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Old 11-29-2012, 07:53 AM   #1
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Post "This is your ground pilot speaking"

Pilotless aircraft: This is your ground pilot speaking | The Economist

Pilotless aircraft
This is your ground pilot speaking
Autonomous civil aircraft could be flying before cars go driverless
Nov 24th 2012 | from the print edition

WITHIN the next few weeks a twin-engined Jetstream will take off from Warton Aerodrome in Lancashire, England, and head north towards Scotland. Like any other flight, the small commuter airliner will respond to instructions from air-traffic controllers, navigate a path and take care to avoid other aircraft. But the pilot flying the aircraft will not be in the cockpit: he will have his feet firmly on the ground in a control room back at Warton.

Pilotless aircraft are now widely used by the armed forces, but those drones fly only in restricted airspace and conflict zones. The Jetstream mission is part of a project to develop the technologies and procedures that will allow large commercial aircraft to operate routinely and safely without pilots in the same skies as manned civilian flights.

Fasten your seat belts

To reassure those of a nervous disposition, the test flights do not carry passengers and pilots remain in the cockpit just in case things go wrong. In that way they are similar to Google’s trials of driverless cars, which have drivers inside them to take over if necessary while on public roads. Yet unmanned commercial aircraft are likely to enter service before people can buy autonomous cars. Modern aircraft are already perfectly capable of automatically taking off, flying to a destination and landing. These tests are trying to establish whether they can do those things safely without a pilot in the cockpit and at the same time comply with the rules of the air.

Progress is being made, a conference in London heard this week. It was organised by the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment (ASTRAEA), the group staging the British test flights. This £62m ($99m) programme, backed by the British government, involves seven European aerospace companies: AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales.

It is potentially a huge new market. America’s aviation regulators have been asked by Congress to integrate unmanned aircraft into the air-traffic control system as early as 2015. Some small drones are already used in commercial applications, such as aerial photography, but in most countries they are confined to flying within sight of their ground pilot, much like radio-controlled model aircraft. Bigger aircraft would be capable of flying farther and doing a lot more things.

Pilotless aircraft could carry out many jobs at a lower cost than manned aircraft and helicopters—tasks such as traffic monitoring, border patrols, police surveillance and checking power lines. They could also operate in conditions that are dangerous for pilots, including monitoring forest fires or nuclear-power accidents. And they could fly extended missions for search and rescue, environmental monitoring or even provide temporary airborne Wi-Fi and mobile-phone services. Some analysts think the global civilian market for unmanned aircraft and services could be worth more than $50 billion by 2020.

Whatever happens, pilots will still have a role in aviation, although not necessarily in the cockpit. “As far as the eye can see there will always be a pilot in command of an aircraft,” says Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, the director of ASTRAEA. But that pilot may be on the ground and he may be looking after more than one unmanned aircraft at the same time.

Commercial flights carrying freight and express parcels might one day also lose their on-board pilots. But would even the most penny-pinching cut-price airline be able to sell tickets to passengers on flights that have an empty cockpit? More realistically, those flights might have just one pilot in the future. Technology has already relieved the flight deck of a number of jobs. Many early large aircraft had a crew of five: two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a radio operator. First the radio operator went, then the navigator, and by the time the jet era was well under way in the 1970s flight engineers began to disappear too. Next it could be the co-pilot, replaced by the autonomous flight systems now being developed.

The flight over Scotland will test how well air-traffic controllers can communicate with the ground pilot through the aircraft. The project is also exploring ways to make the radio and satellite links secure and reliable. But engineers still have to prepare for the eventuality that the link breaks; the aircraft then has to have enough autonomy to operate safely until communications are restored or it can land using its own guidance systems.

Unmanned aircraft will, therefore, need a “sense and avoid” capability. This can be provided by transponders that bleep the aircraft’s presence (and, in the case of advanced systems, its course, altitude and speed) to other aeroplanes and air-traffic controllers. But not all manned aircraft have such kit. Some light aircraft and gliders operating at low altitudes in clear weather are not required to have even radios, let alone transponders or radar. Which is why pilots keep their eyes peeled when such traffic might be about.

ASTRAEA’s Jetstream, therefore, also uses video cameras to allow the ground pilot to look around outside the cockpit. Image-recognition software can warn of other aircraft. This is being tested against different backgrounds, such as a cluttered landscape or a hazy sky.

In other trials, different aircraft are being flown in the vicinity of the Jetstream, and some of them will be flown deliberately towards it on a potential collision course, to see if these “intruding” aircraft can be recognised by the automated systems and the appropriate avoiding action taken. These flights are taking place in an area cleared of other aircraft over the Irish Sea. “The results to date suggest you can do sense-and-avoid as well as a human,” says Mr Dopping-Hepenstal.

A pilotless plane must also be able to act autonomously in an emergency. In the event of an engine failure, for instance, it could use its navigational map to locate a suitable area to put down. But what if this was an open field that happened to be in use for, say, a fair? A forward-looking video camera might show a ground pilot that. But if communications were lost the aircraft would rely on image-recognition software and an infra-red camera to detect the heat given off by people and machines and so decide to try to land elsewhere.

The ASTRAEA researchers are carrying out a lot of their work using flight simulators and air-traffic-control data. But eventually they will still have to prove that their systems can work in the real world—even during emergency landings. In order to satisfy risk-averse aviation regulators, the researchers are working with Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority to certify a virtual pilotless aircraft for use in civil airspace. The intention is not to certify an actual aircraft, but for both sides to learn what will be required to do so.

Some of the technologies being developed are also likely to find their way into manned aircraft as a backup for pilots, and possibly for cars too. Systems that provide automatic braking and motorway-lane control, for instance, already feature in many types of car. These features take cars some of the way towards autonomy. But driverless cars, like pilotless planes, will have to fit in with existing infrastructure and regulations, not least insurance liability, before they can take off.
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Old 11-29-2012, 01:14 PM   #2
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I think that UAVs have served a very real and very helpful function in the military. They are cheaper, more efficient, and in a lot of way more capable than manned fighter jets.

They have the ability to say aloft for very long periods of time. (I am pretty sure some can stay up for around 24 hours)

I do not know the safety record thus far, although with the ever expanding use of them, it must be good enough for the military. However, I do not see the benefits of UAVs in the military benefiting civilian air transportation.

One of the benefits of UAVs in the military is that they do not require the systems to provide a cabin for passenger comfort. No need for a pressurization system or cabin heat, let alone an area for a human. This saves cost, weight, complexity and space of course. This benefit would not help in a civilian application.

Another benefits to UAVs in the military is the ability to fly into hostile areas that you would not want to risk with a human onboard. Or the ability to fly into conditions that would be very dangerous. The loss of a UAV is a much smaller price to pay than the loss of a manned airplane. So again the benefits do not parallel a civilian application.

Now, if FedEx or UPS wanted to fly a drone cargo plane, it might be a little more reasonable. But for passenger flights, I see no benefit.

I am not worried that our airline pilot careers are in danger because of UAVs. My concern would be that eventually there could be a push to single pilot airliners. I don't think this will happen, and if it does, it is still a very long way off. Airbus and Boeing have plans to keep building jets with two crew flight decks for at least the next 20 years. Heck, I believe Boeing has orders for 737-MAX that run into the early 2020s, and the A320NEO must have an equally long backlog. If we are going to see single pilot airliners, it won't be for at least 25 years at the minimum and even that seems like a real stretch.

I think that with the phase out of FE, there could eventually be the possibility of a push to phase out the FO as well. That sure would take care of the looming pilot shortage, huh!?!
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Old 11-30-2012, 04:22 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
I think that UAVs have served a very real and very helpful function in the military.


They are cheaper, more efficient, and in a lot of way more capable than manned fighter jets.
But they do not perform the "fighter jet" mission, they do another set of missions (recon, surv, CAS, strike). There are no UAVs capable of doing the "fighter jet" mission (yet).

They are also really not cheaper to operate, as their long endurance means multiple shifts of operators. One UAV provides more mission time than one manned aircraft, but it costs more too. They are in some cases cheaper to buy (but the global hawk was so expensive, it got cancelled).

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Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
They have the ability to say aloft for very long periods of time. (I am pretty sure some can stay up for around 24 hours)
This is their primary advantage over manned aircraft.

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Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
I do not know the safety record thus far, although with the ever expanding use of them, it must be good enough for the military.
The military has lost about 50% of the predator fleet to non-combat accidents, mostly within the last ten years when their use really ramped up (there have also been a couple shot down). That may have been good enough for the military since they had a lot of money to fight the various wars, but I suspect that might fall short of the mark for passenger airlines.

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Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
However, I do not see the benefits of UAVs in the military benefiting civilian air transportation.
This is what a lot of people miss.


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Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
Now, if FedEx or UPS wanted to fly a drone cargo plane, it might be a little more reasonable.
This is far more likely, even probable late in the century.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
I am not worried that our airline pilot careers are in danger because of UAVs. My concern would be that eventually there could be a push to single pilot airliners. I don't think this will happen, and if it does, it is still a very long way off. Airbus and Boeing have plans to keep building jets with two crew flight decks for at least the next 20 years. Heck, I believe Boeing has orders for 737-MAX that run into the early 2020s, and the A320NEO must have an equally long backlog. If we are going to see single pilot airliners, it won't be for at least 25 years at the minimum and even that seems like a real stretch.
There are usually about a dozen airline pilot incapacitation events each year. Cut the crew in half and that would be six events...each of which would result in a total hull loss with today's airplanes. So basically you would need a totally automated airliner just to go single pilot.

This illustrates the chicken/egg problem with unmanned airliners. An unmanned airliner would require new certifications standards, involving massive redundancy in every aspect of the aircraft and it's operations The manufacturers are not going to spend hundreds of billions on an airplane they can't sell. The airliners can't operate such airplanes unless the regulatory infrastructure, ATC systems, and ground handling systems are in place. The government doesn't really have an incentive to take on all of that...NextGen ATC barely scratches the surface of what you would need for airliner automation and look at what a total catastrophe THAT implemenation has been


And this totally ignores the security issue. Major airline management figures have talked of automated airliners with a backup pilot whose primary duty is flight attendant. But how does he get into the cockpit in an emergency? Does the autopilot determine if he's under duress? Dave...what are you doing...Dave?

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Originally Posted by Aero1900 View Post
I think that with the phase out of FE, there could eventually be the possibility of a push to phase out the FO as well. That sure would take care of the looming pilot shortage, huh!?!
Getting rid of the FE was easy once they automated his job. But that still left a primary and backup pilot in the flight deck. Getting rid of the backup (FO) is where things get exponentially more difficult (and costly)
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Old 11-30-2012, 05:06 PM   #4
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Great points Rick.

What it will come down to is a set of numbers for probability-of-failure by category of severity. FAA will set forth the figures, and when the systems are able to achieve them reliably, passenger UAVs will be certified safe by the FAA. Standard failure analysis in engineering involves quantifying failure possibilities in gory detail, nothing new, and all the possibilities will be considered. No pilot-less airplane flies until everything is considered and assigned risk numbers per likelihood of occurring. It is closed- loop, exact science for the most part.

Human flight is more risky as far as unresolvable unknowns are concerned, and we do see quite a few human failures every year. Mechanized flight is pretty wild when it fails, but again it is easier to know how it will fail. It is only machinery programmed to move around using known principles of Newtonian physics, which is not out of the realm of present scientific knowledge. Cost, and need are the larger unknowns.

Last edited by Cubdriver; 11-30-2012 at 05:16 PM.
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Old 11-30-2012, 09:49 PM   #5
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They are also really not cheaper to operate, as their long endurance means multiple shifts of operators. One UAV provides more mission time than one manned aircraft, but it costs more too. They are in some cases cheaper to buy (but the global hawk was so expensive, it got cancelled).
Just think about that one for a few minutes. Think about all the recurrent training a fighter pilot has to do, the thousands of lbs of JP they are burning, think about simple things like their flight suit and helmet. How much does just the helmet for the F-35 cost? And then you gotta have a whole support industry that services the darn thing and everything else that goes with it. Think about all the parts like this. Think about all the pilot training that is required just to get that guy to that point, the T-38s, the other aircraft, and so on. Really, when you think about it, like really think about it, it's no contest. We have an entire infrastructure built around manned aircraft and pilots. When you are considering which is cheaper, consider that infrastructure cost first. When you think about the man hours, the resources, the training, the infrastructure it takes for just one aircraft....

Yes, the latest generation of UAVs aren't "simple" RC planes, but I don't think the costs are going to be anywhere near comparable when you look at the big picture.

There seem to be two kinds of people here (not labeling you though, I just happened to reply to your post ):

There is type that irrationally believe UAVs can't ever take on previously "manned" missions.

Then there's the type that sees the eventuality. The potential. The fact that technology overcomes absolutely amazing obstacles. They see that manned commercial US aircraft may be a long time coming, but they see the potential.

After all, the Russians launched Buran into space and landed it like an airplane with no one on board, and that wasn't like last year or anything. We had similar technology, but when we tried that (the one time the space shuttle landed at White Sands too) it went a little wrong and they disconnected the auto-land right before touchdown. I think that achievement for the Russians is monumental when you think about all the things that can go wrong and the complete lack of physical human intervention with the machine. That just blows my mind every time I think about it. The fact that it was so many years ago makes it all that more impressive. I guess when you think about it, we've already had unmanned cargo flights
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Old 12-01-2012, 06:49 PM   #6
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Oh, I agree it will happen, just not any time soon. Technology is mostly up to the task right now, it's just a matter of cost and regulatory/industry inertia.

Where tech is still lacking is the judgement to respond to complex and unanticipated situations...this is amplified by a factor of ten in the military application where somebody has to make a kill decision (and I do mean KILL) in a dynamic situation with possibly incomplete data. Airliners are easier, they don't have to accomplish a mission, just go from A to B. But I have yet to see an autopilot that can interpret radar returns from a heavy storm system, talk to ATC to get a feel for what THEY are seeing, and make a sound decision. We have all the other technology (redundancy costs extra though...LOTS extra) but we don't have the artificial intelligence yet. Automated airliners would have to make a lot of diversion out of an abundance of caution (and stupidity).

Once the technology becomes MUCH, MUCH, MUCH more reliable at a reasonable price, then all you have to do is wait for SOMEONE to make the huge investments necessary to get the whole system up and running. Airline managers will squeal like pigs when the time comes, but they won't actually invest any of THEIR money is a project which won't bear fruit for 20+ years...they are only interest in next quarter's stock prices.

Yes it can be done, in fact it could be done right now but it would cost way more than it's worth. Ask yourself how much of what you do is science and how much is art...it's the art that makes automation hard unless you're willing to lose a LOT of airplanes. The military HAS lost a lot of UAV;s but they haven't taken any passengers with them.

Re. Buran...the USAF is doing exactly the same thing right now with a classified program (check google). But basic automated airplane flying is technologically very easy...It's actually easier to do in space because you know where all the obstacles are and there are no "pop-up" targets or weather. But it sure as hell ain't cheap...and if it fails dramatically, oh well.
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Old 04-27-2017, 10:26 AM   #7
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Doctors and Financial analysts are just as susceptible to computers/AI takeover.... no job is safe
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Old 04-29-2017, 07:19 AM   #8
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Doctors and Financial analysts are just as susceptible to computers/AI takeover.... no job is safe
Except automation specialists and developers.

(for now )
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Old 04-29-2017, 01:30 PM   #9
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Except automation specialists and developers.

(for now )
We're all doomed...
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