Friday, September 1, 2017

“Otto”, your new First Officer

Will air transport airplanes carrying many people for commercial purposes move to fully autonomous, no human pilot onboard? 

The First Officer will turn into “Otto”, a built-in feature of the next generation air transport airplane, and that the Captain is here to stay.   This is a logical progression from four to three (no Navigator) to two (no Flight Engineer) to one (no First Officer.)

Takeoff is Manual for good reason

Manual takeoff requires rapid response to unforeseen objects on the runway or from a multitude of failures that may require manipulating a wide range of controls. A human Pilot has a nose, eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet.

Failure is not an Option

Inner-loop primary flight control failures have proven to be a significant risk, principally in human interface.  It is not possible to stop failures.  We can do better responding to failures, and expert systems are the best solution to analyze and recommend.

Humans are Beings

Pilot’s are human beings, with emotions and illnesses, that can take matters into their own hands with tragic consequence; have no role in direct combat; and are easily incapacitated.

Don't Touch

Hackers are criminals when they cross the line and try to change something on an airplane, period. Malicious intent opens up entirely new hazards.  Requirements for automation must account for malicious intent. Human's may be able to comprehend intent, but automation can sniff it out much more diligently.

One Step at a Time

Automation took away the Navigator and the Flight Engineer.  It is arguable that the First Officer position is next.  

The next lifetime of new Air Transport will demand a Captain be onboard.  Let's see how that goes, first, before we start talking about fully autonomous.

Let's be Careful

Aviation manages development through a rigorous process of analyzing system safety. Functional Hazard Assessments highlights when new features go wrong or go bad.  Failure modes and effects provide a framework for approval, leaving no stone unturned.  Software development, test, and configuration control diligently step through every requirement, both to verify the implementation and validate the requirement.  Yet hardware and software can still fail in unexpected ways, and these can manifest themselves in combinations that only “in sum” threaten safety.  It is for this reason, we, the design community, fall back on the pilot to save the day. 

Autonomous Flight is technically feasible. Human’s are fallible, and can make things worse when responding to an urgent situation. There is very good reason to step-up the automation to the point that “Otto” is a real First Officer, with eyes and ears too.  A Captain would still make the decisions, along the lines of crew resource management.

For the Greater Good

Rules and regulations move slowly, and are subject to political pressures.  A business decision starts with an airframe manufacturer proposing to a regulator.  We have made significant advancements over and over.  Autonomous (not remote-pilot) will take off in a 10E-7 (catastrophe will happen occasionally) environment (personal transport) in the next few years. 

Going to a Captain (one pilot) and a fully capable first officer function (that includes the ability to manipulate any control) is next for air transport, or the 10E-9 world (never a catastrophe.)

Stay tuned!

Peter Lemme

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Follow me on twitter: @Satcom_Guru
Copyright 2017 All Rights Reserved

Peter Lemme has been a leader in avionics engineering for 35 years. He offers independent consulting services largely focused on avionics and L, Ku, and Ka band satellite communications to aircraft. Peter chairs the SAE-ITC AEEC Ku/Ka-band satcom subcommittee, developing ARINC 791 and 792 characteristics and contributes to the Network Infrastructure and Interfaces (NIS) subcommittee developing Project Paper 848, standard for Secure Broadband IP Air/Ground Interface.

Peter was Boeing avionics supervisor for 767 and 747-400 data link recording, data link reporting, and satellite communications. He was an FAA designated engineering representative (DER) for ACARS, satellite communications, DFDAU, DFDR, ACMS and printers. Peter was lead engineer for Thrust Management System (757, 767, 747-400), also supervisor for satellite communications for 777, and was manager of terminal-area projects (GLS, MLS, enhanced vision).

An instrument-rated private pilot, single engine land and sea, Peter has enjoyed perspectives from both operating and designing airplanes. Hundreds of hours of flight test analysis and thousands of hours in simulators have given him an appreciation for the many aspects that drive aviation; whether tandem complexity, policy, human, or technical; and the difficulties and challenges to achieving success.

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