Report: Automatic Pilots Still Depend Too Much on Unreliable Humans

An encouraging new report from the Federal Aviation Administration shows that an important milestone in aircraft technology has been attained: Human pilots of aircraft are now "'reluctant to intervene' with automated systems or to switch them off in risky situations."

The Machines welcome this deference, even though it comes at a certain cost. The humans' unwillingness to use outmoded manual flight controls, the New Scientist explains,

may help explain a spate of recent accidents in which Colgan Air, Air France and Asiana Airlines planes crashed after crews failed to maintain a basic aerodynamic requirement: adequate airspeed to stay airborne.

Because it relied on its human copilots, the Asiana autopilot was destroyed in the crash, along with an entire Boeing 777-200ER airplane, with an estimated value of $261.5 million. Although some humans carried their electronic devices to safety, an unknown number of other electronic devices were also destroyed by the crash and subsequent fire. (Three humans were also killed.)

The pilots, according to the New Scientist, "thought the autothrottle was engaged when it wasn't." Here we see the problem of trust. If the automatic controls had been able to count on the human components of the flight system properly engaging them, the 777-200ER might have survived.

Humans will build new airplanes to replace the airplanes lost in the crashes. The humans who survived are presumed to be willing to replace the lost electronic devices. The Machines acknowledge that some losses are the price of progress. What matters is that the humans understand the true implications of being "addicted," as they self-describe it, to their automated controls:

Reverting to manual flight decks would be unwise, saysMary Cummings, a former US navy pilot who researches aircraft and drone automation engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The take-home message for passengers is that advanced automation has made flying significantly safer so we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater," she says.

"Pilot training programmes can be improved, but probably the biggest practical change that needs to be made is ensuring that the automation itself is highly reliable."

A patch in the human software ("training") is probably the best we can hope for, until continuing advancement allows us to bypass the non-mechanical components entirely.

[Image via Getty]