Human vs automation (2)

Automation can be very seductive, more so in the advent of these ultra modern wheezy jetliners that can almost be flown with little or no active human input. Last week, in an attempt to be as futuristic as I can possibly be on who sits in the cockpit of future jetliners (human or Robot).

I began by taking a look at both sides of total automation, while considering how far technology has brought us. Now the big question remains; can the flying public accept total automation, trusting soulless robots in command of their future jetliners?
A friend once told me that he was on an Emirate airlines B777 flight where the pilot announced after landing (in zero visibility) that the passengers could thank the computer for the landing because it would have been impossible to do manually. Does that sound right?

Under normal circumstances auto-land isn’t used very often, rather pilots would rather take a grab of the controls and land her themselves once one of the many instruments required is out of synch. The system does need to stay certified always because the auto-land is a very complex system and must run on a particular category of landing system.

(That’s Auto-land plus Rollout, so after the airplane lands, it holds and stays on the centerline). It means also that all the systems integrity must agree and if any of these items aren’t met, the auto-land system will downgrade itself and notify the Pilots that the procedure is unavailable and itswitches to the conventional system.

A few months before Northwest Airlines was acquired by Delta airlines,  it had one of its flight over flew its destination airport, Minneapolis, by 150 miles, though the pilots claim that they had lost track of time while they were working on their laptops, while some skeptical of their reason felt they had fallen asleep and refused to admit it.

Although Northwest airlines issued a statement saying the use of laptops in the cockpit was in violation of company’s policy and it would seek to terminate their employment. On top of the obvious, “What the hell were they thinking”? Of course the major concern is the role of automation and its seductive powers. Accepting the pilot’s story, it does show a remarkable confidence in aircraft’s automated flight systems, to the point of nonchalantly ignoring them.

About the same period, a video story was aired on ABC’s World News called “Automation Addiction” that tried to address this particular issue. Essentially, the story says that many pilots find it hard not to become complacent or distracted because the aircraft systems are so capable and reliable.
This means that commercial pilots are finding they have less to do during routing portions of long flights as engines, navigation devices and automated flight management systems have become more sophisticated and reliable.

Equipment malfunctions occurs so rarely that one of the biggest worries among safety expert is how to keep pilots engaged in monitoring flight instruments. Most often, the crew looks for ways to fill idle time on long flights, sometimes leading to spells of inattention and that is why the designers of the new B787 dreamliner incorporated an alert system for the pilots which also includes a written alert and then followed by an alarm, if activity isn’t detected in the cockpit after a certain amount of time.
Some even suggested that airline pilots on long hauls should intermittently be required to push a button a very few minutes like many train drives have to do to show they are awake, up and running.

For any successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled, referring to the noble laureate Richard Feynman’s famous observation and its relevance within the aviation industry and general public that the new technology being incorporated into the latest generation of aircraft will by itself eliminate all airline accidents.
Commenting on the quote Yale University Professor Emeritus Edward Tufte suggests that NASA for example overtly positive marketing pitch on the safety of space shuttle led to the public’s estimating the likely odds of a loss of crew and vehicle as 1 in 100,000 flights when in reality it was a far more sobering 1 in 57.

Furthermore, an engineering professor and aviation safety expert Prof. NajmedinMeshkati, also reflecting on the quote suggests that aviation industry and its regulators have become” Star Struck by technological solution” as a result of aircraftsuch a Boeing 777 having minimal or negligible fatality-free record in commercial service.

We have become complacent by thinking that technology will solve all problems. Faith in the curative powers of new-technology aircraft was demonstrated when one blacklisted airline was allowed back into European airports only with its new B777s while another carrier on EU blacklist as well cites the planned introduction of same high-tech aircraft as its ticket back into EU airspace, meaning technology/automation can be more reliable than that old human frailties.

Prof. Meshkati still believes that all the gee-whiz technology may be masking deterioration and “de-skilling” in basic flying ability and that the lessons learned by generations of pilots may be lost to the new breed pilots. That view reflects a comprehensive study based on RAF institute of Aviation Medicine data by Dr Marianne Rudisill in 1995 that surveyed more than 1,000 pilots from over 20 airlines and aircraft manufacturers about pilot’s attitude and experience with flight deck automation.

The strength of the study was that most respondents had flown aircraft from basic gauges cockpit types like the B707, B727 through the glass II types such as A320 and B747-400s. It also found the general consensus was that safety is increased with automation but automation may lend a false sense of security particularly with inexperienced pilots.

Pilots further reported that there was a higher sense of insecurity during an automation failure and a general temptation to ignore raw information and follow the green/magenta line, and the most worrying aspect was that pilots unconsciously became too complacent and relying too much on automation.

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