.

And, adapting the UAV model to the commercial realm would require, in addition to gigantic technological challenges, a restructuring of the entire commercial aviation infrastructure, from airports to ATC. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, from the planes themselves to the facilities they’d rely on. We still haven’t perfected the idea of remote control cars, trains, or ships; the leap to commercial aircraft would be harder and more expensive by orders of magnitude.

And for what? You’d still need human beings to operate these planes remotely.

It amuses me that as aviation technology progresses and evolves, so many people see elimination of the pilot as the logical, inevitable endpoint. I’ve never understood this. Are modern medical advances intended to eliminate doctors? Of course not. What exists in the cockpit today is already a fine example of how progress and technology have improved flying—making it faster, far safer, and more reliable than it once was. But it has not made it easy, and it is a long, long way from engineering the pilot out of the picture. It’s a long way off — if it happens at all.

 

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71 Responses to “Cummings and Kelly: More Media Claptrap About Cockpit Automation”
  1. bloodnok says:

    i’m not a pilot. nor do i work in the aviation industry in any capacity (although i was responsible for managing the documentation system at dehavilland aircraft in downsview back in the early days of desktop publishing).

    i do work in computers, however.

    the notion of a computer flying an aeroplane when it’s hard to keep the thing from crashing whilst running a word processing application is so extremely laughable it’s really hard to believe idiots like mit prof missy promulgate such bullshit.

    harder to believe mr/ms public would swallow that propagandistic crap – they own a computer, don’t they?

    does make one wonder what exactly mit prof missy is flogging on “the daily show” however ….

    • Eccles says:

      Well I don’t work in the aviation industry, but I am a software engineer. While I am sure your response was intended as hyperbolic, it is as accurate about modern computers as the subject of the article is on the operations of modern airlines!

      • james says:

        Why because software never has defects? I’m a fellow software engineer and the idea that a airplane could ever be flown autonomously is downright scary to me.

  2. Seth Knoepler says:

    No, modern medical advances aren’t intended to eliminate doctors. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t powerful social and, especially, economic forces that are putting enormous pressure on doctors and other professional clinicians to become more like technicians, with the reality – and, especially, the language – of increasingly sophisticated technology being used to create the impression that technicians is what they already are.

  3. james jones says:

    Automated airliners are a great idea!..It’s just that “Blue Screen of Death” that bothers me..What happens when the computer goes south?

    As a physician and a pilot, I think i’m more comfortable with some gray matter flying the plane and operating on my patients.

    It’s not reflexes that are important to either profession, it’s judgement.

  4. Jim Wattengel says:

    So now you are taking on Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman?

    See his latest blog: “Look Ma, No (Human) Hands”

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/look-ma-no-human-hands/

    • Jeff Latten says:

      Paul Krugman is a very intelligent man, knows economics inside and out, but doesn’t know diddly about flying, airplanes, ATC or anything else remotely connected with aviation. And the article you cite says nothing about aviation…it’s about cars. Do you any idea of the difference in the level of complexity between a car and a plane? Do you understand that you can’t just ‘pull over’ to the side of the road to assess things in a plane? It’s people like you that give life to this myth.

      • hirider says:

        Paul Krugman knows SOME economics inside and out! By that I mean that he is only knowledgable in Keneysian Economics, which is basically the dependance on government spending and regulations to keep the economy moving favorably. He knows diddly squat about Austrian Economics, which is basically the dependence on the private sector to spend where and on what, to keep the economy moving favorably. We haven’t had anything nearly close to Austrian economics since Reagan was president. Even then, liberal Democrat control of both houses of congress stymied his efforts. Despite the libs. fighting him at every turn, he boosted the economy and prosperity into the future years of Bush I’s term and the beginning of Bill Clinton’s term.

      • Avery Greynold says:

        The reason we won’t have automated cars or aircraft is liability. Suppose automated vehicles result in a lower death toll. External factors and equipment failure will still result in people dying. The key point is that the people who do die will be a different set of people.
        Hypothetical: Your mom dies because an automated car/plane hits her while out jogging. You believe that if a skilled human had been in control, they might have taken heroic actions that would have prevented your mom being killed. Can the companies that built/operated the vehicles and removed the human backup safety system prove a negative? That a human would have had no effect at all? And prove it to a jury in court?

    • Rod says:

      Krugman has my vote on how to supervise an economy. But even a “driverless” car won’t zoom around aimlessly. Someone will still be there to tell it where and when.

    • Colin Malaker says:

      Kurgan — where do I start. First off he is a communist sympathizing elite scumbag. And furthermore, I have to say being a Nobel prizewinner lost all of its sense of honor when that organization, which in itself promotes socialism and a true fairy tale one world order, communist montra, when these clowns Gave ol’ Obama a metal for peace, all the while ramping up operations to send missiles and other warfare toys to the sworn enemy of the west, Al Queada. So Krugman, the sooner you suffer from a brain killing stroke, the better off the world will be. If you want a far better Economist to listen to, look to John Maudin. The guy is not only likable, but is dead on when it comes to all things Economic

      • Ian Bell says:

        That’s kind of off-topic man.

        Even if what you say about Krugman is true, that he is a “communist sympathizing elite scumbag”, that wouldn’t mean he is necessarily wrong about aeroplane technology. Talk about ad-hominem!

        He is, of course, wrong about the possibility of pilotless airliners in the near future. Not because he’s an economist, or a communist, or an elite scumbag (that’s irrelevant), but because the empirical evidence doesn’t support what he says about what it takes to fly a plane.

        • Avery Greynold says:

          Krugman’s blog has him “impressed” by the self-driving car, but he doesn’t discuss aircraft. (Even though the FAA has authorized about 60 private and government entities to operate UAVs in domestic airspace)

      • G says:

        You deserve a metal, Colin!

      • James Walley says:

        Stupidest. Comment. Ever.

  5. Another Josh says:

    So why don’t we already have crewless ocean cargo ships? It would seem that this would come before pilotless commercial aircraft. In general, with a ship if the computer fails, a ship will remain afloat but adrift, not crashing down over potentially populated land. A quick Google search turned up a reference that they were the “wave of the future” and expected to be in operation by the mid 1990s. I don’t think they are out there yet.

    The commercial pilotless/crewless/driverless vehicle seems to be one of those future technologies that is always 10 to 20 years in the future. It was 10 to 20 years in the future in the 1980′s and is still 10 to 20 years in the future now. it will likely still be 10 to 20 years down the road a few decades from now. You see an occasional story about a driver-less car, but they’re not anywhere close to something that is hitting the commercial market.

    Beyond the technical aspects of a pilotless airliner, I’m pretty sure the financial savings of removing the pilot are counteracted by the increase that any insurers would place on such a venture. The liability to any company that tried it would just be too high.

    • Pat McGee says:

      Hi Another Josh,
      I knew someone who was a mechanic in the merchant marine. From what he told me, a lot of the people on a freighter are there to keep all the machinery working. Keeping things working continuously for a couple of weeks is a very different problem that something that takes much shorter trips and can have a mechanic check them over after every trip. Planes have 100-hour and 1000-hour maintenance required. A ship would have two or three of the 100-hour checks on a single trip.

      Pat

  6. Pat McGee says:

    Hi Patrick,
    I think you’re absolutely right for the short term and dead wrong for the long term. The biggest issue I see in this argument is that no-one is talking about time frame.

    I heard about a study that Kodak did years ago on whether digital cameras would be a threat to film. The study concluded: No, for at least the next ten years. The study was right. It took twelve. But the managers at Kodak didn’t get past the comma and didn’t prepare for the future.

    So, I’d like to ask you: When you say that fully automated aircraft are not in the cards, what’s the timeframe you’re talking about?

    Thanks,
    Pat

    P.S. I’ve got an extensive background in software testing, software engineering, and embedded systems (what the insiders call computers that control things). I haven’t worked on space shuttle computers, but I’ve worked with people who have.

    I absolutely would not get on a fully automated aircraft this year, nor get in a fully automated car this year. I have ridden in fully automated trains without any qualms at all. I’d ride on a space shuttle if I could convince myself that the rest of the hardware was up to the standards of the software in the control systems.

    If you asked me how long it would take, I’ll have to say that I’m not qualified to have an opinion. I don’t know enough about flying, nor enough about the recent breakthroughs in controlling autonomous cars.

    • Rod says:

      Pat, I think you miss the point that — film or no film — it’s still a person holding the camera and pointing it at a chosen object of interest and deciding what aspect of the scene at hand to bring to the fore. That’s analogous to the ongoing need for a human crew on board an aircraft.

  7. There is always pros and cons on everything. For me, although it is good to have it automated, manual is still better. There are things/situations that requires unique judgement and cannot be operated on a computer.

  8. Robert Williams says:

    Missy reminds me of those academics who promised that Iraq would be a ‘cakewalk’.

    I hear she had a hard time landing those F-18′s in the Navy.

    Maybe that’s why she’s on Comedy Central rather than an aircraft carrier.

  9. Of course, the question nobody is asking is: What if they built all these automatic airliners and the public refused to book passage on them?

  10. Eric Fowkes says:

    What I find interesting is that drone experts talk about airliners being “automatic” when the fact is that even drones aren’t “automatic.” A person actually flies those drones unless they are in a specific pattern (search, holding, monitoring, etc.) so even the drones don’t fly without pilots.

    I’m currently watching a Frontline show about “Cheap Airlines” and while the facts are accurate, the tone of the show makes it sound as though flying any regional is inherently dangerous. Yesterday I read an article that used the phrase, “most deadly airlines” while listing the top 10 “hull loss” totals for the past 30 years. China Airlines was listed as the worst and a total of 755 deaths were listed beside their name. No one seems to understand that number was based on ALL flights from 1983 until the present. Not very dangerous considering more people are killed by household appliances than flying.

    Sorry I haven’t commented more but I still read your site and truly enjoy your articles. In my opinion you’re the best airline writer in the business and I was sorry to see Salon drop you. Good luck with your writing in the future.

    Eric

  11. Dave Beedon says:

    Yet another technological dream blown to bits. I have suffered endless frustration by the perpetual delay in the availability of flying cars (“one in every garage!”). Where are the supersonic underground trains connecting the USA with Europe? Will we ever have nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners? Now I read that commercial airline drones are far off. Aspirin won’t do the job—I need some industrial-grade tranquilizers.

    (Seriously—thanks for the enlightening explanation of your profession.)

  12. Randall says:

    Patrick,

    Perhaps you need to talk about SA and judgment again – something automated systems lack. Even if we could build an aircraft technically capable of flying itself in isolation, it could not practice “see and avoid”, it can’t detect and avoid a runway incursion on final, or see turkey vultures or guinea hens on the tarmac before takeoff, etc. The reason we continue to be 20 years away from the self-flying aircraft is that no one is even trying to develop the required systems, which would be very expensive, radically more complicated, and would require entirely new ATC infrastructure to operate in a remotely safe way, which in turn requires agreement of all relevant jurisdictions. Until Boeing or Airbus gets a multi-billion dollar contract to start such a thing, it won’t happen. Even then, it would have to be domestic only at first, because of the politics of modifying infrastructure and regulations across various countries. It requires rebuilding the entire air transport system from scratch around entirely different assumptions. Probably more difficult than putting men on Mars.

    In all the talk of UAVs, I see little mention of the obvious fact that they ALL also have pilots, typically two, one (more of a pure aviator) who handles take offs, landings, and cruise phases, the other (a mission specialist) who flies the loiter phase and operates surveillance and weapons systems. A UAV does not eliminate the pilot. It just makes a non-passenger non-freight (military) aircraft much smaller, cheaper, more fuel efficient, with lower radar cross-section, since it does not have to carry the pilot, ejection system, OBOGS, and related cockpit hardware, all bulky components.

    The US Navy and Marines, one of the biggest UAV users, is struggling with the expanding integration of UAVs in the battlespace and around the boat, where they pose a significant mid-air collision and FOD threat, both to low-level and high altitude operations, the two phases of flight where mid-airs are usually the least of your worries. UAV aircrew have comparatively little situational awareness and cannot practically “see and avoid”, plus their small size, stealthy features, and (particularly at high altitude) very slow speeds compared to other airspace users make them hard to see and avoid, and thus very dangerous to other aircraft. They just recently had their first trials of operating an experimental UAV off of an LHD.

    With increased law enforcement and civilian (SAR and geological survey) domestic use of UAVs, the FAA is just beginning to grapple with rules for integrating them safely into controlled airspace. For now, they have to mostly stay below 400 ft AGL, and away from airports, approach, departure and transit corridors (basically, out of the way), for the same reasons they give the Navy fits, i.e., they are unable to operate safely under VFR rules in the same spaces as light aircraft.

    Ignorance of commercial aviation aside, I am amazed that a former Hornet driver could say such foolish things. The Hornet (for a high performance fast-mover) is highly automated, *relatively* low workload, and forgiving to fly because its AFCS and design prevent most departures from controlled flight, and it recovers quickly from other departures if the pilot “lets go” and allows it to reach 170 KIAS pointy-end first before trying to maneuver again. However, it does not fly itself at all, and it costs something like US$ 6 million to train a naval aviator through FRS to a nugget deployment. Remotely piloted is not even on the drawing board at this point, and pilotless is more like a dream.

    “If it was so easy, anyone would do it.”

    Keep trying to educate… the ocean can always handle a little more spit.

  13. Danny says:

    Meh, these journalists aren’t really necessary any more, computers can write articles on their own, the journalists are just there to babysit their word processor.

  14. Roger D. Parish says:

    Patrick, you have repeatedly stated that autoland is a very complex and difficult procedure, but you have not given any details. I have an appreciation for the complexities of landing, having owned (and flown) a Cessna 172, but I can’t quite imagine the problems with managing an autoland system. Could you perhaps do a column on that topic?

  15. Tiffany Hawk says:

    I’m glad a few others have mentioned what I wanted to – that UAVs have PILOTS flying them! There is still an Actual Air Force pilot, who went through pilot training, behind the plane…he’s just flying it remotely.

  16. When I go to work in the morning or at 3 am like a pilot does, I anesthetize patients with varying degrees of medical and surgical complexity not to mention anesthetic issues. Patients are anesthetized by qualified folks like myself then place on the anesthesia machine which does many things like deliver anesthesia, , measure vital signs….

    Very similar to piloting but more responsibility for the pilot: the pilots go to work like me at all hours of the day and night. The fly aircraft that are from each other. The fly thru varying phases of flight with their own issues and complexities. The aircraft is doing the flying. The pilot flies the aircraft just like I fly the patient in different phases of anesthesia.

    We never leave the patient’s side until we emerge from the clouds and see awareness and awakeness.

    While I am responsible for one patient at a time, our pilots are responsible for hundreds. Diminishing the roles of pilots is demeaning to the hard working and underpayed pilots and shows ignorance and a minimalist attitude that is dangerous.

  17. wrf1984 says:

    I watched that spot on the Daily Show and I immediately KNEW you’d be frothing at the mouth. I agree: she’s an expert on many things but her “Airbus/drone” comment was silly, really.

    Drones are drones–they must ALWAYS be flown remotely. While a modern jetliner CAN be “autopiloted,” it can’t be necessarily so. “Redundant, counterintuitive pilots? Please -

  18. Bruce Adams says:

    I think we need to step back and look at the protocols necessary for unmanned transportation. Stanford University and Google have shown that autonomous vehicles work well. The railroads with dedicated rights-of-way will soon be sending out freight trains with no personnel on board. Safeguards such as HD video and accurate distance measuring systems will make the trains safe.
    We kill 20,000+ people on our highways every year using driver controlled vehicles. Pilots show up drunk or spaced out to fly our planes. Railroad engineers are distracted as they text friends and the ensuing collision kills 24 people.
    In the end, digital electronics will always do a better job of managing an environment than humans ever could. It’s just a matter of time.
    That’s the way I see it.

    • Tim says:

      Except that your premise is flawed. Digital electronics ONLY do a better job of managing an environment than humans do if NO variables are introduced that they aren’t programmed for.

      I can think of at least one plane accident that would have had fatalities with a computer controlling it that didn’t with a human controlling it: the Gimli Glider incident. Even if the computer had managed to land at Gimli (which required a sideslip among other complicated maneuvers), it almost certainly would have killed certain people on the ground, who only weren’t killed because the pilots reacted fast. Admittedly, Gimli wouldn’t have happened without human error – there was an Imperial/metric conversion error in ground crew fuel calculations – but my point isn’t affected by that.

      Other examples I doubt a computer could have pulled off: Sully’s river landing, Northwest 85, Reeve Aleutian 8, DHL OO-DLL.

      • Aaron says:

        The Airbus that landed in the Hudson river, QF32 are another two that would have had major fatalities were it not for a pilot in the cockpit.
        I have no doubt that it could be done, on a routine flight where there were no other variables, but how many flights are so routine?

    • JM says:

      Ahem. Did you read this bit about railroads in Popular Science or something?

      The railroads would love to completely get rid of their engineers, conductors, and brakemen (“personnel” as you call them), but it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

      Is it possible in theory? Sure–just like those driverless people movers at various airports. But the true environment of an operating railroad is far different than theory–especially given the nation’s far-flung railroad network and the operational challenges which exist on it.

      Moving a train across a railroad (even a through train between terminals, as opposed to a local freight) involves a lot of judgment calls on the part of the crew–just like flying an airliner.

      That distance measuring equipment you speak of doesn’t do a good job of seeing an automobile fouling the tracks at a grade crossing, spotting a washout, or the like. Human beings are still best at that. Making up trains and setting out cars still requires a lot of human labor, as well.

      Technology has reduced the number of people required to run a train– now there is sometimes only a single person in the cab of a locomotive. That’s way down from the total five person crew of yesteryear which was once needed to run a single train.

      Yes, there’s a parallel between air and rail in one respect–technology has taken away the need for thousands of jobs in both industries. But will technology eliminate the need for cockpit crews or locomotive crews completely? Not anytime soon.

      Incidentally, all of this is true event though railroads today have the dedicated rights-of-way which you refer to– and have since the 1830s. I’ve yet to see a freight train share a lane of the expressway (containerized freight excepted, of course).

  19. WeatherGuy says:

    Fighter pilots are a unique breed. They are hands-on from take-off to landing. They think that any pilot who is not a fighter jockey is a bus driver.

  20. UncleStu says:

    And all this automation is to do what, eliminate pilots?

    In addition to Patrick’s good reasons why it isn’t practical, there are two things that come to mind:

    - the cost vs benefit results are in favor of keeping pilots – in the cockpits

    - the only parties that would benefit from pursuing the goal of fully automated unpiloted aircraft are the research and manufacturing organizations that would rake in government money working on it. (MIT included)

  21. Dan says:

    Patrick,
    Thank you again for the article. Automated arguments aside, I thought it was quite disingenuous and disrespectful to highlight the percentages of accidents that were “human error”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but for the most part don’t these errors stem from an initial mechanical failure or other anomaly. While it’s easy in hindsight to say, “they should have done x, y, and z” one must remember that these people were still valiantly trying to save the aircraft and lives.

    Sure a computer may be more logical in how it handles a given situation but what happens when half of its “brain” is fried from an electrical short? Computers have always been input in–> data out and if you mess with either side of that equation you’re in trouble.

  22. elkhorn says:

    Concerning UAVs/Drones:

    They are not autonomous – they are remotely piloted aircraft. Not only that, takeoffs & landings are flown by LOCAL pilots; the UAV flying duty is handed off to the stateside remote pilots once the UAV is safely aloft. [The time-delay of sending the control signals up to a satellite, in order to relay them to the stateside pilots is too large to safely fly the UAV close to the grouns.]

    The US Navy is testing an autonomous drone, the Northrop Grumman X-47B, capable of catapult takeoff and carrier landing. It can’t navigate once on the carrier deck, and an air crew member has a remote-control gizmo to steer it around on the deck. Again, this is a military drone, and far, far from a commercial aircraft.

  23. Wendy Orange says:

    Dear Patrick,

    As someone who has read you for years and who has learned so much from you, I totally 100% believe what you are saying. I hope you send this article to Missy C, Jon Stewart and whoever else might learn from it.

    Technology may seem beneficial in general but my experience using the best computers is that they all are difficult when they crash. And to make matters so much worse–the IT or computer helpers don’t help much. So the idea that computers which about 1% of the world truly understands–are surely not able to do your job for you.

    Thanks for always keeping an eye out for what we non-pilots often don’t understand is blatantly untrue. You are the best!

  24. D. Kazmerski says:

    There are *some* driverless subway lines in operation…one Metro line in Paris, at least, that I can think of. Though it’s one of the simpler, shorter lines. I don’t know of any commuter or long-distance trains that are driverless or fully automated. And these are on rails. Stop and go is all they do.

    We have a long way to go to the pilotless airliner. Besides the obvious question of, even if this were possible, who would want it?

    • Ian Bell says:

      The Docklands Light Railway in London is driverless, and that’s not a simple line, it’s a branched network.

      The Victoria line on the underground could also be set up drive itself (it’s fully automatic) but when it was equipped (in the 1960s) it was thought that passengers wouldn’t feel safe unless someone was “driving” the train. The drivers are also handy to have on board for safety reasons.

      But that’s the point. It’s taken almost 50 years for the technology to progress to the point where drivers aren’t necessary, and that’s with railways. Pilotless aeroplanes are a good deal further off, because it’s a much more complex job.

      If there’s a problem on a train, the safest thing to do is usually to stop (and that’s what the computers do), but on a plane that’s not an option, so the computer would have to get it right first time, every time. That’s a lot harder to engineer.

  25. Mike in Mass says:

    Auto-fly planes? Where are the auto-drive trucks,busses, and trains?

  26. Ray says:

    I rolled my eyes when I heard Cummings say that. It really seems like she ought to know better.

    • Patrick says:

      That’s one of the reasons this makes me so angry: she should know better; she HAS to know better. Yet she says these things repeatedly.

      Why?

      • JuliaZ says:

        Maybe she gets a kick out of pissing you off.

        I’d see if ignoring her changes things for the better… she’s willfully ignorant, at best, so why waste your time?

  27. Jt says:

    I can’t stand the misconceptions about flying. I don’t work in the industry but I’m training for my private and have been flying sims for years. I have payware air craft and have flown full flights by myself in a full motion 737 NG simulator. I can fly a 737. The notion everything is automatic is insane. Is technology extremely advanced in planes? Yes. Does it do it itself? No. To people being concerned comparing a plane’s autopilot to a computer running windows is a horrible comparison. I have never ever heard in my experience of an autopilot just disconnecting because a computer crashed; if it does happen, you simply hand fly. Almost every instrument in a flight deck is computerized (there are backups of course) so if you’re nervous about that you probably shouldn’t be flying.

    I’d like to see those idiots declare an emergency and land when one of your engines fail at v1. They know nothing about aviation. They don’t know a localizer from a centerline or a glideslope from a waypoint. Auto lands are no easy task. Personally, I find it easier to handfly a landing. Autolandings suck to set up, plus you have to be ready to take controls at all times. It sucks. Unless visibility is horrible I would never do an autoland. Ever. Do those people even know what an ILS is? No. Do they know how to follow anything on a checklist? No. They know nothing.

  28. Colin Malaker says:

    Here is my take. Electronics are great, but limited. Here we are in the United States with a rather new organization known as the Homeland Security and every day they creep kore and more into our personal lives. But they are completely ineffective in doing what it is they are supposed to do. I am thinking brown shirts, but those guys got the job done, as hideous as it is. So lets pretend the we have 200 passengers flying along with little Jimmy “programming” the “autopilot” from the ground in his pajamas. Better yet, Rahul in India is doing it because the US loves to outsource to cheaper labor everyday. So everyone one is fat dumb and happy and we are all slapping our backs at the trillions we have spent to create such a wondrous thing … But all of a sudden, Houston (center) we have a problem. As the plane is heading for yet another public target we come to find out the some oh lets say foreigner in a well protected bunker somewhere in Iran, who was trained at Emby-Riddle to fly (no offense Riddleites cause this is where I learned to fly as well and I love that place) teamed up with another of his countrymen who is a computer genius trained at MIT, both of which had a free ride scholarship provided to them fromAmerican taxpayers through the foreign aid program to increase friendly relations, and they have hacked the ATC and Drone control system and now have control over the airline that your kid sister is on. Oops. “But we Putin so many safeguards” you here from our Federal overachievers. “How could this happen” people say. “It must be those evil Republicans” say the commenters on CNN. I digress. Truth is, humans error. Even programmers error. For every step forward, we take a step backward as well. Humans now need machines, but machines need humans as well. Neither is fail safe. I think since humans make the machines, they too are inherently flawed. He’ll we cannot even test a lithium ion Battery correctly to make sure it in not going to overheat and short and cause a fire. So to the Krugmans and the MIT and the Wired individuals .. Go ahead and live in your little Star Trek world (even they needed Sulu to navigate them out of Jams .. And let us not forget how many times Scotty saved there ass with a little creative power diversion) the rest of the sane people here on earth will choose trained intuition over “standby … Recalculating”

  29. Curt Sampson says:

    Many people here and elsewhere have expressed concern about computer failures in the sense of an “electrical short that scrambles its brains,” a “blue screen of death,” or another sort of crash. This isn’t an issue; we have long had high-reliability computers (actually, systems generally consisting of several computers) and they are used extensively in commercial aviation today. Modern commercial aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and so on, are (in normal flight conditions) always under “computer control” in a certain sense, though they certainly do not fly without a pilot. Some military aircraft are actually unflyable without a computer doing a lot of work.

    The real issue here is the set of conditions under which a computer can be entrusted with control of an aircraft (or anything else, for that matter). In a strictly controlled environment, such as a train system with its own right of way, computers can do a great job of controlling the vehicles with only limited human supervision, and such systems have been operating in commercial use for many years. (The Vancouver Skytrain is one example.) However, the environment in which aircraft operate is hugely more complex and variable. That an autopilot can move us from having a human giving control surface inputs during 100% of the flight to 5% of the flight might sound like impressive progress, but it does only because it’s not obvious to the layman that having done this, the automation is still dealing with only a tiny fraction of the things that need to be done even during a normal, uneventful flight, much less the manyfold larger set of responses necessary to handle all the various abnormal events that could arise.

    If you’re interested in further information on autoland systems, there’s an extensive article on Wikipedia that’s worth reading. I found particularly interesting the amount of ground support that’s required for autoland, as well as the rather limited conditions under which it can be used and airport efficiency reductions that ensue when it’s used.

  30. Lee says:

    I don’t foresee myself ever stepping foot on an airplane with a few computers and no pilot. I would guess 99%+ of the flying public will agree.

  31. mhighers says:

    You should send this to Comedy Central and see if you could go on offer a rebuttal to her opinions.

  32. MartyU says:

    Great article as always, Patrick, but you’re preaching to the converted.

    Why not approach Stewart’s people for a rebuttal? My guess is you’d do pretty well on-air, you’ve got the great 80s punk rock trivia to fall back on and could probably honestly teach Stewart and his audience a thing or two.

    My guess is his people are always looking for guests and would at least entertain (no put intended) having you on.

    Or heck, offer him a jumpseat FAM flight and educate him there.

    And BTW, Google apparently had something to do with a law recently being passed in CA allowing limited use of driverless, autonomous (I believe) cars on CA roads. They have Prii running around Silicon Valley right now, with “drivers” in the left seat, ready to take the wheel at a moment’s notice, while these things figure out how to navigate by themselves. Also, DARPA held a race for autonomous vehicles out in the CA/NV desert, with fairly amazing results. Sorry I don’t have a link handy.

    Of course, this has zero to do with the same for airplanes, but to the lay person, if there’s the one, the other mustn’t be far behind.

  33. DiverDan says:

    …but… SKYNET! Terminators run on their own, so why not planes?

    As usual, you write the straight skinny, Patrick. Like Sarah Connor,you’re hard to kill.

  34. DavidB says:

    Patrick,

    As usual, your commentary and insight are spot on and eloquent. However, I think you are ultimately giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to these journalists. I believe that Mr. Kelly, Ms. Cummings and their more reckless brethren actually DO know that these pronouncements are ludicrous and patently false. However, they or their superiors or the producers of whatever program they are appearing on or the editors of whatever paper they are being quoted for are actually stage managing such ludicrous and false answers. Why? Because these days, the only way you ensure that your audience will continue to pay attention is by shocking the hell out of them! Kevin Kelly and his editors know full well that his comments are complete crap. But how is Wired going to keep its target audience enthralled? By feeding the notion that humans are mistake-prone triumphs of bad design and that computers will ultimately save our sorry butts! If he had just said “Automated systems in aircraft are great, but we will always need humans to operate them”, I’m pretty sure he’d be out of a job by now. As far as Missy Cummings is concerned, her research money goes out the window if she doesn’t promote fully automated aircraft.

    Don’t worry. Your loyal readers agree with you. As for those who always suspect you have some sort of anti-consumer, anti-passenger agenda designed to cause their flights to be more miserable, cost more money, and waste more of their time, you will never convince them otherwise. Nor should you try.

  35. Dana Levin says:

    The day there is no one working in the pointy end of an airliner is the day I stop flying commercially, Watson or Ken Jennings? I’ll take the human mind over a machine, nuff said!

  36. Michael says:

    I’ve been an airline mechanic for over 20 years on heavy jets so have a professional understanding of all sides of maintenance and operation of these aircraft. The systems these aircraft operate under are extremely complex with automatic modes with manual reversion when the automatic mode fails or is not operating 100%. Pratically no aircraft flies more than a few days without picking up a reduced operating mode for one or more of the 90 plus systems on the average plane. When they operate in this reduced efficancy the pilots must take up the slack for useful operation. Some of these Minimum Equipment List items(MEL’s) are extremely complex and cause degradations of other systems. MEL’s involving autopilot functions, navigation, pneumatics, fuel, hydraulics, and communications can cause the workload of a pilot to be increased significantly. Throw weather into this mix and I’ll tell you these pilots can very busy. In nice weather with no MEL’s the aircraft does fly preprogrammed routes with little input by the pilots other than monitoring the progress but as failures occur only their input and opinions can assist maintenance with keeping the planes flying. I personally will never get on a pilotless aircraft and I hope the cargo airline I work for never converts to pilotless aircraft, the possiblities for catostrophic accidents are too extant. I have a lot of respect for these pilots and without their perspicacity our whole system would grind to a halt. The same for us maintainers, we are very aware of the need for safely operating in this unforgiving environment.

  37. [...] Cabin Air Recirculation and Symptoms of the Common Cold One inflight cocktail not worth concocting MORE MEDIA CLAPTRAP ABOUT COCKPIT AUTOMATION – Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot Blog Autoland Video 1 Autoland Video 2 Viral Video Draws Flyby’s Legality Into [...]

  38. Curt Sampson says:

    If anybody wants to see what cockpit automation in use looks like, you can watch an Airbus A320 autoland tutorial on YouTube.

    There are I think two things worth noting about this video.

    1. There’s still pilot work involved in the autoland, enough that I would say the pilot is still flying the airplane. For example, the airspeed is still determined and selected by the pilot, even though the autothrottle is taking care of the throttle settings to get the aircraft to that target airspeed.

    2. The (probably extensive) setup to get to the position where you can start this procedure is not shown, nor are some of the other things that would be going on during landing (such as radio communications with the controllers).

  39. Jason says:

    I am not a software engineer, however, I’m kind of a computer geek having grown up with them since the C64. I do fly very sophisticated corporate aircraft with some amazing equipment. My concern is that people don’t recognize that a computer must be programmed with each contingency in order to react appropriately. When a contingency occurs that is not preprogrammed, what does the computer do? In most aircraft that I’ve flown, the computer does nothing but display a message that something is not quite right. Now, I’m thinking what if there’s a fire? What happens when the fire occurs over the Atlantic? Does the computer discharge Halon into the cabin and continue the flight? Probably not. What if the fire damages a sensor and fouls the computer input? What about electrical failures? System anomalies? Personally, I don’t see myself ever getting onto a pilotless aircraft with the knowledge I have of what can happen–it’s all about judgment and you just can’t program that to the depth required in a computer yet.

  40. Bolo Jungle says:

    Drones do not fly themselves, either (even if it’s done remotely, there is a human at the controls)

  41. Andrew says:

    I am a software engineer, and the problem is not the day to day flying an aircraft from A to B, it’s not the small or even the big problems which Patrick refers to. All that can be coded without a problem. It’s the unforeseeable and / or undetectable by computer problems which will bring a pilot-less aircraft to it’s knees.

    It’s something like QF72 where by a programming glitch causes a uncommanded manoeuvre. How do you handle a unforeseeable software bug that keeps reporting to the computer that everything is fine? The only reason why QF32 landed safely is because the pilots knew something was wrong and immediately disengaged autopilot and flew the aircraft manually.

    As for using the comment of UAV’s as a base, well with a UAV, should something go wrong, apart for the tax payer who will have to fund it’s replacement, no one will care about blowing the thing up or crashing it into the ground. Something tells me that airline pax are not going to be overly comfortable with the policy of “If something goes wrong, have another drink whilst we aim for the nearest mountain and floor it”

    • Andrew says:

      D’oh, I meant QF72, although coincidentally QF32 is another example where by loads of errors came up, and the flight computer basically threw it’s hands in the air (aka switched to alternate law) which pretty much switches off a good number of the automatics systems.

  42. Dave says:

    It seems two issues of automation and remote operation are getting blurred together. The “drones” making recent headlines are just fancy radio controlled aircraft with an earthbound pilot. Automation exists and is common to help with the well understood.

    The first is how “modern aircraft” are moving to fly by wire. With total fly by wire, the pundits would be right. You don’t need a pilot in the cockpit … or a cockpit for that matter. Every actuation of a control is done via a computer. With sufficient telemetry the crew of the flight deck could be dispatched the same way a call center dispatches an agent. There are still pilots flying the plane, they’re just not on the plane. They’d be in something that resembles a simulator. Of course this isn’t something we will do tomorrow. The technology needs to mature to a point where it can be trusted with commercial flights over populated areas.

    The second thing is automation. Automation can be great. When the problem domain is completely understood. The reality is you can’t automate what you don’t expect and sometimes a piece of meat in a seat is better at subjective judgement than software. In something as complex as flight, it’s impossible to foresee all possible scenarios. It’s valuable to have that crew on board to hear the unusual noises, smell the unusual odor and feel the unusual vibration to make informed judgement that current automation cannot. Automation doesn’t make the assessment of risk posed by the riled up drunk in 1st class.

    With these two ideas in tandem, I see the next evolution in aviation is the eliminating the on-board co-pilot with captain + remote control flight deck. Just as automation as eliminated the need for a flight engineer, automation and telemetry will eliminate the need for an on-board co-pilot.

    With time aircraft have began recording more information about flight parameters moving to relaying that information back to home base. Remote actuation has been around as long as radio communication. Like many technologies, the military is the tester and as the bugs are worked out in military use this technology will move into commercial use.

    Automation will come in and take care of more well understood activities just as it helped eliminate the flight engineer. Any procedure that can be written down can be automated. Any sequence of required procedures that can be encoded in a checklist can be automated. It’s just a matter of time when it becomes practical (read: when it’s cheaper to implement than maintain status quo).

    Pilot-less, fully automated flight will come. It’s not here yet. We the flying public and governing authorities on our behalf are not yet ready to trust it. Yet. But it will happen in time. Greater automation will continue as we learn more about what can happen in flight and what needs to be done. Those ever evolving procedures and checklists are just stepping stone to design, test and prove what could be automated.

  43. N Martin says:

    I admit to not having read all of the postings so far, so: if I’m duplicating, I apologize.

    I’m a big fan of Patrick’s and frankly, when he says the Hollywood ‘push a button and the computer takes over’ image is a myth, I’m inclined to believe him. I’m also inclined to believe that the people who say otherwise with irrelevant credentials are wrong. I’m not a pilot, but I do know something about computer programming, and this also makes me suspect Patrick is on the money.

    But.

    One of the reasons I love this column is his ability and willingness to explain things to the non-pilot. Unfortunately, this article is long on frustration and short on teaching. An appeal to credentials (or lack thereof) isn’t an explanation. Nor am I interested in the incentives various people have to lie or exaggerate, nor what might happen in some indeterminate future. It’s all intangible, only partially relevant and ultimately unsatisfying.

    The central question that I think Patrick is setting up is, Why is the autopilot not what non-pilots say it is? Surely there must be some way to explain at least part of the answer to that that doesn’t require me to actually fly a multi-million (billion?) dollar simulator.

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  46. [...] RELATED STORY: MORE MEDIA CLAPTRAP ABOUT COCKPIT AUTOMATION [...]

  47. Irma Prunesquallor says:

    I wonder if one thing that contributes to the “flying themselves” myth is cockpit videos of Airbus airliners.

    Because (many or all?) Airbus aircraft have no yoke, but instead use a joystick and the main control input, it quite often appears in these videos that the person in command of the aircraft is actually doing nothing. Of course, they are – it is just that what they are doing cannot be seen from the camera. This is in contrast to a more traditional cockpit, where input through the yoke can be seen clearly.

  48. Scott Y. says:

    Much of the public misperception with regards to this issue results from the fact that “autopilot” is really a complete misnomer.

    As a illustration, when one prepares their tax return using a computer and tax return software, it would be absurd for such person to say, “My computer did my tax return.” Similarly, when an accountant uses a computer (and spreadsheet software) as an aid in accounting tasks, it would be ridiculous to say, “The job was completed by auto-accountant.”

    All of the above examples involve a human being using a computer as an aid. They are NOT examples of a computer replacing a human. Further, all of the above examples involve a human being making inputs into a computer, and then cross-checking to see that the computer has performed its task appropriately. If the person using tax prep software is not careful to make the correct inputs, and then to cross-check the output of the computer, he risks paying too much in taxes…or being audited by the IRS.

    Similarly, a pilot operating in a complex environment replete with weather issues, traffic issues (and often technical issues) must make inputs to the “autopilot” that are 1) correct 2) timely and 3) carefully monitored.

    The pilot must competently perform all of the above 3 in order to maintain safety of flight. When the pilot fails to do so, accidents often result. For example, the crash of a Turkish Airlines 737 in 2009 was largely the result of the pilot’s failure to properly monitor the autothrottle system after a technical failure caused the thrust to go to idle during the approach.

    Flying an aircraft requires (in addition to other things) improvisational ability, judgement, and management. It will be a very long time before any of these can be automated.

    Further, the delegation of routine steering tasks is something much older than aviation itself. Think of an 17th century sailing ship: Did the Captain’s ability to delegate the routine steering of the ship to a junior enlisted man render the Captain unnecessary? Of course not, because routine steering tasks were not the substance of the Captain’s job. Judgement, improvisation, and management were the characteristics for which the Captain was needed.

  49. Jon says:

    At the risk of reviving this older thread… I’ll start with “I’m not a pilot, but I’ve been designing cockpits (with pilots) for 18 years. And full disclosure: I know Missy, I think this article is a bit harsh on her, but I share the author’s skepticism about both the timeline and efficacy of pilotless commercial transports.

    To consider two examples of tech:

    1) the DARPA Urban Challenge happened in 2007. The tasks in the challenge were detailed, but the Tartan/CAT/CMU/GM team succeeded. In a few ways (a few), this challenge had more variables than a flying task. This tech has spilled over into autonomous mining trucks (for example), which perform complex tasks safely in a hazardous environment. Likewise, Google has talked three states into allowing their automated cars on public roads (with limitations). These automated vehicles went from design to limited use in 8 years.

    2) pilotless transport helicopters are already flying missions in-theater. These are not drones, they are rotorcraft that are capable of flying a mission and adapting to some unexpected challenges. Like the vehicles above, they are faced with challenge that in some ways has more variables. Although some of their development history is not public, their development timeline seems to be even shorter than 8 years.

    Safety eval considers both probabillity and consequence. In both my examples, the consequence is considerably lower than that of a failure in a transport flying over suburbia, so an extrapolation from their development timeline is only meant as a rough analog.

    But one reason these systems are being deployed is that their very large corporate builders are able to sway lawmakers. They enjoy significant restrictions on their liability. It’s probably reasonable to surmise that the builders and operators of automated transports will successfully lobby for similar protections. That will increase their chances of deployment, and the dearth of adequate oversight will increase the risk burden for the public.

    So, while it’s important for ALPA to address hyperbolic comments quickly, it may be more important for pilot associations to get out ahead of issues like consequences, liability, and the inevitable design flaws introduced by complexity.

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