21 Oct Benefits and Safety Challenges Associated with the Increased Reliance of Flight Deck Automation
Over the years, the evolution of technology has revolutionized the world and our everyday lives, in which we live easier, faster, and better. From multi-functional devices like the smartwatch and the smartphone, highly-powered computers, to autonomous transportation means. The aviation industry is no stranger to this revolution and one of these efforts is the adoption of automated systems onboard an aircraft.
The innovation and advancements in onboard automation systems have significantly improved the safety of flight and, at the same time, changed the way modern airline pilots perform their duties; from flying the aircraft manually to spending most of their time monitoring the automated systems.
Benefits of Flight Deck Automation
Since the infancy of commercial aviation, pilots have been an integral part of the flying experience. However, the innovation and advancements in technologies over the years have changed the way modern airline pilots perform their duties; from flying the aircraft manually to spending most of their time monitoring the automated systems. On top of that, the evolvement in technologies has also remarkably improved the safety of flight, where, several human errors that have led to many accidents in the past were addressed by these technologies to help pilots perform their duties.
The onboard automated systems have allowed pilots to execute certain operations that could not be otherwise performed because of human performance limitations or safety constraints foisted by manual performance. For instance, under extreme weather conditions where visibility is poor, the auto-land system is capable to land the aircraft safely without any intervention from the pilots. From the perspective of a human operator, automation has significantly reduced manual workload, improved operating efficiency, improved safety margin, improved comfort, and the operating system user-friendly. From the automation perspective, these systems can perform certain functions in a cost-effective, reliable, and consistent manner, thereby, giving it greater superiority to human performance. For instance, a flight-path that avoids turbulence can be computed by a flight management system (FMS) while saving fuel consumption at the same time. This thus, allows the FMS to achieve better operating efficiency and at the same time enhance the comfort of occupants onboard.
Safety Challenges Associated with Increased Reliance on Flight Deck Automation
Nevertheless, to realize such benefits, certain safety challenges that are associated with the increased use in these systems must be first identified. Delegating tasks to automation in the modern flight deck has essentially eliminated the need for pilots to perform key functions and operations. This can be otherwise known as out of the loop (OOTL) performance where the pilot’s attention or behaviour can be diverted from the immediate goal. The OOTL performance can degrade the skills of pilots to the extent that their presence is no longer effectual in systems malfunction situations and it can cause automation unfamiliarity. This is not a concern when the automated systems are operating normally, but, if there are any anomalies, pilots may be unaware or unable to respond appropriately. This can be related to the catastrophic accident of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that happened at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on July 6, 2013. It was determined that one of the probable causes of this accident to be the pilot flying’s (PF) insufficient knowledge on the auto-throttle and autopilot flight director systems causing him to mismanage the descend of the aircraft during visual approach.
Furthermore, automation complacency and boredom in the flight deck have long been indicated as a safety concern and it has become more prominent today, especially in long haul flights where the majority of the flight operation automated. Complacency usually occurs in environments that are highly automated, in which pilots serve as a supervisory role and are often lulled into distraction because they are either complacent or bored. As automation continues to improve, pilots are more likely to have an overconfidence attitude in the efficacy of automation where this could lead to complacency and over-reliance on the systems. In such situations, they will become less vigilant on the aircraft’s operational processes and are likely to fall out of the flying control loop. When pilots are complacent, their alertness may flounder, where this could result in declined precision or delay in detecting an issue in the automated control of a flight task.
Industry Practices to Mitigate Safety Risks
The aforementioned are some of the many challenges that need to be overcome before the benefits can be reaped and there are systems in place to do so. Pilots training programs today have changed to include vast amounts of automation use and interaction in the industry. Assessment of the current training procedures and requirements are conducted to ensure that the current training programmes are adequate in scope to cover all of the different aspects of the latest equipment and technology. Moreover, to ensure that operational competency is maintained, pilots also undergo recurrent and recency training and at least three regular checks annually, including base checks and line checks.
Airlines also adopt the concept of a Safety Management System (SMS) to ensure that the safety risks associated with the increased use of flight deck automation can be identified, managed, and reduced. To identify and mitigate operational risks as part of a SMS, there are several programs that airlines use. For instance, the Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) and the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) are both aviation safety programs that have the capabilities to provide data for predictive and proactive applications of the SMS program. Trends can then be made from the analysed data and these can then be compared to the expected performance results. Through this comparison, adequate measures and rectifications can then be established to address the issues or to make improvements.
It is undeniable that the future of technology will continue to revolutionize our lives. The automobile industry has already rolled out driverless cars and artificial intelligence is already a commonplace in manufacturing factories. Most recently, aircraft manufacturer Airbus has also successfully performed autonomous taxiing, take-off, and landing of a commercial aircraft, the A350-1000, through fully automatic vision-based flight tests using on-board image recognition technology as the aviation industry dives into the idea of fully autonomous flights. To reap the benefits, however, risk assessments must first be conducted, to identify safety risks, and they must be mitigated in order to achieve operational efficiency and productivity.
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