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It's Time For Robot Pilots

A simple change would allow computers or pilots on the ground to take control of airplanes in case of emergency.

​It's increasingly looking like the plane that crashed Monday in France, killing 150 people, went down because one of the pilots ​turned off the autopilot and intentionally crashed it into the ground. Why are we still letting humans fly passenger planes?

The short answer is, we're not really. It's no secret that planes are already highly automated, and, with technology that's available today (but that isn't installed on the Airbus A320 operated by Germanwings that crashed), it would have been possible for someone in a ground station somewhere to have wrested control of the plane from those on board and reestablished autopilot (or to have piloted the plane from the ground).


As it stands, pilots actually touch the controls for an exceedingly short period of time on any given flight. According to a recent study by Duke researcher Missy Cummings, in which she interviewed 11 commercial who fly both Boeing and Airbus planes, they barely touch the controls at all. The study is embedded below.

"Pilots flying the [Boeing] 777 agreed that they spent about 7 minutes for a typical flight actually 'flying' the aircraft, meaning touching the controls," Missy Cummings, a former military pilot and an unmanned systems researcher at Duke's ​Humans and Autonomy Lab and at MIT's ​Humans and Automation Lab, wrote in the paper. "The Airbus pilots stated that they 'flew' their aircraft about half that time."

"The initial negative reaction was soon followed by a series of negotiation questions, such as 'Can I watch movies?' or 'Can I read a book?'"

Cummings has long spoken of a future where pilots, in the traditional sense, wouldn't do anything at all—she's seen fighter pilots lose their jobs to drones in the military, and expects the same will eventually happen in commercial planes. As far as she's concerned, most commercial planes are already drones, more or less.

"Those three minutes Airbus pilots fly isn't because they have to fly it, it's just procedures. It's just during takeoff," she said.

The idea that pilots don't do that much, of course, is not a popular opinion within the aviation industry.


It's true that autopilot cannot account for every possible thing a plane will encounter, and flying purists point to Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who managed to safely land a US Airways flight in the Hudson River after it was struck by a flock of geese. Sullenberger's heroics, and other times a pilot or copilot have actually had to take the controls to avert disaster, are used as evidence that pilots are still needed and still useful.

But then again, there are cases, such as the 9/11 attacks, the ​1999 EgyptAir Flight 990, and this week's disaster, in which the pilot, or a hijacker, or someone flying the plane, becomes the most dangerous thing to a specific plane's safety.

"Commands could come from a ground control station"

But it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. A purely auto piloted plane would probably crash from time to time, but leaving complete control of the plane to those on board, 100 percent of the time, hasn't worked either.

So Cummings and others have looked into a system in which one pilot is in the cockpit, and the other is a robot—or at the very least, a group of humans—on the ground. For one, it would eventually save a massive amount of money for airlines in terms of pilots' salaries, which is why it's attractive to airlines (whether we want to automate pilots out of existence is another question). But, secondly, it could prevent disasters like this week from occurring.


"That Airbus could, with some very simple changes, be remote controlled," Cummings said. "They're operated with a system known as digital fly-by-wire, where the pilots are, through ones and zeroes, telling the plane what to do. Those commands don't have to be right there, they could come from a ground control station."

Flying a plane from the ground (or taking it over from the ground, in case of emergency) raises a host of other issues, namely hacking concerns. But the military does it with drones all day, every day, and well-encrypted communications would go a long way to preventing that from happening. Onboard computers could, if connection was lost, automatically land the plane, ​which is already done with the military's Global Hawk drone.

It's something that Boeing has already patented, in fact. The company has designed and patented an "​uninterruptible autopilot system" that could take over the plane from the ground.

The company would not tell me if it has already installed the system into any of its planes, but Cummings suspects it hasn't because such a system would have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration first.

"Boeing is committed to designing airplanes that are both safe and secure—meeting or exceeding all applicable regulatory requirements for both physical and cyber security," a Boeing spokesperson told me. "For security reasons, we do not discuss specific airplane design features."


Such features are coming, eventually. ​A British research firm called ASTREA has tested completely pilotless passenger planes, and automated features on existing planes aren't going away.

Cummings doesn't think we'll ever see fully pilotless passenger planes—not because it can't be done, but because she says someone has to be on the plane to deal with unruly passengers, orderly seating, and that sort of thing (others have suggested this role would be something like a flight attendant, who also knows how to fly the plane). That is, until a humanoid robot can do it, a prospect that Cummings says is much further off than pilotless planes.

"I think we'll see no pilot, completely unmanned cargo planes for companies like UPS and DHL," she said. "I think the person on a passenger plane will be increasingly supervisory and the rest will be done by ground operations."

Remember, Cummings recently spoke to 11 commercial pilots about the idea of losing their copilots and having it done on the ground, by a robot, instead. Their immediate concerns were not about safety—instead, they wondered what they'd do in the cockpit without anyone to talk to.

"Initial reactions strongly indicated that being the only person would be lonely, and their preference was to have another person in the cockpit," Cummings wrote.

"In almost all cases, this initial negative reaction was soon followed by a series of negotiation questions, such as 'Can I watch movies?' or 'Can I read a book?'" she added. "Upon reconsideration and with the caveat that as long as they were allowed activities to keep themselves occupied, the pilots generally felt that the loss of the other person was not such a negative concern after all."

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