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Opportunities, Challenges, and Limits of Automation in Aircraft

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Opportunities, Challenges, and Limits of Automation in Aircraft

Old 1st Jan 2015, 21:14
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Opportunities, Challenges, and Limits of Automation in Aircraft

Because I suspect this will come up frequently I figured the topic of automation of aircraft and the limits of such might deserve its own post. I am not a pilot. I am a systems/software engineer with a very strong interest in aerodynamics and have been following to a very large extent the field of vehicular automation and how, sometimes, reliance on automation can lead to impaired situational awareness and tragedy. This is not just an issue with aircraft but with trains, cruise ships, and now even with cars. The field affects, frankly everybody, and it is not one in the case of aircraft where the techies are going to just solve the problems. This is going to require a lot of feedback and thinking from everyone in the field.

This is not an Airbus vs Boeing flame. There are advantages and disadvantages to both designs, and significant flaws in both approaches. This field is still in its infancy. I will probably talk about Airbus more than Boeing here, but I think you will see it doesn't go all one way.

There is also no doubt that automation in some areas has made travel in all modes safer. However, because this is usually approached incrementally, the operator/automation interface is not considered from the start but instead considered only in addition to the current control interface or a slightly modified version of it. The advantage here is familiarity. The disadvantage is that the coupling often happens on suboptimal levels.

Let's start with a couple of very basic problems with automation. While automation has been, on the whole good, it is not an unmixed blessing. Increasingly reliable and capable automation has increasingly complex and problematic failure modes. This means that the operator is forced into a worse position recovery-wise, with more complicated troubleshooting information presented. One of the critical findings of the AF447 report was that the pilots were not in a position to quickly and reliably determine that all the errors were coming simply from blocked pitot tubes. So instead of letting the pilots know exactly what they needed to know, they got a slew of warnings and in the ensuing confusion stalled a perfectly well-flying airplane. So a hard "I don't know what to do -- you take over" approach has real problems associated with it (including lives lost).

So the primary challenges with automation as we currently do it, assuming it works as designed (more on problems with that assumption below) is that situation awareness often when things go wrong, and that recovery is harder when things do go wrong.

But what if it doesn't work as intended? In good weather things may be recoverable. In bad? who knows?

In 2007, a squadron of F22's were on their first deployment overseas when all the sudden, they ran into a problem. All of the sudden, large portions of their avionics (including some communication systems, inertial reference, and many other systems) suddenly stopped working. Unable to navigate, and with very little computer aid, they were able to follow tankers back to Hawaii, where the problem was found and fixed. Based on the description of the error, it sounds like an integer overflow or underflow error. One line in a million line codebase, and the international date line proved it was more than a match for the most advanced fighter the US had at the time. Pilots need to be able to perform recovery obviously even when computer errors cause problems.

A similar software-induced problem was seen with Malaysian Airlines flight 142 in August 1, 2005, where the aircraft suddently performed a series of uncommanded maneuvers, taking the plane up to 41k feet, and then losing thousands of feet. The pilots recovered. The problem was that two (out of six) accellerometers had failed in an inertial reference unit, and a software bug caused data to be read from a faulty accellerometer. The plane was a Boeing 777-200. Recovery from bad automation in clear weather has not been a huge problem so far other than in terms of nerves, stress, and schedules. In bad weather both of these could have turned out very differently.

Indeed, the current generation of automation-related tragedies are not when things are malfunctioning in terms of design, but when they are operating in accordance with design. One of the earliest cases I know of was SAS 751, which crashed after automatic thrust restoration spun stalling engines up enough to tear them apart (all passengers and crew survived). That was on a DC9.

The problems come in two forms: uncommanded changes, whether it is overriding the captain's throttle settings, or suddenly climbing, or whether it is the autopilot disengagement procedure causing lack of situation awareness. Frankly regarding Adam Air, since I am not a pilot, I am wondering: the procedure is, in the middle of a thunderstorm in a plane slowly banking right, to fly wings level with no artificial horizon while that resets? Is that even realistically survivable in that set of circumstances? Is not a big part of the problem an insufficient safety margin on artificial horizon availability in the glass cockpit, at least when the 737-400 came out? Hopefully newer models are better?

Since AF447, one of the areas I am most critical of Airbus in, is the fact that there is insufficient feedback as to what the other pilot is doing regarding stick inputs. This is a serious oversignt in the Airbus design. In theory "I am in control" should be enough. In practice, when that doesn't happen in an emergency, you might not know it. That's a problem and it is a further contributor to lack of situation awareness of the flight crew there. This is particularly the problem when the crew is distracted with a large number of warnings following autopilot disengagement.

So what is to be done?

One thing I think Airbus deserves some credit for is the flight law system. The flight law system adds a logical layer of automation and abstraction between the pilot and the controls. It's a pioneering system and like all such systems, it builds on past knowledge and makes some new mistakes. But I think conceptually it is a good start. The interface between pilots and aircraft needs to be rethought and this is I think the first step.

So here are my thoughts on where things should head. They come out of a fairly close following of this topic for several years but they lack practical flying experience. Therefore these are offered for discussion and in the hope that rather than found useful themselves, they may inspire useful thoughts:

1. Less elimination of human functions. The crew is likely to either be totally eliminated or totally incorporated in the flying. The functions of the crew are likely to be high level (airplane, do this!) and the automation then assumes the role of doing that.

2. Replace "flight laws" with "flight strategies" and theme the glass cockpit according to the strategy, so that there are subtle reminders built into many instruments as to what the plane is doing. For example, with unreliable airspeed, the plane can fly pitch and power.

3. Work needs to be done to better understand failure hierarchies and to avoid displaying, by default, cascading failures to pilots in the event of problems. Of course pilots should have *access* to this in the course of troubleshooting....

4. Bring back the flight engineer in modified form. It may be worth having a flight engineer station on many long-range aircraft which can be optionally filled (in lieu of data link to ground engineers), but also pilot not flying may also take over more of this role.

But of course there are limits. Automation won't change aerodynamics. Automation can't work in areas where the automated systems cannot know the information directly. And automated systems can apply heuristics but they cannot exercise judgement.

Anyway open to thoughts and discussion.
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Old 1st Jan 2015, 23:30
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And the Question is...

Nice sermon and one that few can object to. Was there a question embedded someplace in there?
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Old 1st Jan 2015, 23:45
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Like he said, this is to inspire discussion
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Old 2nd Jan 2015, 10:48
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Couple of different things I’d like to share:

#1 Re-current training of crews in the simulator

Every 6 months, we get sim checked, some airlines (the better ones) will also throw in a few training sessions before this. However, the training and the sim check ride scenarios are almost identical to the ones before.

We take off, climb to around 10,000ft, get a TCAS RA (traffic avoidance instruction), followed by a hydraulic or electrical problem. We decide to turn back, perform an ILS to land. Simulator is reset, we depart same runway, engine fails upon rotation, we perform a single engine ILS approach with a go around. We come back again to do a non-precision approach to land. Simulator is reset once more, we depart, there's an engine fire prior to rotation, we stop on the runway, carry out the evacuation. The sim session ends and we go home.

In 5 years of flying the Airbus, my training / sim check scenarios have not deviated from the above. In fact, I've never climbed above 15,000ft in a simulator ever. I've never had an unreliable speed problem (other than a single ADR failure which results in one of the PFDs spitting out an inaccurate air speed - no big deal, switch the source over to ADR3) and even that was in simulated visual conditions.

There is so much that could potentially go wrong in flight, most of the training focusses on resolving issues related to that specific aircraft. The handling, unusual attitude, and partial panel (where only some instruments are available) skills you learn during initial IR training do not get practiced in a medium/large jet simulator. It is assumed what you learned on a single engine piston plane will stay with you forever. Quite simply, training budgets don’t allow for this kind of training and it's my personal belief that airlines will probably end up firing many pilots who are simply not up to the job. Yes, I’m sad to say, but within this industry we have a very large pool of semi-talented people (especially in the third world) who are only in paid flying jobs because of nepotism and friendly/financial/political favours.

#2 – Software/hardware improvements and bureaucracy

There are countless improvements we could make to modern EFIS setups that would help enormously and it's no secret that the avionics of many modern general aviation aircraft are far better in terms of features and functionality than what Airbus and Boeing are producing even today. Despite, the industry experiencing some pretty disastrous events; we have not seen much done. After learning lessons from accidents, and to avoid the likelihood of repeats, a few software changes are all that is required to decrease the likelihood of the same mishandling to occur. The inputs are there because they are integral to the original design of the aircraft and in most cases the computing hardware is there too, but the logic wasn't considered at the time of initial design. However, even minor software changes need to go through exhaustive certification processes that end up becoming uneconomical for manufacturers to pursue. Thus, we typically do not see improvements for 15-20 years.

I have perhaps not made this point properly but I have also worked in other industries where the timescales associated with idea inception, coding, testing and certification are much smaller and the costs highly manageable. In aviation, the progress of change/improvement is heavily stagnated.
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Old 2nd Jan 2015, 11:50
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So the primary challenges with automation as we currently do it, assuming it works as designed (more on problems with that assumption below) is that situation awareness often when things go wrong, and that recovery is harder when things do go wrong.

In just about every simulator initial training I have seen where the pilot has never flown a jet or large turbo-prop transport aircraft before, the immediate accent is on use of all the automatic features from the word go. Follow the flight director is the universal cry by the simulator instructor. The old saying of "I can't fly but I can type at 80 wpm" applies to a great number of pilots who have been totally brain-washed into automatics.

While there has been knee-jerk advice (usually following the latest accident) to add more manual flying during recurrent simulator sessions, the whole point is being missed and that is a frightening number of airline captains and first officers simply cannot fly, or have forgotten how to fly. By "fly" I mean basic instrument flying skills in IMC without the aids of a flight director and automatic throttle. Those of fortunate enough to have flown the Boeing 737-200 series or the 727 where manual flying on line was considered SOP, usually had no trouble, if flying the glass cockpit Boeings, with disengaging the automatics and seamlessly taking control manually.

This opinion, like most PPRuNe contributions, is personal opinion but based on one's own flying experience over many years. I would have thought the natural progression of a training syllabus for a type rating would start with the first few sessions of getting to know the flying characteristics of the aircraft. That is vital in order to gain confidence. In essence it will include raw data non-automatics features. Once a pilot can fly accurate visual circuits without the FMC and other goodies to help him find his way in the circuit, plus be consistently able to handle max crosswind landings, is competent at high and low altitude stall recoveries in IMC and knows how to recover from serious unusual attitudes in the simulator, then the time has come to learn the next steps and that is auto flight.

If the candidate is unable to demonstrate he can fly the aircraft without blind reliance on the automatics, then someone has to make a decision regarding his future with that company.

Forget the cries of extra costs of simulator time. Operators cannot have it both ways. If they want competent pilots able to safely handle the aircraft manually as well be entirely familiar with using the automatics, then the extra costs involved must be accepted.

It reminds me of another old saying that flying aeroplanes means hours and hours of boredom punctuated by occasional moments of intense fear. From what I see, the occasional intense fear is when the incompetent pilot loses the automatics and is forced to fly manually raw data...

Last edited by Centaurus; 2nd Jan 2015 at 12:05.
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Old 2nd Jan 2015, 16:18
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Without wishing to get too deeply into the raw data argument, a lot of it depends on individual attitude. Some pilots fly raw data quite regularly, normally surface to FL100, or vectors to the ILS down. Others plonk the AP in at 1000' and take it out at about the same.

However, there are a number of raw data Jedi out there who will switch everything off at FL100 whatever the weather, and these are the types who pop up in the monthly safety digest landing without landing flaps, or throwing the approach away still doing 250kts at the landing gate.

Regarding automation philosphies, whenever especially Airbus are discussed, their philosphy is defended (especially by DozyWannabe) by pointing out that Airbus pilots were intimately involved in their development. That does not mean that they weren't wrong, or that they were part of a particular intellectual movement within their branch of engineering that is now coming under further scrutiny as it is being exposed to a new generation of flight crew.

Airbus vs Boeing is always going to arise, but simply because there are two competing philosophies of computer flight control - the Airbus protections, and Boeing's view that the pilot can do what he wants, but we will employ control forces and other forms of tactile feedback to make him aware that what he is demanding is unusual.

I should add the caveat that neither of the type ratings on my licence start with Airbus, but it is my form view that the Boeing philosophy is both more intuitive to a pilot trained on conventional aircraft, and more conducive to the maintenance of essential manual flight skills and direct feedback and understanding of the aircraft's flying characteristics.
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Old 5th Jan 2015, 13:41
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I think we need to give credit where it is due, and just pause to consider that there were about 33 million commercial flights in 2014, and only 150 crashes.

Which is a crash rate of 0.00045%.

And that's per flight, not miles flown.

These are staggering numbers, and vindicate that the industry (both technical and aircrew) do a fantastic job. It is perhaps the slow pace of change which has positively contributed to this safety record, and not made things worse.

Of course we can improve, but changes must be made in a measured, sensible way taking advantage of properly proven technological advancements in an affordable way.

In an increasingly congested airspace, humans simply cannot keep track of everything going on inside and outside the flight deck so automation must take on ever more tasks.

Perhaps aircraft systems have already gone beyond the point where any single person can understand how everything works such that they can piece together disparate symptoms of failures to produce a recovery plan?

If it takes thousands to develop these systems and dozens to maintain them (with no time constraints and a set of manuals to follow) why are we expecting a single pilot to know enough about everything important?

Humans are the weak link, and always will be - both in the design stage and in the flying. On the ground we have many many processes to follow to try and eradicate errors, but they do still occur. 99% are found during the testing phase, and whilst costly they can be put right.

When errors compound faults during flight, the odds are stacked against the pilots...
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Old 6th Jan 2015, 05:36
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The public may believe that it is not the loss of flying skills that is as relevant as the lack of skill in managing the computer.
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Old 6th Jan 2015, 21:31
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What happened on Apollo XIII shoots your last statement down Mr 69.
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Old 7th Jan 2015, 06:36
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As a Boeing B787 test pilot told a friend of mine, "Boeing have built the 787 assuming that incompetent pilots will fly them". Hence the sophisticated automation.
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Old 7th Jan 2015, 12:17
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the role of flying the aircraft has largely shifted from humans to computers.the role of today's pilot is to interface with those computers.hence his competency is to be measured in that role.crashes have been caused because of gaps in that interface.
The Loss of Control crashes we are talking about have very little to do with misunderstanding by the pilots of mode control or selection/interface of the computers. The crashes were the result of the apparent total inability of the pilot in command to fly manually in IMC after the autopilot has either disengaged itself or was disengaged by the pilot.

The investigation report of one Middle Eastern 737 loss of control at night shortly after take off said the captain was continually calling for the autopilot to be engaged even as the 737 was in a steep spiral dive until it hit the sea. It is drawing a long bow to claim the cause was because of gaps in the interface between the crew and computers. The cause was sheer incompetency by the captain in hand flying on instruments in IMC. The question then arises about the efficacy or otherwise in his simulator training.
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Old 7th Jan 2015, 13:03
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Fortunately, as a 737NG pilot, I still have the skill to disconnect the automatics or determine how much automation I want on a day to day level..

I once had an interesting conversation with a fleet manager where he justified telling his fleet captains to refrain from hand flying, because more FDM 'events' occurred whilst hand flying and stopping it would improve safety stats.

My reply that it showed that they should do more hand flying as clearly they weren't as good at it as they should be was lost on him.

Not my fleet thank the Lord.........

Personally I'm more of a 1000' kind of pilot, but on a smooth day I'll do the Jedi bit a while longer......

Our company are quite chilled about letting us keep our skills up. The 737 is still a stone aged thing with clever boxes bolted in really.
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Old 7th Jan 2015, 16:08
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Computers are great - until they aren't.
Then killing yourself and maybe somewhere between 1 and a few hundred passengers because you either never could fly or forgot how is not really a good thing. YMMV
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Old 7th Jan 2015, 21:02
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Airlines to roll out constituted man and dog flight crews.
Man is there to feed the dog, dog is there to bite the man if he touches anything!
Truth stranger than fiction.
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Old 7th Jan 2015, 21:46
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Role of FBW Augmentation

While fly-by-wire augmentation provides the benefits of greatly reducing pilot workload and providing flight envelope protection, those are not the only reasons this technology has been developed for commercial transport aircraft. An additional driving factor (and in some ways the key motivation for FBW) is the opportunity to increase airplane performance. FBW provides handling qualities enhancement through augmentation thus enabling airplane configurations to be optimized for performance rather than handling.

Prior to FBW, commercial airplanes had to be configured to provide acceptable handling qualities without control system augmentation. Metrics such as stick force per g, stick force per knot, and maneuver response damping posed design constraints on cg range. In addition, wing design had to account for stall characteristics such as positive Stall ID and pitch stability. With FBW the control laws can be designed to augment the open-loop airplane characteristics such that the closed-loop response is acceptable. This allows pushing the cg further aft and designing wings for higher L/D (with less concern about stall characteristics) thus improving airplane fuel economy.

As a result, the truely open-loop (i.e., no computers involved) handling qualities of today's FBW airplanes are not sufficient to support certification. Reversionary control law modes are provided where the full-up normal mode system does not have sufficient availibility, but most often these include some level of augmentation to help improvide the handling qualities above what would be found with no augmentation at all. Because the probability of being in a reversionary control law mode is quite low, the handling qualities requirements that apply are not as stringent as for the full-up, every day normal system. Calls for the flight crew to have the ability to "turn all of the computers off" must be considered carefully as the handling characteristics they would encounter could be more than a handful.

Modern FBW commercial airplane control systems are designed to provide graceful degradation of levels of augmentation in response to detected failures. Of particular interest is loss of air speed and/or angle-of-attack. Multiple sensors and monitoring logic that compares signals from indepenent sources makes these systems robust to equipment failures through signal selection, fault detection logic. This leaves common mode failures (ones that corrupt equally all sources of a particular type of data) as the most serious and potentially dangerous. Severe icing or an encounter with a volcanic ash cloud are two scenarios that can cause bocked pitot probes leading to undetected erroneous air data and thus must be considered.

Pilots have long been taught to consider all of the sources of data that they have available to them and to be on the lookout for inconsistent data that may point to a sensor failure. Climbing with idle thrust while indicated airspeed is increasing is an example of a clear inconsistency that should cause the crew to question the airspeed indication. While some of the latest control systems include logic to detect such inconsistencies and select lower levels of augmentation that do not rely on the suspect data, pilots need to be able to make such determinations themselves.

Whether or not commercial transport control systems include provisions for pilots to select lower levels of augmentation is a design philosophy issue - one where A and B have taken different paths. Any procedures for crews to selectively down-mode to less augmentation must consider the handling qualities consequences. Going all the way to open loop is most likely not the best choice.
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Old 8th Jan 2015, 15:32
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FCeng84 - I do not think unstable aircraft not flyable by humans are the problem. I know such airplanes exist, but your post is the first time I have ever heard that anyone would approve one for passenger service. I have also never heard of a crash that went like "the FBW automation blew a fuse and despite the best efforts of the very skilled pilots, the airplane was just not controllable by anyone without superhuman reflexes so they all died".

What we have seen more than once is some part of the automation/autopilot system - which would be connected to the FBW system if the plane is so equiped but also could be connnected to chains and sprockets in Grandpa's Cessna 150 - and the pilots were utterly unable to take over or even detect what had gone wrong. Air France stalling into the sea and running a Boeing into a seawall were not caused by an airplane that just could not be controlled by hand. You don't even have to have a jet to see this - my local rental nag C-172 has enough electronics so I hardly have to touch the controls except the first few hundred feet and the last couple hundred. I could become helpless flying THAT thing by hand in IMC if Otto is all I ever did
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Old 8th Jan 2015, 19:19
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Jockey69 - bull.
Have you ever flown an airplane?
Emergency half-arse flying is what you get when you recruit passengers from the back to have a go, not the guys up front presumably getting paid to know how to operate their equipment. You would massively fail an IR Comp Check with me if you pointed at the autopilot as a method to get things done. Sure Otto is great on a long boring leg, but there are times when humans are better, especially in extremis when the plane is going beyond limits Otto is programmed for. For one thing, Otto is happy to rip the wings right off in a good updraft or give up and disconnect.
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Old 8th Jan 2015, 19:48
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The pilot of course. The autopilot will fly right into the side of a mountain and kill everyone aboard without a care in the world. The pilot at least WANTS to survive the flight, EgyptAir excepted.
The autopilot is an incredible servant, but a poor master.
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Old 8th Jan 2015, 20:09
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Levels of Augmentation

Island Airphoto

I fully appreciate your concern that there have been far too many instances of crews pressing on with a full up control system when there appear to have been sensor data failures that went undetected and blindly followed by the crew to disasterous consequences. I think there are a number of improvements that are needed.
1. Better training of crews to recognize inconsistencies in airplane response data so that they are able to recognize potential sensor failures and adjust their control actions accordingly.
2. Refinement of control system signal selection, fault detection logic to perform signal consistency checks automatically to identify errors such as blocked pitot tubes that may equally corrupt all air data sources. Crews should then be alerted as to which data is suspect and control augmentation mode should revert to a configuration that does not rely on the data deemed to be in question.
3. Clear guidance to flight crews as to how the control system should be reconfigured if they suspect errant data.
4. Simulator experience flying the airplane manually throughout the flight envelope including exposure to any degraded levels of augmentation that involve significant handling qualities changes.

As to the point about open loop airplane stability, it is important to note that even the lowest level of control system configuration may require some level of augmentation. For instance, FBW augmentation has allowed airplane configurations with the certified cg range such that cg at its aft limit results in zero steady state elevator for a maneuver. This does not present a system that is wildly unstable, but does yield neutral pitch stabilty. In order to assure that the handling qualities experienced by the flight deck crew are at least acceptable, augmentation of some sort has been added to all modes. The B777 is a good example where the lowest level of augmentation (Direct Mode) includes inertial pitch rate feedback to the elevator.

I think it is more appropriate to speak of pilot selection of the lowest certified level of augmentation rather than pilot ability to turn off all of the computers. A subtle difference, but one that I feel we need to be clear about. We should not advocate having the crew manipulate the control system such that it is in a configuration that has not been fully tested. In the case of the B777, the handling qualiltes have been carefully and completely evaluated in Direct Mode (the lowest augmentation level that is both pilot selectable and can be automatically engaged in the event of detected failures) and found to be adequate for a low probability backup system. The B777 has not, however, been tested in a configuration where the elevators are commanded by pilot control column position alone.
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Old 8th Jan 2015, 20:23
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I am more worried about pilots not realizing the auto throttle is not working and totally ignoring airspeed trending to zero than the FBW totally failing into a super-emergency mode. Speaking of which, I once was subjected to some bad cargo loading and flying the ILS with zero pitch stability is a very large PITA Otto WAS better at it than I was - too bad he couldn't land.
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