Airspace Q1 2018: Take-off for a new era

22 February 2018

Autonomous operations are getting closer and the ATM system needs to be ready to accommodate them.

About 60 years ago, it was not unusual to see two pilots, a flight engineer, a radio operator and a navigator inside a cockpit. The radio operator and navigator were soon phased out, followed a couple of decades later by flight engineers.

Pilotless aircraft – autonomous operations – therefore seem inevitable. Indeed, the next step – reducing the cockpit to a single pilot – is already underway.

One pilot
The growth of air traffic, leading to the requirement for a correspondingly large number of pilots, is a strong driver behind the move to single pilot operations. Boeing's estimate of some 640,000 pilots needed in the next two decades far outweighs the number of pilots trained since commercial air travel began.

Moving to a single pilot would entail a cockpit redesign, so that all controls are accessible. It might also involve a remote-control pilot on the ground, in case of emergencies, who would monitor a number of flights at the same time.

Despite the disruptive nature of this change, a number of companies are pursuing options, including Airbus and Boeing. Both are exploring artificial intelligence that will ultimately enable autonomous operations.

Airbus Chief Technology Officer, Paul Eremenko, has admitted the company is looking to develop autonomous aircraft, helping to cut costs for carriers and improve safety. "We're pursuing single-pilot operation as a potential option and a lot of the technologies needed to make that happen has also put us on the path towards unpiloted operation," he said.

Meanwhile, Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences' Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program has been successfully tested in a Boeing 737 simulator. ALIAS functions as a second pilot in a two-crew aircraft, with the aim of promoting high levels of automation in existing aircraft.

In-cockpit machine vision, robotic components to actuate the flight controls, an advanced user interface and speech recognition and synthesis are all part of the ALIAS technology. It also features a knowledge acquisition process that facilitates transition to a new aircraft type in less than one month thanks to an understanding of aircraft procedures and general airmanship.

"Having successfully demonstrated on a variety of aircraft, ALIAS has proven its versatile automated flight capabilities," said John Wissler, Aurora's Vice President of Research and Development. "As we move towards fully automated flight from take-off to landing, we can reliably say that we have developed an automation system that enables significant reduction of crew workload."

Aurora believes reassigning cockpit roles, allowing humans to perform tasks best suited to humans and automation to perform tasks best suited to automation, would improve pilot performance and reduce individual workload, while also providing significant cost savings in the form of simplified training and lower crew costs.

Safety improvements
Eventually, it seems likely that autonomous operations will form a significant proportion of commercial passenger flights. Swiss bank, UBS, has estimated that there could be $26 billion in pilot cost savings for commercial airlines.

"The opportunity would depend on the timing of the roll-out of pilotless planes and we think it is likely we would initially see cargo as the first subsector to adopt new related technologies, with the number of pilots falling from two to one and eventually from one to none," UBS noted.

Safety is, as ever, the main concern. But it may be that cutting the human out of the equation is a boon. A 2013 UPS accident that killed both pilots blamed the crash on fatigue and pilot error while the 2015 Germanwings accident that killed all 150 people on board was caused by a mentally disturbed pilot downing the plane on purpose. These are the most recent examples of pilot errors that have featured throughout aviation history.

Autonomous operations could significantly raise the bar on safety. Higher degrees of automation could reject a change-of-altitude command if it put an aircraft below the height of surrounding terrain, for example. In 2016, Lockheed Martin's Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS) is credited with saving the life of an unconscious F-16 pilot.

ATM structure
The question then becomes how ATM needs to respond to pilotless aircraft. Teri Bristol, CANSO Chair and Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Organization says the organisational structure of ATM does not need to change.

"Our structure supports both strategic and tactical interactions with operators / pilots," she says. "While operations may become nearly-autonomous, the need to interact with the operator / pilot, and they with their vehicle, will not go completely away. There will likely be a shift to more strategic and less-tactical interactions and these interactions will be 100% data exchange instead of voice exchange. This is not far from the spectrum of interactions ATM already has with oceanic operations. Thus, there will be a shift to more dynamic and automated means to fulfill our business process, which is necessary given the shift to data from voice to meet our current evolving near-term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) needs and also supports the longer term nearly-autonomous operations."

Bristol insists that the industry and ANSPs must leverage their existing strengths if this is to occur rapidly. One potential business process shift being considered by FAA involves the ANSP determining overall policy, standards, and setting requirements, while industry develops, builds, and sustains the necessary infrastructure to support a more dynamic response.

"We are testing this shift through a prototype evaluation of a UAS tool called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) and it involves industry and the FAA exchanging data to quickly process airspace authorisation requests," Bristol informs.

"LAANC leverages the industry's strengths by permitting it to rapidly build and deploy the interface and infrastructure, and also leverages the FAA's policy and regulatory authorities to grant small UAS access to controlled airspace. If the deployment of LAANC is successful, this business process shift may be applied to an increasing set of capabilities in the national airspace system."

The human touch
As Bristol notes, interaction between an ANSP, the operator / pilot, and the vehicle will not go completely away. But there are many different autonomous operational ideas and concepts being explored and so where exactly the line is drawn between the human and the machine is open to question.

Whether a human plays a role in autonomous operations will be determined by a variety of factors, says Bristol. But two factors stand out for her: will technology be able to manage all of the potential "what if" scenarios; and will the public accept it?

"In the short term, we believe that there is a continuing role for the human to provide some assistance with non-standard operational issues and also provide some level of reassurance to the public that the technology is performing properly," she says. "We anticipate that as the technology matures and is proven reliable over time, automation will continue to augment operations. This will have the effect of reducing the number of non-normal conditions without standard resolutions and also provide increased assistance to the human in resolving any remaining rare cases."

Will the public accept it?

An August 2017 UBS Evidence Lab Survey of 8,000 people found that 54% would be reluctant to take a pilotless flight, with only 17% welcoming the opportunity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger participants between the ages of 18 and 34 were the most positive, with 30% willing to try out the experience. UBS believes that this indicates that acceptance would grow over time.

And time is something that pilotless planes has, according to the bank. It noted "design, security and technological challenges" surrounding the concept as well as the need for more regulation in this area.


What else is out there?

Aviation is awash with ideas for autonomous operations from high-altitude solar planes providing Internet access to low altitude taxis taking customers to do their shopping and drones delivering humanitarian aid.

Airbus is developing an autonomous air taxi known as Vahana, intended for short urban hops. It is designed to take off and land in tight spaces and has a range of about 50 miles.

Meanwhile, in early January 2018, Boeing unveiled a new unmanned electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) cargo air vehicle (CAV) prototype that will be used to test and evolve Boeing's autonomy technology for future aerospace vehicles.

"This flying cargo air vehicle represents another major step in our Boeing eVTOL strategy," said Boeing Chief Technology Officer, Greg Hyslop. "We have an opportunity to really change air travel and transport, and we'll look back on this day as a major step in that journey."

Boeing has also invested in, and partnered with, Near Earth Autonomy, a company focused on developing a portfolio of technologies that enable safe and reliable autonomous flight.

"This partnership will accelerate technology solutions that we feel will be key to unlocking emerging markets of autonomous flight," said Steve Nordlund, Boeing HorizonX Vice President.




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