Tuesday, September 20, 2016

To Air Is Human?

My September 12th blog, A Couple of Decades from Now?!, I looked at the prognosis for driverless cars. Scary? Perhaps, but human error/judgment account for the majority of traffic accidents and most of the congestion. Computer-controlled systems allow “conversations” between and among vehicles as well as centralized decision-making. Response times to emergencies are faster and more accurate. More importantly, given our failure to upgrade and expand highway infrastructure, without a more efficient disbursement and control of traffic, it’s pretty clear that what is likely to exist in a few years simply will not be able to handle the expected volume of vehicles without such an extrinsic command and control system, particularly in larger urban areas.
OK, we get it. But it would seem that any mechanical transport system would benefit from some sort of automated override, if not total control. Where more computer-controlled systems are in place, we know that railroad derailments and collision are reduced. Subways? Getting there. Want a bit more?
Everyone knows that virtually all commercial aircraft and many private planes have an auto-pilot system, a feature that allows an aircraft to continue along a clearly designated route with pilots constantly ready to take over. We know that a few state-of-the art aircraft even often have automated assisted-landing protocols. Taking off and landing, huh?
But what about an emergency like the January 15, 2009 U.S. Airways flight 1549 that forced pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to land his Airbus  A320-214 on the Hudson River, saving 155 passengers and crew? Yeah, that. Rare, but… could a computer have done that? That was a landing that was not remotely in any protocol in existence. It would take a whole heap o’ artificial intelligence to figure that one out!!! Still, the signs of a pilotless future are creeping onto the horizon.
For example, drones are pilotless… sort of. But there is a human being at the controls, just not in the relevant aircraft, some of which are as large as some full-on standard aircraft. But seriously, you know where I am going with all this. Fully automated commercial flights. And once again, it’s that human factor that seems to cause more trouble than it solves. The BBC.com (September 13th) dived into this most interesting and obvious future technology:
“Aeroplane accidents are rare today, but when they happen, they are getting harder and harder to solve, says Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s magazine Aerospace. That’s why investigations often focus on ‘human factors’, identifying psychological and physiological issues as a probable cause.” OK, that makes sense, but would you get on a plane knowing there is no one in the cockpit?
“Have you ever had a panic attack in mid-flight? Those that have will tell you it’s not fun. And there are plenty of reasons that make people panic. Some of them – irrationally so – fixate on the state of the pilot. Are they tired? Stressed? Paying enough attention?... Would these people feel any better if we could get rid of pilots altogether?...
 “‘So with pilots relying on autopilots for 95% of today's flights, the argument goes, why not make the final 5% – take-off and landing – automated?’ says Robinson. ‘Computers fly ultra-precise, repeatable trajectories, do not fly drunk, do not get tired, do not get distracted and so the thinking goes could be safer than human pilots in the future.’” BBC.com.
Even if all those statistical analyses would tell you it is safer than having a pilot at the helm? Would you require that a real pilot sit there, just in case, before you booked a flight? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Or does that matter. In fact, in future aircraft, would there even be a cockpit at all? Could frustrate hijackers, right? Or change their plans into a nightmarish hacking-hijacking scenario, which I am sure will be visited by more than one Hollywood storyteller… sooner or later. But fully-automated aircraft carrying commercial passengers is very much in the cards.
“At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, Chinese company Ehang unveiled the first-ever passenger drone, the electric-powered Ehang 184. The quadrocopter can fit one person with a small backpack, and even has air conditioning and a light. To fly, the passenger needs to set up a flight plan, click ‘take off’ and ‘land’ on a tablet, and the computer does the rest. With its propellers folded, the 184 takes up as much room as a small car.
“There are other similar efforts to develop personal air transport systems. In the US, a twin-propeller experimental plane with two passenger seats and two cockpit seats was flight-tested last year. Made by Aurora Flight Sciences Corp and called the Centaur, it can be operated by pilots from the cockpit or from the ground – and during the test, it successfully flew with no one on board.
“Airbus Group is working on Vahana, an autonomous ‘flying car’ for passengers or cargo, while in Germany the Volocopter project hopes to build a ‘scaled-up’ drone that can carry one or two people. Another European endeavour, myCopter, looked into the kind of technologies that would be needed to bring personal transportation into the air. Researchers who took part in the project, from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, are still trying to figure out how to make it easier to control, says Heinrich Bülthoff, the managing director of the institute. ‘We try to make flying a helicopter as easy as driving a car with very little training,’ he says…
“Even helicopters can be pilotless, like the K-MAX, which is as big as a standard helicopter, and delivers aid supplies with stunning precision to dangerous locations.” BBC.com. Research suggests that this technology will ultimately apply to larger passenger aircraft as well, with many planes virtually outfitted for that future even now. OK, it’s inevitable, but the timeline is… well… no time soon… or is it?
You can even see where our infrastructure might deteriorate to the point where our roads aren’t even useable, where we might just might be forced to combine small pilotless aircraft with the need to have the effective equivalent of driverless cars. Or as the Dr. Emmett Brown character said in the 1985 film Back to the Future, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder how the job market will be impacted by all of this “inevitable” driver/pilot replacement technology.

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