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DARPA Developing the Ultimate Auto-Pilot Software

timothy posted about 5 months ago | from the have-they-not-seen-airplanes-1-or-2? dept.

AI 75

coondoggie (973519) writes "Call it the ultimate auto-pilot — an automated system that can help take care of all phases of aircraft flight-even perhaps helping pilots overcome system failures in-flight. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will in May detail a new program called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) that would build upon what the agency called the considerable advances that have been made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, as well as the advances made in remotely piloted aircraft automation, to help reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance and improve aircraft safety."

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Slashdot = DARPA publicity agency? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793539)

Ok, everybody knows Boieng and Airbus are working on such subjects, along with lots of researchers. What makes this announcement so different from existing work? Or is Slashdot publishing all DARPA/NASA/etc. calls for projects?

Re:This announcement is different because... (1, Interesting)

Flytrap (939609) | about 5 months ago | (#46793905)

Firstly, it is DARPA... so we are not just talking about civilian applications (although that will surely follow) but we are talking about the wide scale military and civilian application of technologies that various military and aeronautical platforms (think Space Shuttle) have possessed for years.

Secondly, it is DARPA... so we are talking about spending billions of tax payers money to duplicate civilian efforts in the hope that the military industrial complex can trickle down these benefits to civilian applications faster and more efficiently than the commercial efforts can.

Finally, because it is DARPA... we are all hoping that this is not the start of yet another road that leads to yet another F-22 or F-35 project that will cost the tax payer hundreds of billions and fall far short of what was promised.

So... yes, this announcement is different in many ways

DARPA did this in the 90's (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46794419)

DARPA did this in the 90's. It's called Global Hawk, and it taxis, takes off, flies, lands, and taxis back to landing autonomously, complete with handling flight control failures and engine failure all by itself.

Re:This announcement is different because... (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46794777)

Or the internet? Oh, wait - Al Gore invented that.

Re:Slashdot = DARPA publicity agency? (2)

sir-gold (949031) | about 5 months ago | (#46795159)

Funny that you should mention both Boeing and Airbus, as the two companies have almost opposing views on flight automation.

Boeing feels like the pilot should be in full control of the plane, with the autopilot just there to make the job easier.
Airbus, on the other hand, treats the pilot as if they were only a legal requirement, and designs it's planes to completely fly themselves, to the point where the autopilot will actually try to override the human pilot if it thinks the pilot's actions are dangerous.

Try a barrel roll in a Boeing, and the plane will happily attempt a barrel roll (even if it rips the plane apart). But try the same thing in an Airbus and the autopilot will start fighting back

Re:Slashdot = DARPA publicity agency? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 5 months ago | (#46795267)

While this is sort of true (you can turn off flight laws in a Airbus), it's not a bad thing. We don't know which approach is better - or if indeed either approach is always better or worse. It's a large scale experiment.

And since both Airbus and Boeing aircraft rarely plummet to the ground, a rather successful one. Yes, there can and should be improvements but the jury is out.

The turn of events that caused AirFrance 447 might well have been interrupted with a Boeing autopilot system. Conversely, the idiot junior pilot that crashed the 777 in San Francisco would probably have been unable to shut the engines down completely before actually landing.

Murphy's law. Remember it.

Let's remember one thing here . . . (2)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46795749)

In nearly all airline crashes to date, there was a qualified pilot on board the aircraft.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

OMG! (1)

invictusvoyd (3546069) | about 5 months ago | (#46793549)

Thats what was flying Flight 370 !!

Re:OMG! (1)

aberglas (991072) | about 5 months ago | (#46793593)

It was running malware written by the NSA that was accidentally released into the wild...

Re:OMG! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793601)

No this was the answer to why we can't find it when it disappeared.

Had this been available, we still wouldn't be looking for it, it would have either been found immediately once lost or TKO'd by this system and brought back.

My worries about such things are similar to that of computers running nuclear plants and banks. There is a LOT of room to fail when wireless communication is involved. Consider right now where the only reason we have any idea where MH370 went was because of signal leakage of a turned off service related to the engines. Had it been on the entire time it would have likely saved the aircraft, or at least anyone on board.

What I think we need is an implicit pilot override 5 switch system, three on the aircraft (cockpit, galley, flight computer) and two on the ground (ATC of departure and ATC of arrival) 3 switches need to agree on the status of the plane otherwise the pilot of the aircraft will remain in control. If the flight crew indicate override, either from the galley or the cockpit, then the ATC's will be notified to verify the plane status and to flip their switches if trouble is suspected. If 3 switches agree on a problem then the ground control pilot can take over the flight remotely. The galley switch is used to indicate a terrorist/cabin-lockout situation (eg nobody is flying the plane.)
If the ATC's flip their switches but the plane doesn't, then the flight control computer on the plane will make the final call if the plane is either off-course, any radar alarms, or any other mechanical problem that requires pilot attention that has exceeded a predefined limit (like engine stall/fuel)

I'm not talking about mechanical switches either, I'm talking about something obvious like "in case of fire, break glass" kind. But this is just my opinion and I'm not an aircraft pilot. What bothers me the most about aircraft disasters is how preventable they are. It's not like a Ferry or Train disaster where sudden geography changes are the largest danger (trains derail from rail fatigue caused in part by thermal expansion in environments with a lot of thermal changes seasonally, while ferries sink from sudden load shifts that result in the ship listing, or the bridge crew getting too close to known hazards (The South Korean Sewol, and the Canadian ferry "Queen of the North" sunk under similar conditions with similar passenger/car amounts with different outcomes (these were both passenger/car ferries, and thus once the water reached the car deck it was doomed.) The bridge crew in the Sewol unfortunately didn't give the abandon ship warning soon enough for everyone to be saved losing like 2/3rds of the passengers, while the Canadian ferry did, losing only 2.)

Which means we should be applying such auto-pilot systems to rail and ships as well. Piracy is a huge problem, and we have rail issues occasionally (signals being missed) that could have been prevented. Hell we can actually completely automate rail if the willingness to do so was there.

Re:OMG! (1)

mikael (484) | about 5 months ago | (#46795039)

After watching all those documentaries on air crashes and how the FAA do the reconstruction of the plane crashes, the biggest improvements for the pilots would seem to be a display system showing the current state of the plane as a 3D model - just like the crash reconstructions, and having the flight deck log and display all the control setting changes along with times in the same way that the reconstruction does. That would catch simple things like pilots switching off the autopilots merely by moving the control column, or having thrust reversers for opposite engines in different settings. Though there were other things like weather radar systems that actually had the display system wrap-around calculations areas of extremely high raindrop/hailstone size - theoretically impossible, but due to extreme updraft conditions were actually present in the superstorm.

Re:OMG! (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 5 months ago | (#46795285)

When things are going bad, they tend to go bad quickly. Not the time to punch up the videogame. Remember the pilots are trying to do lots of things.

The reason why you can reconstruct an incident like this is that you can spend literally years going over every little detail. That's an advantage that the pilots certainly don't have.

Re:OMG! (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 5 months ago | (#46793883)

Thats what was flying Flight 370 !!

Shall we call it Flight S/370, then?

Pilots crash planes (1)

aberglas (991072) | about 5 months ago | (#46793587)

The vast majority of heavy aircraft losses are due to pilots. They are by far the weakest link in the chain. Whether they do something extremely stupid such as hold back the stick in a stall (Air France) or malicious (Malasian Air) the result is the same. Perfectly good aircraft destroyed.

So engineering them out of the cockpit is the next step. Computers have been able to fly entire flights for decades. Expert systems already out perform people at diagnostics. The pilot is just a redundant point of failure.

If you know any pilots put this to them and watch the response ;)

Re:Pilots crash planes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793651)

such as hold back the stick in a stall (Air France)

True, but not the cause for the crash. The cause was that the pitot tubes froze and the automation failed and gave up. Things like this only happens only once in a blue moon with at least partially broken aircraft. With more advanced automation all you can do is to reduce the occurrence of this. More rarely, or on even more broken aircraft. But in this situation you'll always need a human pilot to blame. With higher automation, a human which is even less used to actually fly the plane. And with the multitude of modes, basically even needs to be able to fly multiple planes.

Re:Pilots crash planes (4, Insightful)

Aviation Pete (252403) | about 5 months ago | (#46793779)

such as hold back the stick in a stall (Air France)

True, but not the cause for the crash.

Yes, the pilots were the cause for the crash. They even made remarks about the unusual attitude. The situation was obvious, and their ignorance and lack of competence was staggering. Just because the automation was switched off due to an iced probe does not mean the automation is to blame. Ask pilots why they think themselves to be indispensable, and you get some airy stuff on the line of "catch mistakes in the systems that nobody foresaw". And yet, when exactly this happens, they did actively, but unwittingly, do their utmost to crash the airplane in circumstances when continuing the flight uneventfully would have been the by far most likely outcome.

Re:Pilots crash planes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793801)

It seems to me that at present we have, unwittingly, ended up with a bad combination of human and auto-pilot operation. The auto-pilot is so capable that most of the routine flying is now done by them, so that the pilots are gradually getting less experience of flying in the way that they used to. But the current generation of auto-pilots is deliberately designed to disengage in cases of serious failure, such as both pitot tubes freezing up. That just the point at which the pilot might most want a bit of help from automation. So when they are forced suddenly and unexpectedly to take over (as the Air France 447 pilots were) they have a tendency to panic. I think what we need is much fuller automation, especially in situations where one or more instruments are unreliable, or else much less of it. At present we are in an unhappy middle.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

InvalidError (771317) | about 5 months ago | (#46794091)

There already is a lot of automation in fly-by-wire planes where the software is designed to detect faults and automatically compensate for many common failures. Some aircraft manufacturers are even contemplating emulating stabilizer fins by software tweaks to the wings' control surfaces, which sounds a bit scary IMO: so much control on so few actuators/sensors; this would require redefining absolute confidence.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

mikael (484) | about 5 months ago | (#46795055)

A couple of pilots once compensated for the loss of wing control surfaces like the rudder by varying the thrust of the engines instead.

Makes me wonder whether the engines shouldn't have pivot mountings so that they can be tilted up and down and even sideways.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 5 months ago | (#46795301)

Makes me wonder whether the engines shouldn't have pivot mountings so that they can be tilted up and down and even sideways.

Talk to the V-22 engineers about just exactly how easy it is to do that... It took them literally decades (the original V-22 was designed in the 1960's) to do that and the thing still crashes more than is desirable. Once you make the engine move, you change the aerodynamics of the entire aircraft. Continuously. Not a trivial problem and one that would likely create more problems than it solves.

Once? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46802933)

This has happened many many many times in multi-engine aircraft. it's not really that novel. Many emergency situations have dictated the use of throttle for altitude control as well in the case of horizontal attitude control surface failure.

Movable engines would make no difference in the outcome of either of these scenarios anyway.

Re:Pilots crash planes (2)

jbwolfe (241413) | about 5 months ago | (#46794467)

Bullshit! The cause of the crash was the product of poor decision making, poor training, and mechanical failure. Every mishap is the product of a chain of events, so to say "the pilots were the cause of the crash" is completely wrong and misleading.

The cause of the AF442 mishap is detailed here [bea.aero] . And it says that the pilots flew into an area of weather that they knew about, lost air data, and entered a stall from which the did not recover. You're overemphasizing the pilots role, under emphasizing the mechanical failure and exaggerating the capability of automation.

Re:Pilots crash planes (2)

Uecker (1842596) | about 5 months ago | (#46795107)

The report does not argee with you. The report pretty much exclusively talks about the failure of the crew to manage and understand the situation as the causes of this accident. (Page 199, 3.2. Causes of the Accident).

Also, there was *no* mechanical failure. Icing of the Pitot probes is not a mechanical failure. The word "mechanical failure" does not appear in the report.

Re:Pilots crash planes (2)

jbwolfe (241413) | about 5 months ago | (#46795429)

Semantics.

It does not use the term "mechanical". I did- because there was more to this incident than just human error.

It cites in that very first paragraph in 3.2 that the pitot tubes icing over is a failure. If you conclude that because it never says "mechanical" (my term as things that go wrong with the aircraft or its systems are referred to in this way) that there was not a aspect of systems being inop in the outcome, then you are using semantics to make your case.

You made the claim that the "pilots were the cause of the crash". I dispute that simplification of events as inaccurate and misleading. The mishap report concludes that in addition to pilot error, poor training, weather and the "total loss of airspeed information" caused by a (mechanical, sytems, or whatever term you prefer) failure of the Pitot tubes were components of this disaster. Pitot tubes were replaced wherever they were in use, including the aircraft that I am type rated in and have over 8000 hours experience in, as part of Airworthiness Directive that existed prior to this accident. Wonder why...

...perhaps because the Thales versions were prone to "fail" to perform as intended.

Problem is (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46794649)

It doesnt generally make the newspapers when the pilots shut off the malfunctioning system & land the plane safely.

Indeed, the passengers themselves usually won't be told about it.

Re:Pilots crash planes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46794737)

such as hold back the stick in a stall (Air France)

True, but not the cause for the crash.

Yes, the pilots were the cause for the crash.[] And yet, when exactly this happens, they did actively, but unwittingly, do their utmost to crash the airplane in circumstances when continuing the flight uneventfully would have been the by far most likely outcome.

Considering the automated systems were going haywire because of all the bad readings, what alternative besides human operation was there though? Another comment [slashdot.org] further down the thread:

The vast majority of crashes is due to pilot error because the vast majority of possible crashes due to equipment failures are prevented by the pilots. I am a pilot, have never been in a crash, but have had several autopilot and other failures where, if we had not intervened, the aircraft would have crashed. But of course, all those possible crashes due to equipment failures don't make it into the statistics because no actual crash occurred. It's merely a note in the company's safety magazine for crews (along with dozens of others each month). So when an aircraft does crash (even if it's due to equipment failure), it's usually still considered the pilots' fault, and correctly so, because they should have been able to prevent it.

Re:Pilots crash planes (3, Insightful)

joe_frisch (1366229) | about 5 months ago | (#46795157)

The full report on the AF447 flight paints a somewhat different picture than the media described. The pilots were at fault, but not as blatantly as it seemed. A badly designed controls interface hid the airspeed indications (which were correct but so low that the computer flagged them as invalid).

The trim feedback system normally adjusts the elevator trim so that the joystick can be kept centered. In this case, since the aircraft pitch wasn't responding normally, the slightly back stick position caused the trim to continuously put in more up elevator.

The pilots set the correct pitch and full power - in normal conditions this would have worked. The problem here was that since the plane was in a deep stall, the angle of attack was much larger than the pitch angle.

The stall indicator cuts out when the angle of attack and airspeed are out of a reasonable range. At one point early on, the co-pilot started to put the nose down, but the stall alarm turned ON (because the angle of attack was no longer to large as to be invalid), and in response he pitched up again - probably having confused the stall indicator with some other warning. Note that the plane was in the coffin-corner where stall speed and mach overspeed are quite close together.

The pilots *should* have figured this all out, but it wasn't trivial to do so with the information they had available. Airliner accidents are almost always due to a long chain of unlikely problems.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 5 months ago | (#46793887)

When I was playing with the Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 back then, I came away with the impression that I'm a total screw-up at flying and I should probably never sit in a cockpit, but the one thing I've learned is that you don't pull the stick when you're not sure your airspeed and AoA allows for it.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46794105)

No reason you couldn't have satellite telemetry on aircraft and a room full of test pilots somewhere standing by to assist if there is an emergency. Granted, you can't always guarantee communications, but if there is a failure it would be better to have the seasoned disaster recovery guy at the controls instead of whoever the seniority rules put on the route. Plus, the emergency team isn't limited to two crew members - they can have one guy who does nothing but fly the plane, another guy who does nothing but navigate, three engineers who do nothing but try to fix the broken systems, an overall command guy who does nothing but coordinate, one guy who handles communications, one guy who talks to the cabin crew, and so on - and they're all fresh having not spent 30 hours this week stuck on a plane.

But, I suspect that in many emergencies such a crew would often just manage the automation and provide supervision.

Even in a case where pitot tubes fail and such the automation CAN be improved, eliminating a potential source of accidents in the future. When a human learns, only that pilot improves unless you spend a LOT of time retraining the fleet (and the Air France pilots should have been trained in that maneuver anyway). When a computer program is adjusted, every plane in service improves, 100% of the time.

Seasoned? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46802957)

The problem is with your scenario is that major plane failure disasters happen so infrequently. Where do you find a room full of 'seasoned' disaster recovery pilots to sit around 24/7 waiting for that to happen. And who pays for it?

Re:Seasoned? (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46807309)

The problem is with your scenario is that major plane failure disasters happen so infrequently. Where do you find a room full of 'seasoned' disaster recovery pilots to sit around 24/7 waiting for that to happen. And who pays for it?

They can afford to put them on every plane in the air right now. Paying to have two crews on standby for all the flights in progress won't be a problem. Plus, you'll need people to manage just routine route changes/etc while planes are in flight anyway (not that this would require full manual control or crisis response).

Re:Pilots crash planes (5, Insightful)

michelcolman (1208008) | about 5 months ago | (#46793869)

This is one of the most often repeated misunderstandings in aviation: the vast majority of crashes is caused by pilots, so we should replace them with automation since that's much more reliable. Errr... no, not by a long shot.

The vast majority of crashes is due to pilot error because the vast majority of possible crashes due to equipment failures are prevented by the pilots. I am a pilot, have never been in a crash, but have had several autopilot and other failures where, if we had not intervened, the aircraft would have crashed. But of course, all those possible crashes due to equipment failures don't make it into the statistics because no actual crash occurred. It's merely a note in the company's safety magazine for crews (along with dozens of others each month). So when an aircraft does crash (even if it's due to equipment failure), it's usually still considered the pilots' fault, and correctly so, because they should have been able to prevent it.

Take the Turkish Airlines that crashed in Amsterdam. Due to a radio altimeter failure during an automatic approach, the aircraft thought it was directly above the runway and pulled the throttles back, while in fact it was still several hundred feet above the ground. Most crews would have seen the speed decreasing (and indeed, this kind of incident had happened many times before to other crews without causing a crash) but this crew reacted much too late and "caused" the airplane to crash.

Or take the Air France that crashed after the pitot tubes froze up. The automation actually failed so the pilots had to take over. Without pilots, the airplane would have crashed anyway. And here, too, this kind of incident had already happened to other crews multiple times, but each time the crew had handled the situation correctly (even though it was not something that was trained in the simulator or accurately described in the procedures). This time the crew did not handle it correctly, in part because they were confused by conflicting warning messages from the airplane's systems telling them the plane was overspeeding and stalling at the same time. They even got aural warnings when they started to, temporarily, apply the exact correction they needed to meke. The automation was not helping them, but actually working against them and telling them they were wrong when they were, in fact, right.

If you want to have an idea of how reliable automation is, just look at the number of military drones that have crashed so far. Their mission couldn't be simpler: take off, fly over some area, come back and land. They only fly in relatively nice weather, there are vaslty less drones than passenger aircraft, yet there are many more drone crashes than passenger aircraft crashes.

It's certainly a good thing that Darpa is trying to make aircraft automation more reliable, but right now pilots are still by far the most important asset for the safety of an airplane.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

Registered Coward v2 (447531) | about 5 months ago | (#46794101)

This is one of the most often repeated misunderstandings in aviation: the vast majority of crashes is caused by pilots, so we should replace them with automation since that's much more reliable. Errr... no, not by a long shot.

Many good examples snipped

It's certainly a good thing that Darpa is trying to make aircraft automation more reliable, but right now pilots are still by far the most important asset for the safety of an airplane.

You make a number of good points. Automation is great when everything is going well; the biggest problem then with automated systems is boredom or an unwillingness to use the system because they didn't chose that career to simply sit back and watch gauges. Automated systems, when everything is working as planned can often do better than a human imply because they can take many more inputs and respond to them than a human.

However, when sensors start sending conflicting information automated systems start having troubles. They can be designed to ignore signals based on rules but they cannot analyze the situation and decide what is the correct course of action; nor can they take unexpected actions that may correct the problem but were not considered by the system designer or that break the rules set by the designer. The problem then becomes the interface between the operator and the machine. How do you present information and train operators how to respond? Pilot error, or operator error in other industries is often the result of a poor interface coupled with inadequate training that leaves them with a system that cannot respond and unsure of what to do to correct things. Pilots and operators sometimes do boneheaded things that cause accidents; but more often they are lead down a path by systems that fail to provide information in ways that support, rather than hinder, decision making. Years ago when I worked on some control room designs I used some work form the aviation industry that was looking at the questions "Are we giving pilots to much information to help them make decisions in an emergency?" and "Is automation driving confusion in the cockpit?" Questions I found interesting, as both a pilot and industrial plant operator who was now involved in designing the next generation control room. The challenge there was to convince the designers we didn't need more information but better information. Having a thousand gauges, sometimes displaying conflicting information, in an all glass control room didn't help me in an emergency, it just added to the confusion at a time when I needed a half dozen parameters, that I knew were accurate, to decide what to do to deal with the emergency.

In the end "pilot (or operator) error often means "poorly designed system and inadequate training lead the poor person at the controls down the primrose path.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46794119)

Good points. If humans were to be taken out of the loop obviously it will be necessary to change how the automation works, sometimes substantially. Anything that causes an autopilot disconnect, for example, obviously has to be redesigned (well, aside from pilot-triggered disconnects). There may also need to be an increase in redundancies as well so that the plane can remain fully automation even with failures. The algorithms also have to be designed to better handle a lack of sensor input, since all the pitot tubes icing up is always a possibility and so on.

Remove the pitot tubes? (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46795889)

There's got to be a better way to measure airspeed nowadays. Not necessarily cheaper, but better. Something with less failure modes?

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

w3woody (44457) | about 5 months ago | (#46794335)

It's also worth remembering that, as pilots are the last line of defense when equipment starts malfunctioning, when a crash occurs the NTSB often sights "pilot error" for failing to maintain control during an equipment malfunction. It may be that the root cause of the failure was equipment malfunction, but unless a wing falls off the aircraft, the pilot is expected to maintain control of the airplane through all equipment malfunctions.

Anytime I hear about someone talking about making a better autopilot or someone making an autopilot for cars, I really wish they would watch the "Children of the Magenta" video that's now posted on Vimeo.

http://vimeo.com/64502012 [vimeo.com]

Autopilots often make things more difficult for a pilot because, in some circumstances, the autopilot simply adds a new workload layer that can sometimes interfere with operations. I recently experienced that myself as I was trying to engage the autopilot as I was taking off out of Raleigh (I have a private pilot license and was flying a small 4 seater); the stupid system started complaining into my ear about altitude settings and being improperly set up just as Raleigh tower called me to ask me to turn. I had to shut the stupid system off and call to Raleigh tower to repeat the instructions.

Now watch the video and tell me that a more sophisticated autopilot system isn't going to just encourage more pilots to plug themselves (and the passengers they're flying) into the ground at a faster rate.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

jbwolfe (241413) | about 5 months ago | (#46794503)

Autopilots often make things more difficult for a pilot because, in some circumstances, the autopilot simply adds a new workload layer that can sometimes interfere with operations.

That is exactly how we are trained with regard to the use of automation: If its increasing your workload, turn it off. We are encouraged to occasionally fly not only without the autopilot, but also without flight directors and autothrust off. The idea being to maintain proficiency.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46794965)

The whole concept is to get the pilot out of the cockpit entirely - they wouldn't be managing the autopilot - it would be managing itself.

Plus, if updates to the plane's mission were made while in-flight, it would be done by a team working from desks. They would have time to properly follow procedures, and wouldn't have long stretches of idle time (it would be like a call center - they just move from one plane to the next).

This would require changes to how we manage planes, ATC, etc in general. However, I think they're changes that are going to be inevitable at some point.

Giving a whole new meaning to the term... (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46795881)

System Crash.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

Nkwe (604125) | about 5 months ago | (#46798315)

They would have time to properly follow procedures, and wouldn't have long stretches of idle time (it would be like a call center - they just move from one plane to the next).

"Your safety is important to us, all remote pilots are busy right now, please remain on the line..."

Re:Pilots crash planes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46794403)

Here's the thing about automation. We can make the automation better. And we keep doing that. It will never be perfect, but what is?

Here's the thing about pilots. They don't get better. They don't get markedly worse, but they don't get any better. The mistakes pilots were making in 2013 - whether the fatal ones that make headlines or the small things that get anonymised and summarised for ASRS and most laymen never read about - are essentially the same as the ones they were making in 1963.

And the net result is that the lines cross. Eventually it becomes safer not to have a human in the loop. And eventually this discrepancy gets so big that someone asks why they don't get rid of the person who is making everything more dangerous.

We see this in other industries too. Men have been transporting goods across the oceans for centuries. Today's ships are the best they've ever been. But the men, particularly the bridge crew, are no better. Every year I read about a dozen reports about groundings by large commercial vessels. Container ships, oil tankers, bulk freighters, that sort of thing. What do you suppose causes these large, slow ships to find themselves with their sides torn open upon treacherous rocks, or beached, propellers clear out of the water on a sand bank?

You're probably thinking that at least sometimes it must be a technical problem. Computers somehow, mechanical trouble, radio problem something like that right? No. Every time it's at least two of the following three factors, all of which are basic stuff that the human crew are told never to allow to happen, but of course they do because (as I said earlier) humans don't get any better, you can't fix them.

- The official source for plotting and navigation was specified (for legal purposes) as paper charts which show accurate depth. But actually crew used a cheap electronic chart not certified for this purpose because it was easier. (There are good electronic charts which you could legally use instead of paper but they're not cheap, so few ships have them)
- There was no bridge watch, despite that being a legal requirement on large modern cargo vessels; or the officer supposedly "on watch" was in fact asleep. The mandatory watch alarm (to wake other crew members if those on watch are inattentive) was either switched off entirely or muffled until it was ineffective so that people could sleep in peace.
- A "shortcut" route was chosen which was inherently unsafe. Sometimes this is because the person choosing the route never looked at any real charts (see the first item) and sometimes they didn't look at any charts at all, but simply did the same thing they'd done on previous occasions, without actually checking where they were at all.

Would automated cargo ships screw up? Probably, but they wouldn't keep screwing up in the same way for generation after generation despite attempts to fix them, would they?

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

jbwolfe (241413) | about 5 months ago | (#46794629)

Take the Turkish Airlines that crashed in Amsterdam.

This incident has some similarities to the Asiana crash in SFO. In both cases, pilots failed to recognize FMA's (flight mode annunciation). In Schipol, the autothrust had changed to retard mode (used during the flare) which allows the airplane to slow below ref speed and land. In SFO, they may have disarmed the autothrust instead of disconnected it, the difference being that they bypassed the low speed wakeup function of the autothrust which prevents low energy conditions.

In both cases, pilots lacked understanding of the automation. However, in the first case the automation malfunctioned.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46795001)

If you want to have an idea of how reliable automation is, just look at the number of military drones that have crashed so far. Their mission couldn't be simpler: take off, fly over some area, come back and land. They only fly in relatively nice weather, there are vaslty less drones than passenger aircraft, yet there are many more drone crashes than passenger aircraft crashes.

I hate to reply twice, but I was giving this some thought. How many of these crashes are the result of faulty automation?

Virtually all airliners have redundant everything, especially for critical components like engines. Drones usually don't have these things - if the predator's single engine fails, then it crashes. Sure, they could put two engines on them, but the cost of doing that is higher than the cost of buying a new one from time to time. They're designed to be expendable.

A computer-piloted passenger aircraft would obviously be designed with all the same reliability standards as any other passenger aircraft.

All my other comments still apply - I do agree that the automation would still need some improvement beyond what we have today. However, I just wanted to point out that you can't project from military drone failure rates to the failure rate of a 777 controlled by automation.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

InvalidError (771317) | about 5 months ago | (#46795863)

> The vast majority of crashes is due to pilot error because the vast majority of possible crashes due to equipment failures are prevented by the pilots.

Before automation, the vast majority of crashes were caused by pilot errors or pilots failing to respond properly to emergencies due to being too tired from flying the plane. Automation lets pilots save most of their energy for when it counts instead of tiring themselves out with routine flight procedures like keeping their hands on the control column for hours at a time, just trying to stay in the middle of their flight level.

Imagine if we removed autopilot and all other automation from 777s and A380s overnight so pilots had to be hands-on from taxiing out of the parking at their origin all the way to taxiing into their parking space at their destination. I bet the number of crashes would increase considerably. If you really are a pilot, you should be able to imagine how micro-managing every aspect of modern planes from start to finish while attempting to maintain a rock-steady flight path and altitude could give you a splitting headache in no time flat... modern planes are simply not designed to be humanly manageable for extended periods.

As for all those automation failures you mentioned, many of those would not happen if automation was not designed with the assumption of attentive and well-trained pilots on-board: pilot-less flights would have extra sensors and extra ground, air and space based infrastructure to help them perform sanity check when on-board sensors start to disagree before the malfunction has a chance to escalate into a full-blown emergency. Current automation simply disengages when something weird happens and lets the pilots deal with it, which often makes things worse when pilots are not paying close enough attention to notice the impending emergency before the autopilot dumps it on their lap.

Re:Pilots crash planes (1)

jbwolfe (241413) | about 5 months ago | (#46794341)

If you know any pilots put this to them and watch the response ;)

WTF does that mean? Am I supposed to react with giddy agreement that my profession is pointless? Using your logic, humans need never do anything that can be automated- surgery, programming, procreation...

No artificial intelligence can replace the versatility of the human mind. Pilots are there for the ability to make decisions under widely varying conditions. The automation is there to lessen the work load.

The vast majority of heavy aircraft losses are due to pilots.

Yeah, and when your idea of the pilot-less cockpit is attained it will be "The vast majority of heavy aircraft losses are due to lack of pilots."

Agnogenic systems failure? (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46794807)

I think that's what they call it when there is no evidence of a mechanical failure and cannot prove that there was an error on the part of the flight crew. The assumption is generally pilot error of some kind. (assumption)

Re:Pilots crash planes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46798103)

or malicious (Malasian Air) the result is the same.

Yet to be determined.

Why (1)

JustOK (667959) | about 5 months ago | (#46793605)

Why would they use an auto-pilot for an airplane? Shouldn't they use a plane-pilot for planes?

Re:Why (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793661)

Why would they use an auto-pilot for an airplane? Shouldn't they use a plane-pilot for planes?

Auto-pilots are a lot more complex than plane-pilots. Auto-pilots are expected to work 100% without fall-back to the driver (driver is never guilty), and they have to evade stuff. plane-pilots just need to keep the plane in the air, and if they feel like failing, they can just beep and disconnect, leaving everything else the the human pilot.

Re:Why (1, Redundant)

CeasedCaring (1527717) | about 5 months ago | (#46793785)

Why would they use an auto-pilot for an airplane? Shouldn't they use a plane-pilot for planes?

Auto refers to automatic not automobile.

Re:Why (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46796751)

[citation needed]

Re:Why (1)

paiute (550198) | about 5 months ago | (#46794193)

Why would they use an auto-pilot for an airplane? Shouldn't they use a plane-pilot for planes?

Plane-pilots don't have that emergency reinflation tube just below the belt buckle.

Do you have to inflate it before use? (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 5 months ago | (#46793607)

Having said that, many recent aircraft failures have been caused by the crew and I think fully automatic airliners should be looked at. Or at least keep a hostie around to blow the thing up.

Re:Do you have to inflate it before use? (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46795869)

The problem is that a human somewhere has to set up the automation. Even with the best designed automation, a human is involved somewhere. I'd like a human (or a computer that is at least as intelligent as a human) on site to mediate that risk. That means a flight crew aboard all commercial jets. I'm willing to accept the higher cost associated with that, in return for not putting absolute faith in a thing designed by the hand and eye of Man.

Re:Do you have to inflate it before use? (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 5 months ago | (#46796697)

Yeah but the problem with human drivers/pilots is that they send SMS messages, update facebook, phone their girlfriends or go crazy and decide to kill their passengers. The engineers who build the vehicles do all those things too, but in an environment where their work can be checked and peer reviewed.

The best mass transit system I have seen is in Kuala Lumpur. It has no drivers. It is faster and more reliable than any other system I have seen.

Re:Do you have to inflate it before use? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46798197)

The best mass transit system I have seen is in Kuala Lumpur. It has no drivers. It is faster and more reliable than any other system I have seen.

and it can also sometimes shut the doors on you too, making you a sandwich. Disagree.

Re:Do you have to inflate it before use? (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 5 months ago | (#46802397)

I doubt there is a transit system in the world with manually operated doors.

Flying Cars (2)

x_IamSpartacus_x (1232932) | about 5 months ago | (#46793627)

Could this tech finally solve the "everyone would need a pilots license" problem of consumer level flying cars? Maybe cars could be developed that rely on the person inside the to drive on roads but as soon as liftoff is initiated an auto-pilot like this one DARPA is making could take over completely removing the human factor from the flying hunk of metal.
Not saying it's imminent but perhaps this is a step in the direction of ubiquitous personal flying vehicles that could solve a lot of transportation problems and get people/things to places "as the crow flies" instead of "as the wolf runs". It would just be an automated crow instead of a human one.

Re:Flying Cars (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793697)

Could this tech finally solve the "everyone would need a pilots license" problem of consumer level flying cars?

It's like a head-line, so the answer is no. For multiple reasons.

You always need a human to blame.
Flying requires more fuel, and we're running short on it (battery-powered planes even further away than battery powered cars).
Legal restrictions would also apply for fully automated flight, so no take-off and landing on public roads.

Re:Flying Cars (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793795)

Actually, the answer is "yes, but not for a long time"

-You always need to blame a human.
Yes. You blame the company that engineered it, and their insurance covers the liability.

-Flying requires fuel
Fuel can be sythesized from CO2 and energy. Energy from solar, wind, and fission are nearly limitless.

-Legal restrictions
this is largely a restatement of "need a human to blame." laws can change. "public roads" wouldn't need to exist if everyone had a flying car and all homes and places of business had runways.

SKYNET (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793637)

I would've preferred an acronym a little more memorable for Terminator fans than ALIAS.

Re:SKYNET (2)

SpankiMonki (3493987) | about 5 months ago | (#46794147)

How about "Crew Replacing Aviation Systems Handler"?

Already saw this one! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46793683)

I saw this movie. It was cheesy and not very good but Jessica Biel was HOT in it.

Cargo ships (1)

LongearedBat (1665481) | about 5 months ago | (#46793689)

I've long thought that it would be good if cargo ships were automated and/or remote controlled. Piloting cargo ships ought to be relatively easy compared to remote piloting drones in combat.

- Crew is valued higher than cargo, so piracy relies a lot on kidnapping crews for ransom. No crew, no crew ransom. That would change the bargaining balance.

- Also, if crews can't manually override the automatic/remote control, then they have no control over the ships course. That would make piracy even more difficult.

- Crews could stay home with their families.

- The system might evolve into having specialist crews that can be brought in to handle difficult situations.

Docking and leaving might require the presence of crews on ships, but crews could be shuttled between their ships and the docks.

Re:Cargo ships (1)

Registered Coward v2 (447531) | about 5 months ago | (#46794113)

I've long thought that it would be good if cargo ships were automated and/or remote controlled. Piloting cargo ships ought to be relatively easy compared to remote piloting drones in combat.

Many are. You set Iron Mike on a course and speed and he follows it. You still, however, need someone on watch to watch for and deal with the inevitable unexpected situation.

Re:Cargo ships (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46794129)

Docking and leaving might require the presence of crews on ships, but crews could be shuttled between their ships and the docks.

Or just use remote telemetry to do these operations. Ships already use harbor pilots who relieve the regular crew when in highly congested areas.

Re:Cargo ships (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46795857)

And when the M-5 unit fails? I can't run a starship with twenty crew.

Drone tech filtering down (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46794277)

This is how military drones work. If the comm goes down or is jammed. It can land itself or vector to a last-known-good-place-to-skuttle.

Could even be triggered by the tower in the event of a terrorist attack.

Pilot "Stick and Rudder" Skills (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46794361)

I have been a licensed pilot for over 30 years. Automation is great....however, it has turned a generation of pilots into system managers.

Basically, an alarming percentage of pilots are poor flyers. Their basic "stick and rudder" flying skills are weak. A very alarming example of this was the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco. The crew was attempting a straight in visual approach in daylight and good weather. If you can't do this, you don't belong in the cockpit.

A perfectly good aircraft crashed into the seawall short of the runway with total loss of the plane 100+ injuries and a few fatalities. The plane was at least 30 knots below the recommended approach speed of 134 knots and way too low. The runway has a precision approach path indicator or "PAPI" that would have shown the pilots that they were too low. What the hell were they looking at?

This was a really basic maneuver that ended in disaster. System managers are not pilots.

If you want to see some serious stick and rudder work, go to YouTube and watch some approaches to Tegucigalpa in Honduras.

Re:Pilot "Stick and Rudder" Skills (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46795091)

Awesome!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

DARPA would develop things a lot faster... (1)

InfiniteBlaze (2564509) | about 5 months ago | (#46794881)

if they stopped putting so much time into their acronyms.

There is a correlation here. (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46795821)

The more automation we put into aircraft, the more pilots are trained to use it. Consider instrument flight - a condition where the pilot is actively ignoring his or her limited senses and trusting data provided by sensing devices installed on the aircraft. Never mind what the pilot sees when looking out the window or feels from his sense of balance, when the instruments indicate they're passing a marker (outer, middle, inner), they make specific inputs to the aircraft's flight controls. When the instruments say the aircraft is climbing/diving/rolling/yawing, the pilot manipulates the controls to adjust for it, even if he/she feels like the aircraft is in straight and level flight.

The better automation gets, the more pilots are trained to accept the automation despite their subjective feelings about flying the aircraft - especially when the automated action disagrees with their understanding of the situation. The automation is extensively tested and proven if used correctly, but even that is becoming more difficult as automated systems become increasingly complex. Simply run a Google search on "Controlled Flight Into Terrain" (CFIT) for numerous examples of both 1) pilots ignoring automation because they believe it is wrong, and 2) pilots incorrectly managing their automated systems.

Improved Aircraft (2)

Jim Sadler (3430529) | about 5 months ago | (#46795969)

The most promising method of creating advanced, military aircraft is getting human out of the craft completely. Human life requires, bulky, heavy, complex, life support considerations and limits the G forces that the craft can accept. Without people more weapons, more fuel, and more risk can be carried into battle without fer of human life being lost. We are at a tipping point at which any plane that has a pilot on board will fail to win in a conflict with an automated aircraft.

Protection from pilot error .. (1)

DTentilhao (3484023) | about 5 months ago | (#46797165)

Will this system protect from the pilot pressing "gear-up" while the aircraft is still on the runway, and the plane collapses onto the tarmac, or is this tale merely apocryphal?

Soon. . . (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46817699)

Can we, seriously, please name this skynet?

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