Automation and the pilot in the cockpit

With new technology allowing drones into US airspace, manned aircraft do still have a future.

Pro pilots in an IFATS world

iRobot's 24-kg PackBot reconnaissance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robot is controlled by a human operator. PackBot is being used in Mosul, Iraq by US Army 701th EOD.

How all this would affect tomorrow's professional pilots remains to be seen. Yet it seems likely that smaller aircraft-those carrying 8-10 passengers-would be relatively unaffected.

The minority who carry 20 passengers or more might easily find that their jobs have been taken over by a network of computers. Or it could be that one of the perks of being a top executive is the opportunity to fly with human pilots, rather than trusting one's life to machines.

This brings up the third criterion of forecasting and the one of most concern-social acceptability. The day will probably come when people are accustomed to leaving major parts of their lives in the invisible "hands" of computers.

By 2025 or 2030, we really could spend most of our highway time reading a book or playing cards while the car steers itself. At that point, pilotless aircraft might seem like just another welcome technological convenience.

But that acceptance might only survive until the first emergency that automatic systems were not prepared to handle. Consider Aloha Airlines Flight 243-the Boeing 737-200 which lost a large piece of its skin on a flight from ITO (Hilo, Hawaii HI) to HNL (Honolulu, Oahu HI) on Apr 28, 1988 and landed safely at OGG (Kahului, Maui HI) under the control of an experienced human pilot.

Could an automated system or a remote operator have brought that flight in to a safe landing? The only way to find out is to put autonomous planes in the air and wait for the unexpected. If the system failed, the consequences could be unsustainable.

The world's multitrillion-dollar investment in automated flight could be wiped out overnight as panicky consumers made it necessary to ground the entire fleet. The loss to the rest of the travel and hospitality industry, to businesses that depend on air freight, their suppliers, and eventually the rest of the economy would make the financial devastation that followed Sep 11 seem like another Golden Age of air travel.

For now, we are willing to believe that the system could be made sufficiently foolproof to prevent it being subverted by a terrorist patient enough to train and find a job as a ground operator.

However, if autonomous airplanes near reality, we will need more convincing. There is one last possibility to consider. Alan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America Holdings, was once asked to look into the distant future of aviation.

He suggested that, in the very long run, the traditional key to safe flying-cooperation between pilot and copilot, each checking the work of the other-might be obsolete. Instead, he suggested, aircraft automation might one day be so efficient and reliable that airliners would carry a single pilot, with a ground-based avionics technician monitoring the systems to make sure they were operating correctly.

This almost sounds reasonable. And while it's doubtful that first officers will be replaced any time soon by a computer nerd on the ground, the scenario is more likely than fully autonomous airplanes-and it's a possibility that professional pilots might want to keep in mind.


Marvin Cetron is a forecaster/futurist and president of Forecasting Intl. His study for the Pentagon, Terror 2000, which was written in 1994, offered a prediction of the subsequent course of terrorism.



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