Pilot automation, a good idea?

We are enjoying the window view over the Mediterranean sea on our way to Ibiza, when we hear a voice through the cabin: "Ladies and gentleman, we started our descent into Ibiza and we should arrive in 25 minutes. The local weather is sunny and it is 25 degrees. Thank you for choosing us as your airline." It sounds like an everyday message by the pilot, but I notice something. The voice is not from the cockpit, it's computerized. Pilot Automation, a good idea?

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We are enjoying the window view over the Mediterranean sea on our way to Ibiza, when we suddenly hear a voice through the cabin: “Ladies and gentleman, we started our descent into Ibiza and we should arrive in 25 minutes. The local weather is sunny and it is 25 degrees. Thank you for choosing us as your airline.” It sounds like an everyday message by the pilot, but I notice something. The voice is not from the cockpit, it’s computerized. 

Nowaday’s technology is advanced. We are able to safely produce self-driving trains and we are about to introduce self-driving cars. The same applies to planes and especially their autopilots, which are very reliable and precise. In my flight training I even learned that no matter how good you fly, the autopilot always flies better. They are designed to guide the plane from A and land the plane with zero visibility at B. Theoretically speaking this means a plane would be able to complete a commercial flight without the use of a human pilot.

“no matter how good you fly, the autopilot ALWAYS FLIES BETTER.”

Humans have the ability to think and come up with advanced out of the box solutions. Autopilots however, cannot come up with solutions which are not in their database. They completely rely on the data from the aircraft’s systems and compare it with their own information to generate the actions that should be taken for example in the event of an emergency. Very rarely the data from the systems or the system itself are wrong, but if there is a mistake, the pilots are always there to act immediately and they are able to come up with an improvised solution. 

With pilotless flights, a big security problem occurs too. The last few years there is an explosive growth of advanced computer hacks. In 2015 hackers already showed that they can hack self-driving cars, by taking control over and crash a self-driving Jeep. This example demonstrates the effect that if the system of a pilotless plane is not propely secured, the consequences can be catastrophic.

ACCORDING TO INVESTMENT BANK UBS, AIRLINES CAN SAVE 35 BILLION DOLLAR EACH YEAR.”

For airlines however, pilotless flights are very interesting. It would save them the training costs and the salaries of the pilots. According to investment bank UBS, it could save the airlines around 35 billion dollar each year. On the other hand, to make pilotless flights possible and safe, a much bigger investment is necessary.

Human factors also play an important part in the decision whether to start flying without a human pilot. According to a research of Prof. Guohua Li from the Columbia University,  human error is the biggest cause of aviation accidents. Over 80% of general aviation and commuter crashes are to pilot error. However the numbers in commercial aviation are a bit different, ‘just’ 38% of the crashes was directly related to pilot error. Leading to a conclusion that a lot of accidents could have been prevented by the use of a pilotless plane.

But in the end, do we trust pilotless planes enough to fly with them?
For now, I still prefer to hear a human voice in the cabin instead of a computerized one. Back to work!

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