Automation In Aviation – A Pilots Opinion


Aviation is already largely automated, and this is a great thing. From a passenger perspective at least it should be. Any time a mundane task is automated in aviation, safety is improved. Automation gives the pilots a chance to step back from using motor skills and focus more on the big picture events.

A large portion of what makes a great pilot is the ability to see the bigger picture and be a systems administrator more than a driver. Think of yourself driving a vehicle. If you needed to drive somewhere and you had a reliable auto-drive system, you wouldn’t blindly trust it, but, it frees you up mentally to some degree to focus more attention on what’s important in your day.

Do Pilots Even Fly Anymore?

If programmed correctly the autopilot does a great deal, but it’s only as good as the operator. Some people believe the autopilot does everything, but the person inputting the data is a really important piece of this equation. There is a saying in aviation for this, “garbage in, garbage out”. This refers to whatever you enter into the autopilot, the plane will fly, if you give it great instruction it will do great flying. If you tell it to fly into the side of a mountain it will be happy to comply, it might scream warnings at you, but it will do it.

Typically in modern aviation, the flight management system (FMS) is programmed prior to the airplane even leaving the gate. This is the complete set of navigation instructions that will guide the plane from your departure airport to your destination.

G1000 Navigation Panel

It’s never that simple though, or very rare. There are many airplanes in the sky at any given time that aren’t perfectly on time. This means that Area Traffic Control (ATC) is always making small adjustments to your route to keep planes properly spaced. The airport is a big funnel, after all, every plane needs to start and end at one. These areas become really densely filled with airplanes.

It’s very normal for a pre-programmed route to change during any flight. Waypoints that the autopilot will fly to are either added or taken away from your initial route or flight plan. This along with speed adjustments will keep everything separated. Being proficient with the avionics inside the airplane becomes key to safe operation.

What Are The Levels Of Automation In Aviation?

The most basic, the pilots are hand flying based on the information seen on the various instruments. The next level, using a flight director, guidance on an instrument that shows a pilot how to maneuver the airplane. The next level uses automation for brief periods of time to remove redundancy, and finally, the last level is fully reliant on autopilot for a large portion of all flights.

Where Did Flight Engineers Go?

Automation in airplanes has completely replaced this job. A primary task of the flight engineer was to monitor fuel in different tanks in the airplane and control fuel use. Today this is totally automated. Engine inputs are set by auto throttles in many commercial airplanes and are then controlled by Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC). This not only runs the engines at optimal parameters, but it also lets them run more efficiently.

Why Was Automation Introduced?

According to Boeing 80% of all accidents in aviation have human factors involved. 70% of the accidents are related to the personel in flight operations. Automation in the cockpit reducing the workload on pilots is a great way to mitigate risks. Efficiency in aviation also means large savings, even a half percent of fuel savings can result in huge financial gains for a company operating large aircraft.

The Downside To Automation

Unfortunately, as automation increases so does complacency. Pilots must be disciplined now not to blindly trust the flight director. It is very easy to get lazy because of how good these systems are, but, the role of the modern pilot is simple. We are systems administrators. We must constantly test the information we are given to make sure everything is operational.

Glass Cockpit Automation

This way when a system does fail, we have the required proficiency to bring the plane safely to its destination. By testing the automation on every flight mentally, it keeps a pilot sharp. All required tasks are muscle memory, we can perform to a high degree because we are practiced. Automation can and does fail, but, it’s up to the pilot to keep from getting complacent.

When a system fails to work like it was intended or isn’t producing the result that it should, it’s the pilot’s job to step in and find a solution. Whether that’s running a checklist to get the system reset back to operation, or hand-flying the remaining portion of the flight. With the plane safely back on the ground, an engineer can diagnose and fix any issues.

Automation Dependancy

The most proficient pilots have found a way to blend traditional hand flying and mental math with a balance of using automation. Skill is kept sharp on both systems in this way, swapping back and forth between either becomes second nature. Automation becomes a tool, not an asset. This goes to the core of aviation, every system has a backup, when the automation fails, the pilot backup is just as proficient as the original system, the result is similar.

When automation fails and no passenger notices it’s a job well done.

best compliment I ever received WAS AFTER HAVING A complete fail of an autopilot for AN entire flight occuring shortly after takeoff. tHE FLIGHT ATTENDANT ASKED WHY MAINTENANCE WAS WORKING ON OUR PLANE. THEY HADN’T NOTICED ANYTHING.

Will Pilots Lose Jobs To Automation?

We have already seen a reduction in flight crew with modern aviation. More will come, I believe in my time we will see automation to the level only 1 pilot is required in the front of newer planes, but at this time there are big hurdles to cross for this to be a reality.

The governing bodies will have to approve it and the systems have a long way to go to be that reliable, the changes would have to go through Area Traffic Control (ATC) as well to minimize changes to routing and introduce some automation there. This is the primary task of the pilot monitoring.

As far as having totally autonomous aircraft, I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see it become a reality. And I would like to think I have many years ahead of me. Automation still has too far to go. The video below shows an attempt of having an airplane fully automated.

Airbus A320 in 1988

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