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Airbus Plans to Expand Cockpit Automation 355

Carl Bialik from WSJ writes "Airbus plans computerized systems that could automatically maneuver jetliners to avoid midair collisions, without pilot input, the Wall Street Journal reports. From the article: 'For the first time, flight crews of Airbus planes will be instructed and trained to rely on autopilots in most cases to escape an impending crash with another airborne aircraft. Currently, all commercial pilots are required to instantly disconnect the autopilot when they get an alert of such an emergency, and manually put their plane into a climb or descent to avoid the other aircraft. The change, which hasn't been announced yet, comes after lengthy internal Airbus debates and despite skepticism from pilot groups and even some aircraft-equipment suppliers.'"
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Airbus Plans to Expand Cockpit Automation

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  • by abigsmurf (919188) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:45PM (#15429030)
    wasn't there a plane crash a few years back caused by both planes trying to avoid a mid air collision actually moving into each other? A system which ensures the planes do actually move apart seems a good idea
    • Nope. That was a Swiss air controller who gave instructions counter to the in-cockpit collision avoidance system.

      http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=455&id=738 632002 [scotsman.com]
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/2082331.st m [bbc.co.uk]

      On the other hand, I've worked with Aerospatiale software engineers, and I wouldn't trust them to organise a piss-up in a brewery. Comp.risks is rife with their fuckups, so I expect Great Things from this proposal.
    • by Martin Foster (4949) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:57PM (#15429147) Homepage
      They covered this on the Discovery Channel up in Canada a few months back. The problem was not the technology, it was related to how the procedures differed between airlines and countries. In one instance the pilots of the cargo plane followed the computers directions, while the Russian pilots listened to the air control tower.

      Had both listened to the air control tower or the onboard warning systems everything would have worked. This was not the case and a midair collision ensued.
      • by badasscat (563442) <[basscadet75] [at] [yahoo.com]> on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:30PM (#15429423)
        Had both listened to the air control tower or the onboard warning systems everything would have worked.

        And this new system will not solve that problem, because it would require all aircraft to be equipped with it to work, not just Airbus.

        If the new system commands the airplane to dive, and the other pilot follows instructions from controllers on his manually-controlled plane to also dive, then you're still looking at an accident. This solves nothing, really.

        Relying on ATC in this situation is, in any case, about the worst thing you can do - and it's the reason why standard procedure in the west is not to. Only the pilots of the airplanes, by virtue of their accident avoidance systems, have the situational awareness required to take appropriate action in time to avoid an accident. And these accident avoidance systems will never give conflicting instructions - if the system in one plane says to pull up, the system in the other will say dive.

        Anyway, there are good reasons why airline pilots dislike having control taken away from them, especially in critical situations - because software in airliners, just like software in home computers, is prone to bugs. If you could see the software service advisories for the 747-400 flight management computer alone over the life of that airplane, you would probably never want to fly one again. Some of the lesser bugs have still never been patched; the manual simply contains workarounds for them. (These manuals are available to the public, despite the government's security concerns - you can buy one online, legally, if you'd like to see for yourself.) Obviously, anything safety-related would be patched as soon as it was found, but what if the first time a bug is discovered is after it causes an accident?

        No thanks. Flight management systems have evolved to the point where I feel comfortable enough flying in airplanes that I know are on auto-pilot in nominal flying conditions (as most are from shortly after takeoff to shortly before landing, or even right through landing), but in critical situations, I want somebody with both learned skill and judgement flying that plane. The key word being "somebody".
        • by soft_guy (534437) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:37PM (#15429475)
          Had both listened to the air control tower or the onboard warning systems everything would have worked.

          And this new system will not solve that problem, because it would require all aircraft to be equipped with it to work, not just Airbus.


          They should just have one rule - for both planes to stop. That would solve it.
    • by uniqueUser (879166) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:12PM (#15429260)
      wasn't there a plane crash a few years back caused by...
      As we start to automate transportation (all forms) with computers, we will always remember when the computer got it wrong. Even if the computer is better most of the time. If a man makes one mistake out of a hundred, and a computer makes one mistake out of a million, the media will will always highlight the computers faults. We will always hear "...had a person been driving..."
      • It's prejudice, that's what it is!

        Actually, it probably has more to do with the feeling of control. Even when a computer is better at the job, the human still likes to be in control. The media will play up the fear of losing control for... what else? Greenbacks.
      • Good point... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Graboid (975267) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:44PM (#15429518)
        I had a good friend who once read a story about a guy who was thrown from a car accident and walked away because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. He used that example for many years as justification for NEVER wearing a seatbelt (and, ironically, he suffered a concusion from a 15 mph fender bender).

        So, humans have an incredible capacity for ignoring the facts that don't support what they want to believe. In this case, even if the computer makes the RIGHT decision and a collision is avoided, passengers will get pissed for minor injuries in a severe turn, the computer will be blamed and a massive investigations will be launched.

        And, in some cases, very senior, experienced individuals will make better decisions, but these aren't the guys that will flying the planes most of the time. They're the guys that need to train the computer systems (like chess - you need really great chess players to 'teach' the computers and, at some point, the computer will outplay the master).
    • I don't know whether or not we're thinking about the same crash, but the one I know of, it was traffic controller's fault.

      Two planes (one loaded with children going on vacation, going from aformer Soviet republic) were on a collion course somewhere near Switzerland. The traffic controller saw the problem very late; the autopilots on the planes reacted correctly, pointing one plane up and one down. However, the controller instructed the plane going up to go down instead. The pilot asked "are you sure?" and t
    • by DingerX (847589) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:29PM (#15429415) Journal
      To put it a little more verbosely than the other posters.

      A system to avoid mid-air collisiosn exists. It's called TCAS, and it works well. But when TCAS issues a Resolution Advisor (aka a loud voice in the cockpit booming "CLIMB CLIMB" or "DIVE DIVE"), it means that Air Traffic Control has already failed to do its job, and, given the refresh rates of ATC radar, ATC isn't likely to be of much help any more. In such a case, you have two pieces of information:

      A) ATC has failed.
      B) You better do what the box says, or you something bad will happen.

      In this case, the failsafe triggered, one crew did what the box told them to do (DIVE); the other followed ATC and ignored the box.

      When a system fails, and the backup kicks in, you follow the backup.

      Yes, there are problems with the Boeing philosophy: pilots make plenty of mistakes. But there are serious concerns with Airbus. Getting code to perform flawlessly isn't cheap, nor does it happen (as an Airbus that came darn close to running out of fuel over The Netherlands proved a few months ago); in addition, every airliner has interface problems, and a great number of accidents in both Boeing and Airbus involve the crew not understanding what the aircraft is saying. Airbus adds in the bonus of the aircraft not understanding what the crew is trying to do (A300 crash in Nagoya was it?), and in the mix, automates enough procedures to cause a real mess when then automation fails/cannot be used (a rainy missed approach over the Baltic Sea, perhaps).

      And all that comes down to liability. Pilot error settlements may not be cheap, but the manufacturer isn't liable to the same degree as a software design flaw.
      • It seems, then, that one problem is the TCAS box suddenly pulling rank, and ATC having no idea what's going on. Why not tie the two systems together? At the same instant that TCAS starts saying DIVE DIVE DIVE to the pilots, it starts saying SHUT UP I'M TELLING THOSE GUYS TO DIVE to the controller.
      • A300 (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Submarine (12319)
        Except that the A300 is not a fly-by-wire design.
    • wasn't there a plane crash a few years back caused by both planes trying to avoid a mid air collision actually moving into each other?

      I don't recall that accident- but I do recall very vividly the huge mess around Air France Flight 296 [wikipedia.org]. The pilot was doing a low pass for an air show, gave the engines throttle, and the computer on the Airbus 320 decided "no". The plane crashed and killed three people.

      There are photos showing people who never should have touched the black box (civilian aviation authorit

      • The pilot was doing a low pass for an air show, gave the engines throttle, and the computer on the Airbus 320 decided "no".

        According to the Wiki article you linked to, it doesn't specify that "the computer decided 'no'," but rather it indicates that Airbus released a service bulletin alerting of anomolous behaviour with the engines. It could easily have been mechanical. Furthermore, turbofan engines such as those used on jet airplanes do not spool up to full power instantaneously like internal combustion
  • Poor pilots (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rorian (88503) <james.fysh @ g m a i l . com> on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:47PM (#15429041) Homepage Journal
    Soon they'll have nothing left to do at all..

    I was always under the impression that pilots were trained pretty much entirely for these once-in-a-lifetime events, such as mid-air collision and having one jet fail. I guess they are only going to be useful for take-off and landing now?

    Maybe they're trying to phase out pilots all together? Sure would put an end to the whole pension-deficit issue that airlines are facing (well, once all the current pilots die of old age).
    • Re:Poor pilots (Score:2, Interesting)

      by October_30th (531777)
      Most people today would probably refuse to board a plane that flies without a human pilot, yet the development is inevitable. It will just take time.
    • by slashmojo (818930) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:52PM (#15429093)
      Soon they'll install msft flight sim running on an xbox 360 in the cockpit so the pilots can at least pretend they are flying it for real..
    • by nharmon (97591) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:53PM (#15429098) Homepage
      In the future, the only crew on an aircraft will be a man and a dog. The man's job is to feed the dog. The dog's job is to bite the man whenever he tries to touch the controls.
    • First, these are NOT once-in-a-lifetime events. It is occuring more frequently than is generally known. And as the skies get more crowded, it will happen more.

      As to nothing to do, the idea is to get to one person in the cockpit and they are the backup to the computer. Over the next 15 years, the goal is to be able to run commercials with exactly one person in the cockpit. Keep in mind that Delta pays their top pilots over 250K/year (used to be >300K). That is a lot of dough.
      • One person in the cockpit may be the desire of some, but two people present in the cockpit provide redundancy in case of illness or other incapacitation, and some assurance against a suicidal crewman (though apparently not enough for some flights -- see EgyptAir). It will be very, very hard to convince people (me included) that fewer than two crew (per shift, for extremely long flights) are required up front.
        • No doubt that internationals will require 2 (one as back-up pilot and the other as international officer). In addition, these will be used for training (they need to accumulate time on take-off/landing but with supervision). But for the short domestic hops where the landing/landing is being performed by computers, the argument runs that a backup-pilot (to the computer) is all that is needed.

          Not sure what to think of it, but personally, it is a bit scarey. I currently work at a company where I was brought
      • And as the skies get more crowded, it will happen more.

        And they're about to get much more crowded if the Air Taxi [flightglobal.com] concept takes off. (No pun intended) That would put a lot of single-pilot jets in the skies. Automated avoidance systems will become necessary (or more necessary.)

        The interesting thing is that if they do, and are sucessful, there'll be more call for, and less resistance to, doing something similar in automobiles.

    • Maybe they're trying to phase out pilots all together?

      I would always prefer to have a pilot on board. It gives me the security of knowing that there is at least one human, with the power to decide whether the airplane leaves the ground or not, whose life depends on the decision just as mine does.

      If it gets to the point where computerized pilots are provably more efficient and safer than humans, legislation should require that on every flight, a mid-level airline executive should be on board the plane, with
    • I was always under the impression that pilots were trained pretty much entirely for these once-in-a-lifetime events, such as mid-air collision and having one jet fail.

      Not really. Most pilot training goes into flight planning, preparation, rules, etc. Then you train on normal operations and contingengies. Then accuracy and consistency.

      But really, ever since the Airbus 320 introduced the inability to stall, more intelligence is going into the planes. (No matter how hard you pull back on the Airbus 320's s
    • They'll be left hanging around the gymnasium, watching films about gladiators, and languishing in Turkish prisons.
  • by happyrabit (942015) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:52PM (#15429090)
    We will have too trust our lives more and more too machines, we already do it in hospitals...
    Machines and electronics are less subject to stress... pilots will have to share their responsabilities with electronics, it's inevitable.

    Still, we should first have a good quality check procedures on those programmers and engineers work, as a programmer myself I wouldn't trust my own code to keep me alive :)
    • by raider_red (156642) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:56PM (#15429129) Journal
      The flight computer wasn't downing vodka martinis in the bar before it got on the plane. I don't have a problem with this, but some of my friends who are pilots probably will.

    • I would. But then, I document my code.
      • Soooo, somebody else could later figure out why it killed you? :-)
      • Well, I would trust my code with my live, and I do so on a regular basis, it does pay for my living after all... However, I would _NEVER_ program anything to keep a person a live under the conditions I usually work (stressed out, insane deadlines et al.)

        But where does documentation enter? Documenting doesn't remove bugs, it helps locate what part of the system might be an error, but: //This checks if auto_pilot is on
        if(auto_pilot = 0){ ...something...
        }else{ ...something other very critical...
        }
        this even got
    • When I was working for an airline, there was a joke running around that Airbus's next airliner would be piloted by a one man, one dog crew. The man was there to feed the dog. The dog was there to bite the man if he tried to touch anything.

      I guess it's here.

    • Still, we should first have a good quality check procedures on those programmers and engineers work, as a programmer myself I wouldn't trust my own code to keep me alive :)

      Not just the programmers and engineers, but the theoretical computer scientists and AI specialists who come up with the algorithms that drive the machines.

      It'd be a sorry thing if your system failed simply because it was incapable of handling a common case, no matter how well it was programmed or built.
    • by toolie (22684)
      We will have too trust our lives more and more too machines, we already do it in hospitals...

      Aircraft have been overriding pilots' intentions for years in specific instances. Computers can process and act faster than humans can to a situation that can be fatal in a matter of seconds. For instance, flight computers have *instantly* taken control of an aircraft that is either taking off or landing and it hits a wind shear. Those couple of seconds when a pilot's brain is trying to figure out what the hell j
    • We will have too trust our lives more and more too machines, we already do it in hospitals...as a programmer myself I wouldn't trust my own code to keep me alive

      Neither would I!
      WARNING! Syntax error on line 385! *plane crashes*

  • by 99luftballon (838486) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:54PM (#15429114)
    After all the crash of one of the first fly by wire A320 aircraft at a French air show in 1998 there were numerous questions raised about the suitability of its control software. The investigation claimed pilot error but there is considerable evidence that the data in the flight recorders was falsified. The thought of a pilot being advised to leave it to software is very worrying.
    • The reverse argument could be made. I live close to East Midlands airport, where there was a notable incident involving a Boeing 737 [wikipedia.org]. The investigation concluded that the aircraft had suffered an engine failure at 28,000', but the crew shut down the wrong engine. Worse still, they did not realise the error until on finals, when it was too late to do anything about it.

      Had a computer system been charged with responsibility for this, maybe the accident wouldn't have happened.

    • I work on the Avionics package of the F-16. These (among many other aircraft) are fly-by-wire meaning that all pilot inputs (stick, rudder pedals) are passed through a computer and electrically sent to the control surfaces. These aircraft fly in conditions that are *somewhat* more hazardous and complex than your average Airbus, and largely the pilot does what the little screens tell him to. A common AF joke is to refer to a pilot as a "stick actuator", as that is largely what he is. It is a relatively small
    • After all the crash of one of the first fly by wire A320 aircraft at a French air show in 1998 there were numerous questions raised about the suitability of its control software.
      Except that the pilot disabled the flight envelope protection mode allowing him to do something stupid. Not to say that he was lacking training (mind boggling since he was chief pilot) too.
  • Old school (Score:5, Informative)

    by packetmon (977047) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:55PM (#15429125) Homepage
    This isn't new news...

    "Autopilot computer systems on Boeing 737s have been hit by a problem which has caused aircraft to change height without warning. It is believed that full details of the problem have been requested by the investigators into the crash of the British Midland 737 on the M1 motorway in January. One theory is that the crew were misled by cockpit instruments.

    Six incidents have been recorded by British Airways on its aircraft but the company says there has never been any danger because the crews have always checked the autopilot actions against other cockpit instruments.

    The problem occurs after a pilot enters a new height to the autopilot. The system displays the instruction, but under certain circumstances the aircraft moves to a different height and the autopilot then displays the new reading.

    One senior British Airways captain says the autopilot seems to use instructions entered earlier, even as long ago as the previous flight.

    British Airways has called the problem "random memory initiation" and says it is caused by unexpected electromagnetic conditions such as lightning, strong radar signals, or an electrical power surge. Boeing says it has no evidence of any accidents occurring because of the problems.(source: Risks Digest [ncl.ac.uk]

    I recall reading about these dangers during the 9/11 investigation. Supposedly there were arguments leaning towards an automatic autopilot override for authorities to use in the event of something like 9/11 occurring again, the problem was just that... Too many problems and glitches with these systems. Airbus themselves have had these issues on a crash...

    China Airlines A300 Disaster

    China Airlines A300 crashed at Japan's Nagoya airport, killing 264 of 271 people on board. The most likely cause of the crash was not solely the fault of software, but the confused interactions between software and human, in this case between the 26-year old copilot of the plane who was attempting to land the plane and the autopilot of the plane.

    Two minutes before the plane was about to land, the autopilot of the plane went into take-off/go-around for reasons the investigation could not determine. In effect, this caused the autopilot to attempt to control the plane in a way that was directly opposite to what the human pilot was attempting to control.

    (Source [stanford.edu])
    Mind you this accident was a while back, there were other issues with the systems overriding at the wrong time...
  • by Conspiracy_Of_Doves (236787) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @12:56PM (#15429130)
    "For the first time, flight crews of Airbus planes will be instructed and trained to rely on autopilots in most cases to escape an impending crash with another airborne aircraft or a building."

    • That's going to be one heck of a training issue. "Oh, no! I'm gonna crash into a building! Hands off the controls!"
    • ...escape an impending crash with another airborne aircraft or a building...
      Unlikely.
      Most commerical aircraft (Airbuses included) use TCAS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TCAS) for inflight collision avoidance. It does not detect other non-TCAS equipped aircraft (or buidlings).
      Maybe Airbus will implement/integrate a terrain avoidance system.
      • My previous post was incomplete...

        Some aircraft have terrain avoidance systems (e.g. GPWS) which use the downward looking radar altimeter to warn, but it won't be until the advent of Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) which incorporates a digital terrain database and GPS to locate and warn of obstructions ahead.
    • You're not incorrect.

      There are plans to create airliner remote-control systems that can be seized by air-traffic controllers on the ground should they suspect they don't have the ability to direct pilot actions.
    • Not quite. Doesn't TCAS, the collision avoidance system in use, rely on transponder signals (radar) and / or communication with the TCAS in the other aircraft to give the right instructions? Buildings neither have transponders nor a TCAS... There are other plans in place, including computer-simulated "walls", which would prevent airliners from entering exclusion zones.
  • More noteworthy... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by packetmon (977047) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:05PM (#15429198) Homepage
    The downside of this faith in technology soon becomes apparent, however. The following five examples graphically illustrate this.

    a. When my brother was assigned captain to the then newly introduced Airbus A 310 - a plane which in the 1980s was considered a high-tech aircraft but today already appears antiquated - he told me about an incident that gave me pause: During the last stage of the final approach, a bolt of lightning struck the nose of the aircraft, damaging the plane's electronic equipment in the process. The confused on-board computer still had a suggestion to make, however, and flashed it on the screen: "Shut down engines."

    Now no sensible pilot in the world would do that during this stage of flight, so "Colleague Computer's" suggestion was ignored. The incident itself makes one stop and think, however: Isn't there the danger that at some point in the future the on-board computer will not merely make a suggestion but go ahead and take action itself? Isn't there perhaps even a danger that one day, in keeping with the new philosophy I mentioned earlier, the pilot will only be able to intervene to the extent permitted by the computer? No matter how enthusiastically one may basically embrace technical progress, anyone who has retained any critical perspective at all will find it impossible to answer this question with an unequivocal "no". The following additional examples make it clear that a healthy dose of scepticism is by no means unwarranted.

    b. On 26 June 1988, a brand-new Air France A 320 that was participating in an air show crashed in a wooded area in the Alsatian town of Habsheim near Mulhouse while performing an extremely low altitude fly by. When the pilot reached the end of the runway and wanted to power up the engines from minimum thrust to the thrust required for climb, the aircraft failed to react to his signal to commence the climb: Since the plane had been flying over the airfield at minimum speed (VLs) on the verge of a stall, the on-board computer refused to obey the command to lift the nose, for if the low thrust had remained unchanged, lifting the nose would have caused the plane to stall and then crash. The plane had not yet attained the higher speed necessary to avert a stall, however, because a jet engine needs several seconds to accelerate. Thus the A 320, controlled by computer logic and unresponsive to the pilot's will, flew into the adjoining woods.

    c. On 14 September 1993, a Lufthansa A 320 crashed in Warsaw while landing on a wet runway in the rain. Due to the strong crosswind, the pilot tilted the plane slightly to the right just before touchdown; it thus touched down first on the right main landing gear and then on the left. As a consequence of the A 320's construction at the time, the spoilers (which changes the airflow round the wings, modifying the lift and thus bringing the plane down to the ground) did not work because the main landing gear on both sides were not fully weighted and the wheels - due in no small part to the aquaplaning effect - were not turning at the programmed speed. In short: According to the logic of the computer, the plane had not yet landed but was still turning. Thus the spoilers, which would create a braking effect, were not to be activated. At that time neither the thrust reversers nor the spoilers of an Airbus A 320 - in contrast to a Boeing 737, for instance - could be manually activated. As a result, the aircraft - braked too slowly and too late - raced towards the end of the runway. The human being (pilot) was helpless.

    As if that were not enough, the on-board computer did one more thing: The pilot could not fully activate the thrust reversers to brake the plane because the engine performance had been reduced to a maximum of 71 percent of full reverse thrust in order to protect the engines. A captain friend of mine remarked: "That would not have happened with my B 737."

    Conclusion: "The pilot, who in a crisis decides against protecting the engine
    • Conclusion: "The pilot, who in a crisis decides against protecting the engines and in favor of saving the aircraft and human lives, is rendered powerless by the "foresighted" programmer of the system."

      To be fair, these engines are kept below full reverse to avoid catostrophic engine failure that could likely result in explosion and loss of the entire wing.
      • Likley vs. Certain (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SuperKendall (25149)
        To be fair, these engines are kept below full reverse to avoid catostrophic engine failure that could likely result in explosion and loss of the entire wing.

        Well if you are certain you are about to go off the edge of a runway into a body of water, or into a woods at high speed then I'd take a "Likley" loss of a wing any day.

        The problem is that pilots should have the ability to make that choice as needed, and not have an option removed because it offers some risk. Perhaps it takes some manual saftey overrid
    • by nsayer (86181) <nsayer@kf[ ]om ['u.c' in gap]> on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @02:24PM (#15429954) Homepage
      b. On 26 June 1988, a brand-new Air France A 320 that was participating in an air show crashed in a wooded area in the Alsatian town of Habsheim near Mulhouse while performing an extremely low altitude fly by.

      To be fair, a number of overrides, including the disabling of the GPWS, were done to the computers on this plane in order to make the fly-by possible. It was a combination of those overrides that resulted in the engines being nearly powered down when they were needed to power the plane back up into the sky... with the result we know.

      In actual service, an A320 in such a situation would have already at least sounded a number of alarms and probably would not have allowed the airspeed to drop so low without the flaps and gear to be in landing configuration.

    • As far as B goes. How is this the fault of the onboard computer? It seems as though the pilot should not have waited so long to increase the thrust. It seems to me that the pilot put the plane in a no win situation. If the computer would have acted as the pilot had requested the plane would hve went in to a stall and still would have crashed in to the woods.
    • by wired_parrot (768394) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @08:52PM (#15432334)
      The statistical data flat out contradicts your conclusion, despite your anecdotal evidence. Take a look at the NTSB accident reports at www.ntsb.gov. Human error is attributable as the cause of accident in close to 80% of cases (see http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2004/ARC0401.pdf [ntsb.gov] and http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2004/ARG0401.pdf [ntsb.gov] for an annual summary of accident data for 2000 as an example). Aircraft related causes were a factor in less than one third of cases. One can always find anecdotal evidence supporting your point of view, but skim across a listing of recent accident reports and one quickly finds that human error is the overwhelming majority cause in most accidents. Automating the cockpit and reducing the human element therefore is the best way to reduce the number of accidents in the sky.
    • Conclusion: "The pilot, who in a crisis decides against protecting the engines and in favor of saving the aircraft and human lives, is rendered powerless by the "foresighted" programmer of the system."

      Unfortunately, that programmer is tasked by his employer (the aircraft manufacturer/airlines[indirectly]) with the duty to do whatever it takes to save the aircraft in any situation. It's just a bonus if there is no loss of life in the process. This 'laissez faire' attitude doesn't take into account the 'edg
  • The real question is how many planes today allow the autopilot to completly take over the controls when sent a signal from the home base?
  • I wonder if they ever nailed down that "sudden decompression" problem possibility brought to light by Joseph Mangan. I tend to side with the guy because he has lost everything defending his viewpoint of using inferior automobile-grade chips to control valve hatches critical for compression as a danger. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Mangan [wikipedia.org] http://www.eaawatch.net/ [eaawatch.net]
  • by 88NoSoup4U88 (721233) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:06PM (#15429205)
    Peter Griffin: (to the Stewardess) Hey, where are we right now?
    Stewardess: On an airplane, sir.
    Peter: No. This room. What is this room called?
    Stewardess: The flight deck?
    Peter: No...
    Stewardess: Control room?
    Peter: No...
    Stewardess: Cockpit?
    Peter: (guffawing) HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HO, HO!!! AH, HO, HO!!! Oh, god! (to the pilot next to him) I told you I got her to say it! AH, HO, HO!!
  • Some industrious Hollywood upstart read this post and is already working on a terrifying thriller about the perils of anything that involves machines. It's about a brilliant but evil criminal mastermind who hijacks the automatic aircraft guidance system and aims a crowded airliner directly at the White House. But little did he know, there would be one passenger on board he wasn't expecting.

    Enter creepy movie announcer voice

    From the director of Die Hard... Autopilot -- Prepare for the ride of your lif

  • by vijayiyer (728590) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:11PM (#15429250)
    Airbus's design philosophy is that the airplane knows best, and Boeing's is that the pilot knows best. I tend to agree with Boeing. For example, AFAIK, one cannot cross control a modern Airbus - the airplane automatically maintains coordinated flight under all conditions. Normally, this is a good thing. However, in the case of Air Canada flight 143, where a Boeing 767 was improperly fueled, the pilots intentionally slipped the aircraft to avoid disaster (http://www.wadenelson.com/gimli.html). In the case of American Airlines flight 587, where the tail of the Airbus broke off, the cause of crash was determined to be the pilot's rapid full extent rudder inputs. However, when one looks into _why_ the pilot put in those rudder inputs, you find out that Airbus uses a very high detent load (high load before initial travel) combined with very low load progression as the pedal is depressed - kind of like a keyboard key. Try to press a key on your keyboard 1/4 way - it's not easy. Bottom line - Airbus has some decent technology, but their aircraft are not always pilot friendly. To ignore what the end user - the pilots - have to say about design is just plain foolish.

    • Airbus's design philosophy is that the airplane knows best, and Boeing's is that the pilot knows best. I tend to agree with Boeing.


      Not quite correct. There are some planes in Boeing's inventory that will assume full command over the aircraft (overriding the pilot) in certain situations, such as a wind shear.
  • My favorite cartoon version of an auto-pilot, from an ancient WB 'toon: Bugs Bunny and whoever are in an out of control airplane, so in desperation they press this big button labled "auto pilot". A door opens up, a cliche' looking Robot runs out, sees what's going on, grabs a parachute and jumpes out.

  • Maybe there should be a button the pilot can press that irreversibly hands over control of the plane to the autopilot, which then makes for a nearby airport and lands, attempting to avoid overflying populated areas. Obviously it isn't something you'd normally ever want to do as there's a small danger of the autopilot going wrong, but if a terrorist tried to storm the cockpit in order to seize control and deliberately crash the plane into a particular target the pilot could just hit the "lock-down" button an
  • by WombatControl (74685) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:17PM (#15429305)

    I'd be very skeptical this program given the history Airbus aircraft have had with their control systems and their general managerial attitudes for safety.

    For instance, the crash of Flight 587, an Airbus A300 in November 2001 was caused by a "delamination" of the vertical stabilizer's composite structure - moisture got in between the layers of composite material and caused them to pull apart. Subsequent inspections found other aircraft with signs of vertical stabilizer delamination [findarticles.com]. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board has recommended detailed checks of Airbus A3000 rudder assemblies [tsb.gc.ca] because of the issue.

    The problem is that manual inspections can't always reveal signs of delamination - it often requires ultrasound inspection - something Airbus has refused to support [guardian.co.uk], and there has even been accusations that Airbus has tried to inappropriately lobby the NTSB against such a recommendation [blogspot.com].

    Airbus' overreliance on technology and dysfunctional managerial culture continues to put passengers at risk - and this new automated system ensures that the pilot has even less control than he or she did before. Trusting that system to do the right thing in a crisis is always a risky proposition - trusting a manufacturer with such a generally shoddy attitude towards safety makes it even riskier.

  • How about they start improving safety with a steady stream of sensor telemetry from the plane to the ground network, including microphones and crew "panic buttons"? The radios could signal on several bands, to receivers including satellite and longer waves, caching data when disconnected for burst update when reconnected. Any significant outage or deviation would generate an alert.

    Later they can make the signalling more than read-only. I'd prefer aircraft primarily on autopilot, with crews chatting with eac
    • How about they start improving safety with a steady stream of sensor telemetry from the plane to the ground network, including microphones and crew "panic buttons"? The radios could signal on several bands, to receivers including satellite and longer waves, caching data when disconnected for burst update when reconnected. Any significant outage or deviation would generate an alert.

      Because then your airplane ticket to go visit your family, an eight hour drive away, would be $5000 one way: $129 for airfare an
  • Sure it is possible that the automated system will cock up and we should still have pilots ready to take control in case the planes get *really* close, i.e., the autopilot should be given the chance to steer away when the planes first get too close and if they continue to approach each other the pilot should be able to quickly override. If the situation evolves so fast that the pilot just wouldn't have time to take over if the autopilot is acting incorrectly then I'm even more convinced the autopilot shoul
  • So now they'll have Otto and ROC?

    "We have to blow the computer!"

    :D

  • Not true... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AlphaOne (209575) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:29PM (#15429403)
    Currently, all commercial pilots are required to instantly disconnect the autopilot when they get an alert of such an emergency

    This is just outright not true.

    While it IS true that a pilot is required to obey a traffic resolution solution provided by a TCAS system (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), he's by no means required to disconnect the autopilot before doing so. In an emergency (and a TCAS yelp is an emergency), you just grab the controls and do what you have to. The autopilot will either a) disengage on its own or b) live with your control inputs.

    The Airbus may be special since the newer ones are all fly-by-wire, meaning the pilot's inputs go to a computer that then decides what control surfaces to move. It may very well be that on the fly-by-wire stuff the autopilot overrides the pilot, but that's downright scary. I've seen autopilots happily chase a wandering VOR needle due to some sort of course roughness that a pilot would just simply ignore.

    I'm all for cockpit automation as it makes flying significantly safer, but taking the pilot more and more out of the equation frightens me in some ways... equipment isn't 100% reliable, even when triply redundant, and the automation isn't always right. Every pilot that's spent any significant amount of time with glass panels has at least once scratched his head and asked, "why the hell did it do that?"
    • Re:Not true... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Josuah (26407)
      Of course, I'm sure the same could be said about people: people aren't 100% reliable, even when triply redundant, and their decisions aren't always right. Everyone that's spent any significant amount of time watching other people has at least once scratched his head and asked, "why the hell did he do that?"

      Something that a machine does guarantee, unless randomness is purposefully introduced, is deterministic behavior. That's something people are never going to have.
  • by kimvette (919543) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:29PM (#15429410) Homepage Journal
    <Phillip J. Fry>I'm getting an idea. No, false alarm. No. Yes! No. Yep. Nope, waaiiit, no. Yes. Yes. No. YES!!!!</Phillip J. Fry>

    How about implementing international standards for collision avoidance similar to what exists in the marine world, e.g., if one aircraft is overtaking another, the one overtaking vectors starboard (that's right), the one being overtaken vectors port (that's left). If approaching head-on, both vector starboard, if approaching at right/oblique angles, the one to starboard descends (if altitude and terrain allows) and the one to port ascends. Seems simple to me.

    Of course, the ideal solution is to stick to your flight plan when flying IFR, keeping your eyes open when flying VFR and when flying VFR stay within VFR conditions, keeping your eyes open all the while, and fly conservatively. But no, that would be too sensible and would not earn lawyers (no legislation required) and avionics manufacturers enough money (no having to retrofit needless systems into aircraft and recertify them).
    • How about implementing international standards for collision avoidance similar to what exists in the marine world, e.g., if one aircraft is overtaking another, the one overtaking vectors starboard (that's right), the one being overtaken vectors port (that's left). If approaching head-on, both vector starboard, if approaching at right/oblique angles, the one to starboard descends (if altitude and terrain allows) and the one to port ascends. Seems simple to me.

      Actually, this is how the rules are currently. G
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:30PM (#15429418)
    The system to avoid mid-air collisions is already mostly automatic.
    It's called Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). It intercepts
    other aircrafts' transponder position signals, and, in case of
    intersecting traffic, actually communicates with the other aircraft's
    TCAS system, and they both agree on which of them will ascend or
    descend. This decision is then communicated to the pilots via audio.
    Therefore, if both aircraft have TCAS installed, they are guaranteed
    to receive opposite instruction (i.e., one to ascend, one to descend).

    In the mid-air collision over Germany a few years back, both aircraft
    had TCAS, and they both worked perfectly, and their instruction would
    have avoided the crash. However, at the same time that the TCAS alarm
    sounded, the traffic controller advised the one aircraft to sink,
    in disagreement of the TCAS instruction. Unfortunately, the pilot
    decided to ignore the TCAS, and followed the traffic controller's
    instruction, driving right into the path of the other aircraft,
    which was following TCAS advice to sink.

    Since then, pilots have been trained to always follow TCAS
    instruction. When pilots must follow TCAS instruction, it is
    logical to automate that decision. With the appropriate controls
    to override the autopilot, of course.
  • by Beatlebum (213957) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @01:33PM (#15429445)
    Reminds me of a story an old fella told me about his flight training in a British Meteor. Two young hotshots decided to stage a high speed opposing pass in which their jets flew directly towards each other, turning at the last second. The last words heard on the radio were:

    "You break left and I'll break right".

  • Half way through a long flight, the Pilot and First Officer hear a beep...they glance at the display units and a chill runs through their body...

    "An update has been installed that requires a reboot of your aircraft..."
  • Airbus Autopilot flightsimulator game from Microsoft. Just turn it on and hope it doesn't crash.
  • Given that today's front-page-top-center-headline is "Incidents Prompt New Scrutiny Of Airplane Software Glitches" and the accompanying article discusses a number of autopilot problems that have led to uncontrolled/out-of-control situtions on commercial jets during flight.

    There are rules for avoiding collisions. In-flight collisions among commercial traffic are unbelievably rare in the First World because pilots don't generally BSOD or have their sensors start giving them false information. (To be more pr
  • We can trust the judgement of a multi-thousand hour Airline Transport Pilot, or a dumb computer. That's a no-brainer (no pun intended) for me.

    If Airbus actually implements this insanity, I'm hoping that the Federal Aviation Administration (the US flight safety organization) finally puts it foot down and says "no way on a US certificated aircraft."
  • I'm an aerospace engineer, and I work with a lot of other aerospace engineers in a job where I flight test airplanes and control systems, including autopilot systems similar to those used on big heavy jets.

    I don't feel very comfortable on an Airbus. They're big and spacious and well appointed - and dangerous. Quite a few of my colleagues will change travel plans rather than have to fly on an Airbus.

    Hmm.

    On the autopilot system I'm helping to test, the manufacturer (yes, it's one of the big two) is up to vers
  • There is only one way to insure that mission-critical software is 100% reliable: Abandon the 150-year old algorithmic software model (the Turing Computing model) and embrace the non-algorithmic, signal-based, synchronous software model (the behavioral computing model). Don't say you weren't warned, Airbus, Lockheed, Boeing, NASA, FAA, etc... The internet does not forget. ahahaha...
  • by blitz487 (606553) on Tuesday May 30, 2006 @05:05PM (#15431159)
    ... that all possible emergencies are anticipated by the programmers. They aren't, and probably even most aren't. Emergencies, by their very nature, are unique, unforeseen, and unintended. You need a pilot with judgement to get out of it. For a recent example, remember the Sioux City crash? The engine failure took out the hydraulic systems and the flight controls. The pilot, though, was able to regain control by manipulating engine thrusts.

    If a computer had been in charge, computers have no intelligence, no judgement, and no creativity. All dead is the inevitable result.

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