Pilot in the cock­pit may some­day be a ro­bot

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - BUSINESS - By Joan Lowy

From the out­side, the sin­gle-en­gine Cessna Car­a­van that took off from a small air­port here on Mon­day looked un­re­mark­able. But in­side the cock­pit, in the right seat, a ro­bot with spindly metal tubes and rods for arms and legs and a claw hand grasp­ing the throt­tle, was do­ing the fly­ing. In the left seat, a hu­man pilot tapped com­mands to his mute col­league us­ing an elec­tronic tablet.

The demon­stra­tion was part of a gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try col­lab­o­ra­tion that is at­tempt­ing to re­place the sec­ond hu­man pilot in twop­er­son flight crews with ro­bot co-pilots that never tire, get bored, feel stressed out or be­come dis­tracted.

The pro­gram’s lead­ers even en­vi­sion a day when planes and he­li­copters, large and small, will fly peo­ple and cargo with­out any hu­man pilot on board. Per­sonal ro­bot planes may be­come a com­mon mode of travel. Con­sider it the avi­a­tion equiv­a­lent of the self­driv­ing car.

The pro­gram, known as Air­crew La­bor In-Cock­pit Au­toma­tion Sys­tem or ALIAS, is funded by the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency and run by Aurora Flight Sci­ences, a pri­vate con­trac­tor. With both the mil­i­tary and air­lines strug­gling with short­ages of trained pilots, de­fense of­fi­cials say they see an ad­van­tage to re­duc­ing the num­ber of pilots re­quired to fly large planes or he­li­copters while at the same time mak­ing op­er­a­tions safer and more ef­fi­cient by hav­ing a ro­bot step in to pick up the mun­dane tasks of fly­ing.

The idea is to have the ro­bot aug­ment the hu­man pilot by tak­ing over a lot of the work­load, thus free­ing the hu­man pilot — es­pe­cially in emer­gen­cies and de­mand­ing sit­u­a­tions — to think strate­gi­cally.

“It’s re­ally about a spec­trum of in­creas­ing au­ton­omy and how hu­mans and ro­bots work to­gether so that each can be do­ing the thing that its best at,” said John Lang­ford, Aurora’s chair­man and CEO.

So­phis­ti­cated com­put­ers fly­ing planes aren’t new. In to­day’s air­lin­ers, the au­topi­lot is on nearly the en­tire time the plane is in the air. Air­line pilots do most of their fly­ing for brief min­utes dur­ing take­offs and land­ings, and even those crit­i­cal phases of flight could be han­dled by the au­topi­lot.

But the ALIAS ro­bot goes steps fur­ther. For ex­am­ple, an ar­ray of cam­eras al­lows the ro­bot to see all the cock­pit in­stru­ments and read the gauges. It can rec­og­nize whether switches are in the on or off po­si­tion, and can flip them to the de­sired po­si­tion. And it learns not only from its ex­pe­ri­ence fly­ing the plane, but also from the en­tire his­tory of flight in that type of plane.

The ro­bot “can do ev­ery­thing a hu­man can do” ex­cept look out the win­dow, Lang­ford said. But give the pro­gram time and maybe the ro­bot can be adapted to do that too, he said.

In other ways, the ro­bot is bet­ter than the hu­man pilot, re­act­ing faster and with knowl­edge in­stan­ta­neously avail­able, able to call up ev­ery emer­gency check­list for a pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion, of­fi­cials said. It some ways, it will be like fly­ing with a “copi­lot ge­nius,” Lang­ford said. “The ro­bot car­ries in them the DNA of ev­ery flight hour in that (air­craft) sys­tem, ev­ery ac­ci­dent,” he said. “It’s like hav­ing a hu­man pilot with 600,000 hours of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The ALIAS ro­bot is de­signed to be a “drop-in” tech­nol­ogy, ready for use in any plane or he­li­copter, even 1950s vin­tage air­craft built be­fore elec­tron­ics.

But the ro­bot faces a lot of hur­dles be­fore it’s ready to start re­plac­ing hu­man pilots, not the least of which is that it would re­quire a mas­sive re­write of Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion safety reg­u­la­tions. Even small changes to FAA reg­u­la­tions of­ten take years to make.

El­e­ments of the ALIAS tech­nol­ogy could be adopted within the next five years, of­fi­cials said, much the way au­tomak­ers are grad­u­ally adding au­to­mated safety fea­tures that are the build­ing blocks of self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy to cars to­day. Dan Patt, DARPA’s ALIAS pro­gram man­ager, said he thinks re­plac­ing hu­man pilots with ro­bots is still a cou­ple of decades away, but Lang­ford said he be­lieves the tran­si­tion will hap­pen sooner than that.

Pilot unions, how­ever, are skep­ti­cal that ro­bots can re­place hu­mans in the cock­pit. Keith Hagy, the Air Line Pilots As­so­ci­a­tion’s di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing and safety, pointed to in­stances of mul­ti­ple sys­tem fail­ures dur­ing flights where only through the heroic ef­forts of pilots able to im­pro­vise were lives saved. In 2010, for ex­am­ple, an en­gine on a jumbo-sized Qan­tas air­liner with 450 peo­ple on board blew up, fir­ing shrap­nel that dam­aged mul­ti­ple other crit­i­cal air­craft sys­tems and the plane’s land­ing gear. The plane’s over­loaded flight man­age­ment sys­tem re­sponded with a cas­cad­ing se­ries of emer­gency mes­sages for which there was no time to re­spond. By chance, there were five ex­pe­ri­enced pilots on board — in­clud­ing three cap­tains — who, work­ing to­gether, were able to land the plane. But it was a close call.

“Those are the kind of ab­nor­mal sit­u­a­tions when you re­ally need a pilot on board with that judg­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence and to make de­ci­sions,” Hagy said. “A ro­bot just isn’t go­ing to have that kind of ca­pa­bil­ity.”

David Strayer, a Univer­sity of Utah pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tion and neu­ral science who has stud­ied the hu­man-ma­chine in­ter­face, agreed.

“Pilots are go­ing to make mis­takes, but a skilled hu­man in that con­text, their ex­per­tise is quite amaz­ing,” he said. “It’s a high bar for the ro­bot to meet.”

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