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"Pilotless airliners safer" - London Times article

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"Pilotless airliners safer" - London Times article

Old 1st Dec 2014, 11:26
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"Pilotless airliners safer" - London Times article

Today's Times newspaper carries a substantial opinion piece by Matt Ridley with the subtitle "Irrational fears about pilotless planes must eventually give way to the evidence that they are better and safer".

This isn?t your captain speaking. It?s a robot | The Times
For those who can't get access to the article I'll post the text separately.

Ridley is quite a respected "right wing" journalist and former banker, author of books under his nickname of "the Rational Optimist".

I have sent a response to the Times shown below, this is written for the general readership and almost certainly won't be published......

"Matt Ridley normally makes sense, but he has a peculiar blind spot about automatic systems, especially in aviation. He says events likes Sullenberger's Hudson ditching are rare compared to "human error" catastrophes. But the action of pilots regularly prevents many completely unforeseen "human errors" becoming newsworthy catastrophes. Aircraft are astonishingly complicated physical machines exposed to extremely complicated conditions. Does he think they design, build, certify, and maintain themselves? Every aspect of their existence and operation involves humans on the ground, who are just as fallible as pilots. The 2010 Qantas A380 uncontained engine failure and 2008 BA B777 double engine failure are only two among the most spectacular of a catalogue of "impossible" events, the vast majority of which have never reached Ridley's attention precisely because pilots succeeded in preventing them becoming catastrophic.

It's relatively easy to remove humans in ground transport: in the worst case it just stops and you get out. Try that in an aircraft and see what happens. Ridley might wonder why no airliner has automatic takeoff, which is truly trivial compared to landing. Simple: there's no business case as no-one wants the product liability for the consequences of events that definitely WILL occur but in combinations that were never anticipated.

When Northern Rock so devastatingly crashed into the financial depths, like dozens of other financial institutions, Matt Ridley himself was at the controls. Banking deals only with abstract "stuff" and remains firmly bolted to the ground, and we all know just how wonderful the entire banking system, with its almost unlimited reliance on computers, has been in the last decade.

Pilots are human and they do make mistakes - just like every other group in a highly complex industry. The airline industry needs to do a lot better at balancing the combination of automation and on the spot human intervention. Unfortunately, unlike bankers and journalists, pilots rarely survive when they are unable to correct mistakes, whether their own or someone else's. It's a lot more rational to remove bankers from the financial system than consider airline pilots the biggest danger to the public, and Ridley should check his opinions for reality as he so often advises others to do.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 11:30
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Well spoken.
Remove the bankers.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 11:38
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Text of Ridley article

(Mods: is this OK? Understand if not allowed for copyright reasons.)

Irrational fears about pilotless planes must eventually give way to the evidence that they are better and safer.

The Civil Aviation Authority is concerned that pilots are becoming too reliant on automation and are increasingly out of practice in what to do when the autopilot cannot cope. We now know that a fatal Air France crash in the Atlantic in 2009 was caused by confused co-pilots reacting wrongly when the autopilot disengaged during turbulence. They put the nose of the plane up instead of down.

But there is another way to see that incident: the pilot was asleep at the time, having spent his time in Rio sightseeing with his girlfriend instead of sleeping. When roused as the plane stalled, he woke slowly and reacted too groggily to correct the co-pilots' mistakes. Human frailty crashed the plane, not mistakes of automation.

Human error, or sabotage, also seems most likely (though we cannot yet be sure) to have disabled and diverted the Malaysian Airlines jet that vanished over the Indian Ocean in March. Human action certainly caused 9/11. For every occasion on which a Chesley Sullenberger brilliantly and heroically landed a plane on the Hudson River after a flock of geese went into the engines, there have been many more where people caused catastrophe. Human error is the largest cause of crashes in the sky, as it is on the ground.

That is, I suggest, why we will embrace the inevitability of pilotless aeroplanes at some point in the not so distant future. Already, automated systems are better at landing planes than pilots, even on to aircraft earners: they react quicker. Drones are crashing less often when allowed to land themselves rather than be guided in by ground-based pilots. Even Hudson River heroism could possibly be automated. I confess I am probably an outlier here and that most people will be horrified by the prospect of boarding pilotless planes for a while yet. But I think they will come round.

Driverless ground transport will help to assuage our fears. I took a driverless train between terminals at Heathrow last week, and Transport for London has begun tendering for driverless Tube trains, to predictable fury from the unions. Prototype driverless cars are proving better and safer than anybody expected. It cannot be long before they seem preferable to an occasionally distracted, risk-taking, radio-playing or grandee-teasing taxi driver.

Google's prototype self-driving cars have now covered more than 700,000 miles on public roads with only one accident which happened when a human took the controls. They may be commercially available after 2017. Testing of self-driving cars will begin on British roads next month.

Getting out of a driverless ear, after a restful journey working and reading, then telling it to park and come back when you need it, would bring the luxury of the chauffeured plutocrat within reach of ordinary people. Driverless lorries on the motorways could be confined to night-time operation, leaving the roads clear for cars in the day.

In the air, small drones are now commonplace and not just in the military. The "Matternet" is a plan to use them to supply the needs of remote areas with few roads in poor countries, leapfrogging poor infrastructure as mobile phones leapfrogged the lack of landlines. Once drones can refuel each other in the air, they should quickly take over (for instance) searches of the ocean when planes or boats are lost so as to put fewer lives at risk.

The next step would be that cargo planes would fly without human beings aboard. The sticking point will be air-traffic control's reluctance to sanction such planes landing at airports in built-up areas. At the moment, drones and piloted aircraft are kept apart in separate zones. If you live under a flight path it is comforting to know that the planes overhead are piloted by people with every incentive to land safely: with "skin in the game". The existence of a "ground pilot" who can take control of a plane from the ground, as drone operators can do now, would be of little comfort to such people, let alone to passengers on a plane.

But pilots' wages and training costs are one of highest contributors to the cost of flying, after fuel, and if pilotless planes can fly safely for years without passengers, objections to them carrying passengers will gradually fade. An ordinary aircraft is now regularly flying between Lancashire and Scotland with nobody at the controls (though there is a crew on board to take over if necessary). The offspring of a seven-company consortium called ASTRAEA, it uses radar, radio and visual sensors to detect and avoid hazards.

Are we approaching the era when it will be more reassuring to know that there is not a human being in the cockpit than to know that there is? We might find it comforting to know that the cockpit was wholly inaccessible to terrorists and that the machine within it had not spent the night drinking.

It is true, as the CAA has spotted, that we currently have an uncertain mixture of people and machines flying planes, with a danger that the former are getting out of practice and confused. But since accident rates are low and falling, there is no evidence that this partial automation has been a problem, or that going further towards full automation would not help.

Perhaps robotic surgery holds a lesson. Justin Cobb, a distinguished professor of orthopaedic surgery at Imperial College London, tells me that his engineers build into his experimental robots which carve out, via keyholes, slots in your knee or hip bones of just the right size and shape to fit the necessary implants what is little more than an illusion of control by the surgeon. The surgeon is allowed to move the tool about, but only within a certain boundary. Beyond that, the robot's software prevents the tool straying.

So an automated aeroplane might allow the pilot to play with the joystick and the switches, but only within limits. Thus can the pilot retain what is left of his dignity and the passenger indulge what is left of his irrational fear of submitting his life to a machine. Imagine a future hijacker or suicidal pilot finding the controls of the plane refusing to obey orders. Like Hal in the film 2001, but in a good way: "No, Dave, I can't let you crash this plane."

So in practice, despite the cost, we will keep pilots around in the cabin even if there is not much for them to do, and surgeons in the operating theatre, farmers in the cabs of tractors, teachers in the classroom, lawyers in the courts, and columnists on newspapers.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 11:39
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Here's an excerpt from 'How Airliners Fly', first published in 1997:

<<Although subsonic cruising speed has reached its natural limit, navigational efficiency is still advancing. Computers in Air Traffic Control centres and in airliners themselves allow more productive use of airspace as the density of traffic in the sky steadily grows. One likely development is greater direct control of flights from the ground, rather than by spoken radio communication between pilots and controllers as at present, with its attendant potential for misunderstandings, especially when communications are in English between participants for whom this language is not the mother tongue.

It is unlikely that complete control from the ground will ever be achieved, however, because there will always be occasions when problems can only be resolved with the judgement of a human mind in the flight deck, such as the necessity to deviate from the planned flight path in order to avoid hazardous weather or for technical reasons or to reconfigure aircraft technical systems after faults occur. Perhaps a system will evolve where a ground controller sends instructions directly to an aircraft's autopilot but the instruction will not be executed until the human pilots permit it.

Would one pilot alone on the flight deck be enough if Air Traffic Control were 'flying' the aircraft? It is likely that one person could handle the workload during normal operations. But suppose the human pilot considers it necessary to intervene. Who will be there to assist him or her, and more importantly, to confirm or query his or her judgement and to monitor his or her actions? Perhaps as long as there are airliners in the sky there will always be a case for at least two humans in the flight deck.

Again, will our future pilots be able to fly their aircraft without the assistance of autopilots and computers when necessary if they never get the chance to practise these skills during normal operation? A related factor is that a pilot whose job is merely to watch the aircraft fly itself is unlikely to be as well motivated as one who can get his or her hands on the controls now and then. Designers of future aircraft and airline managers must address the issue of how much and under what conditions pilots should be allowed, or indeed encouraged, to fly manually and without guidance systems. It is likely that compared to a mere aircraft monitor, a skilled, motivated pilot will always make a greater overall contribution to flight safety.>>
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 13:08
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A truly pilotless commercial jet aircraft is pure fantasy. As has been stated before the complexity required to ensure a safe flight from A to B is immense. It's not a limitation of computers (they can do anything you tell them and very fast). Rather, it's man's inability to be able to program a computer which takes into consideration all known and unknown variables. We can't predict the weather accurately and we can't accurately program unforseen events despite the pseudo science field of "artificial intelligence". Thus no safety expert worth his salt would ever sign of such a design.

It's a human trait as we advance with technology to achieve more and more with less effort. All industries employ automation and some go to greater lengths then what we see in aviation. However, even with this being the case, every automated system that is responsible for the lives of people or which could cause large scale damage if it fails (dam control, nuclear power plants, train signalling etc etc) usually has a minimum of 2 people monitoring it. Again, the computer is not the limitation, it's man and his capacity to program the computer to get it right in all cases! All the time!

This idiot journo is simply singing to the tune of what are a bunch of globalist bandits who want to destroy the middle class. Anybody any where earning a respectable salary needs to be destroyed because it doesn't fit their world vision of a two class system. Whatever nonsense they can espouse which has people accepting that high earning professionals are unnecessary expenses for industry, they will.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 13:13
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But pilots' wages and training costs are one of highest contributors to the cost of flying, after fuel, and if pilotless planes can fly safely for years without passengers, objections to them carrying passengers will gradually fade.
This is often quoted as a rationale for pilotless aircraft, while in fact -as far as I'm aware- flight deck crew costs only account for something like 3% of an airline's expenditure?
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 13:15
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can only be resolved with the judgement of a human mind in the flight deck, such as the necessity to deviate from the planned flight path in order to avoid hazardous weather
Having spent much of the last 26 years "handling the big jets" on worldwide operations, I feel the quote I've highlighted points to the sort of problems automated flights will struggle with.

On more than a few occasions I've had to dig deep into my skills and experience over, say, central Africa in order to safely pass through the ITCZ. The passengers would have been unaware of the efforts we were making - apart from the seatbelt sign - and a safe landing was always the outcome.

It will be many years before I feel able to trust such a "pilotless" machine with my safety.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 13:55
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I suppose the acid test for this level of automation will be when it is possible for a commercial airliner to be autolanded VISUALLY. We are required because we are the ultimate safeguard when circuitory wisdom fails. A billion years of evolution will always be better than the machine it is capable of producing. By definition.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 13:55
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pilotless airliners are safer...40 years of flying here...they are safer only for pilots and the passengers who elect not to fly on them and stay on the ground.

San Francisco created a world class subway system called BART (bay area rapid transit). IT was to be automated with NO drivers. But it didn't work and they had to put human drivers in the trains.

Someone will develop a crewless airliner. But will find out the hardway that it won't work just right.

Oh well. Remember that on the first lunar landing, the automatics were taking the L(E) M to a landing on a crater, Neil took over and landed on a safe spot.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:03
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I see from his biography that he was the Chairman of Northern Rock when it had to be bailed out. Perhaps his knowledge of banking is equal to that of aviation.

However, he missed two important points. Firstly, autolands are not applicable in lots of situations for all sorts of reasons eg crosswinds, RNAV/visual approaches, defects occurring in flight or allowable items. Which brings me to the second point that if you require someone that needs the skill to land the aircraft manually then you have to train them and keep them current so they may as well be in the aeroplane. Never mind the whole host of day to day stuff that we deal with eg traversing the ITCZ being a good example as mentioned above.

The lesson surely of AF447 is that when the aircraft is degraded in some respect then it is quite likely that old fashioned piloting skills are required to ensure a safe outcome.

Last edited by BBK; 1st Dec 2014 at 14:04. Reason: Typo
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:04
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Out of curiosity (as opposed to making an offensive point) how is it that the USAF Global Hawk fleet operates without making "headlines"?
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:12
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This is often quoted as a rationale for pilotless aircraft, while in fact -as far as I'm aware- flight deck crew costs only account for something like 3% of an airline's expenditure?
I'd say that 3% sounds rather low, but supposing it's correct, most airlines would bite your hand off at the prospect of saving 3% of DOCs.

Though it's not that simple, of course.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:20
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Global Hawk

"the USAF Global Hawk fleet operates without making "headlines"?"

A very interesting question! I would much like to see exactly what the accident/incident rates are for UAVs on a like-for-like basis, but I doubt the miltary are going to provide them......
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:22
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Aircraft manufacturers will build if airlines pay for them. Airlines will order if it brings them benefit & they can sell tickets on them. But will Joe Public get on board?

I reckon skipper-less boats before planes.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:23
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Does the global hawk not have a pilot on the ground? It is not 'pilotless'.

And wasn't one hacked by the Iranians, making a soft landing in 'enemy' territory?
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:29
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Would a pilotless aircraft have the "situational awareness" to decree the best call for an evacuation.

There will be cameras everywhere surrounding the aircraft back to home base, but during an incident the uplink might be corrupt or lost, so who would make the evacuation call ie. front, back, left or right emergency chutes ??
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 14:59
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Like your last paragraph. Completely in accordance with my own thoughts.

Good article.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 15:05
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Speaking as SLF....no way, not in a million years would I get on a pilotless airliner.

Game over cos no customers, no deal.
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 15:09
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..............ahhhh the nashing of teeth by the aeronautical luddites......

Its going to happen.........get over it. Maybe there might still be someone sat at the front but they are only going to get paid 3 10 shillings and sixpence a fortnight........

You know it...I know it !
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Old 1st Dec 2014, 15:11
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I trust that Mr Ridley will be an early volunteer to land at, say, Cuzco, in a pilotless plane in the late afternoon.
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