Automation: Help or Hinderance?

Posted on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 08:00
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All pilots do is take-off, press the autopilot button, drink coffee, then a few hours later, land the aircraft” 

I am sure the words above, or ones to that effect, have been heard thrown around a crew room, pub, or other social setting. Of course, pilots will understand that it’s not as black and white as that, but it is certain that the implementation of automation in flying has revolutionised the industry, especially in the modern era where the commercial aspect of flying is ever dominant. With 1000s of commercial and military flights operating every day utilising automation, it is clear that its use goes without any issues most of the time. However, there are numerous case studies of incidents whereby automation has proved to be not so helpful and even problematic. Evidence is present which highlights both sides of the argument, where the use of automation has proven to be a safeguard, and in contrast, others where automation has turned into a foe, either through malfunction, or misunderstanding of the system by the pilots. This article will explore the upsides and downsides of automation in how it has provided many positives for pilots, as well as how it has introduced new risks.

 

Software & Hardware vs Liveware (from the ‘SHELL’ model)

Pros

  • Correct use of autopilot certainly reduces workload by flying the aircraft on all its axis, thus taking away the need for a pilot to have to constantly be at the controls manually flying. This in turn increases capacity and enables more tasks to be undertaken, both by the system and the pilots. In this sense, the autopilot is invaluable by acting as an extra crew member, both flying and monitoring systems harmoniously, whilst holding specific values for long periods of time, which would otherwise prove to be tiresome and mundane for a human. This is certainly noticeable when an abnormal situation arises which requires the pilots full attention to problem solve, thus autopilot takes one less issue out of the equation by flying the aircraft while the pilots deal with the issue. Of course, the autopilot needs continuous monitoring, but it is less strenuous than manually flying whilst at the same time trying to problem solve.
  • Single-pilot operations. Following on from the previous point about automation acting as an extra crew member, this can be most noticeable as a benefit during single-pilot flights, such as those mostly found in corporate flying or general aviation flying. 
  • Cost effective flight operation is a vital and dominant factor in aviation, as airlines are constantly seeking to reduce costs whilst improving safety. Automation has helped by running the most cost effective performance calculations and enabling the aircraft to fly at the optimum parameters and thus save fuel costs. The onboard computers can quickly compute the optimum cruising flight levels, thrust and pitch settings to enable the aircraft to fly as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. Flying longer and more dynamic routes are also made possible due to this and so allows airlines to expand their route network and business models. Fuel systems are also automated so that the correct centre of gravity is maintained throughout the flight for optimum fuel efficiency and fuel allocation.
  • Enhanced protections are a major benefit of modern flight computer systems. A good example of this is Airbus with its flight control law,  which ensures operation within a safe flight envelope. This acts as extra layers of protection by ensuring that all parameters are within safe margins and even an inadvertent error by the pilot is prevented by the system.
  • Computers are very robust and can make very quick calculations and computations, faster than the human brain, analyse and execute to produce the required output. The ability to gather vast amounts of numerical data and process them almost instantaneously ensures efficiency and safety is kept to the highest possible standards. This greatly improves the accuracy of flying so that the required settings and values can be achieved at all times.
  • Ability to land aircraft in poor visibility weather conditions, which pilots may not have been able to do otherwise if not for system capability. An example of this is CAT3 autoland approaches with 0ft minimums, of course when both ground radio equipment and aircraft systems are fully functional to facilitate it. 
  • Increased situational awareness is no doubt a major and crucial benefit of automation. This ties in with the fact that workload is reduced for the pilots, which enables increased capacity to focus on other tasks such as monitoring parameters and aircraft position etc that will ensure the bigger picture is always the correct one. Any sudden deviations or other abnormalities can thus be detected promptly and dealt with. Any pilot who has flown a manual raw data ILS in poor visibility will understand how quickly capacity is reduced as they are focusing on various demanding tasks at the same time. It is easy to lose situational awareness if not managed properly.
  • Automation can reduce stress on the mind and body by freeing up capacity and decreasing mental and physical demand. This contributes to reducing fatigue, which is a detrimental issue in aviation, especially with demanding rosters and schedules.

 

Cons

  • Computers lack one vital element which the human mind has its sincere advantage over and that is - Creativity. Humans can think outside the box, which is a very important factor when it comes to flying, especially in abnormal situations and bring in emotions, such as empathy, into the decision making process, which computers simply cannot do. There have been many occasions where it's the pilots quick and out of the box thinking that has averted certain danger.
  • In the modern era there is a substantial reliance on automation, which can lead to pilots being over dependent and being led out of the automation loop, thus reducing SA. It is imperative that the present state of the autopilot system is being kept on top of at all times, as opposed to the autopilot being ahead of the pilot. There is a real danger here of pilots being left startled and unaware of what to do in the event of a sudden event. The startle effect is a temporary incapacitation which can last around 60 seconds and is especially prevalent during periods of low stimulation, such as during cruise flight with autopilot fully engaged. Automation complacency is also an issue which must be kept in mind and aware of at all times as a risk factor.
  • Fly-by-Wire is a control architecture in many aircraft, whereby the control of the aircraft surfaces are managed by the flight control computers. This means that there is little or no feedback to the pilots controls, thus leading on from the previous topic of the pilot being kept out of the automation loop. An incident with an A320 into Hong Kong highlighted this. One of the risk points here is that pilots may not know that they are inadvertently applying too much force to the control column thus increasing the stresses on the external surfaces. Also, in Airbus aircraft, when the automation is engaged, the control columns in the cockpit don’t move in accordance with the parameter changes, such as when auto thrust changes the thrust setting, the thrust levers don’t physically move unlike in Boeing aircraft. In this scenario, it is important for the pilots to keep on top of the system displays to ensure that they are aware of the thrust lever position and commanded thrust setting, especially when disengaging the auto thrust, so that there is no inadvertent unwanted thrust increase/decrease. An example of a thrust deviation causing loss of control is the Turkish B737 incident at Amsterdam.
  • Flight management and guidance systems can be very complex, thus hard for pilots to fully and comprehensively understand. Modern aircraft, such as Airbus, have control philosophies which are all a part of the whole aircraft system. There is a double risk here; 1) If there is misunderstanding of the modes, the wrong initial entry or selection may be executed, thus causing an undesired output. 2) In the event of an abnormal situation, lack of understanding of the system can cause the pilot to miss out a key correction or even input the wrong one, thus either failing to fix the problem or make it worse. Failure to understand the modes or recognise any deviation can lead to tragic events, such as Air France 447 and Asiana 224, to name just a couple.
  • Terrorism is an ever prominent and increasing threat, especially with geopolitical situations and cyber terrorism is a new and vastly growing threat. Computers are vulnerable and are liable to be hacked, as we have seen in the news regarding data breaches in airlines. If hackers can get hold of the resources to hack into an aircraft's computer system in flight, then the repercussions could be sinister. It paves the way for a different type of hijack where the hijackers don’t even need to be onboard. Even something as nefarious as hacking into the communications uplink and downlink system, such as ACARS, to provide incorrect clearances to the aircraft, thus leading it into a dangerous situation, is a potential risk. Protections must be put in place to prevent such situations from occurring, which of course will cost airlines money, but the advantages will surely outweigh the costs.
  • Reduction in manual flying skills is a key impact of heavy use of automation. Pilots usually engage the autopilot a few seconds after liftoff and don’t disengage until around 300-500ft above ground when landing. This means that the average time a pilot manually flies the aircraft each flight can be measured in seconds rather than minutes. We as pilots are aviators and so it is in our very nature to fly the aircraft by hand. Many airlines encourage pilots to do as much manual hand flying as possible, when it is safe and viable to do so, whereas others prefer to keep automation in as long as possible and even use auto land as much as possible. It is important to retain manual flying skills as a pilot and not just rely on simulator sessions to do so. 
  • Any computerised system has the susceptibility to defects and malfunction. A case study here is the MCAS malfunction which led to the B737MAX incidents, which have been rectified since. Thankfully, modern aircraft have redundancy built into the systems, which provide a backup in the event of a system failure, however, the real issue is when the backup system fails, thus a reversion to manual flight is needed. Understanding the system well and being able to recognise the degradation of a mode or selection can enable the pilot to make the safest and most appropriate rectification to the situation. Automation false alarms, if not recognised correctly can lead to false actions by the pilots and thus cause an undesired state. 

 

Has automation turned pilots from being aviators to just computer managers?

Clearly automation has revolutionised and transformed aviation from what it was decades ago to what is now, allowing us to travel further, faster and longer than ever before. But, there are risks involved as well as we have seen.

Automation works best when systems are fully operational and the pilots are kept inside the loop, with full understanding, control and awareness of the present situation, along with the ability to think ahead of the aircraft and anticipate what’s next. When both of these elements are in harmony, it provides the perfect ingredients that are conducive to a safe, efficient and smooth operation. The most dangerous situation is automation induced error being compounded by crew error. It is important that regular training is given in regards to automation and pilot interaction and to keep up to date with system knowledge and also be aware of and manage the risks associated with automated flight. If unsure at any time, training advises to disengage and revert to manual flight if safe to do so.

An interesting point which links on from what we have explored here is the potential of reducing or even removing the human factor. There is increasing talk and speculation about single-pilot commercial operations and maybe even one day, zero pilot operations, would you get onboard an aircraft for a 12 flight over oceans that didn’t have at least 2 pilots up front, or even no pilots?

 


 

Thank you for reading.

Varon

The Pilot Network Team

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