Planes Without Pilots

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piloMOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Mounting evidence that the co-pilot crashed a Germanwings planeinto a French mountain has prompted a global debate about how to better screen crewmembers for mental illness and how to ensure that no one is left alone in the cockpit.

But among many aviation experts, the discussion has taken a different turn. How many human pilots, some wonder, are really necessary aboard commercial planes?

One? None?

Advances in sensor technology, computing and artificial intelligence are making human pilots less necessary than ever in the cockpit. Already, government agencies are experimenting with replacing the co-pilot, perhaps even both pilots on cargo planes, with robots or remote operators.

“The industry is starting to come out and say we are willing to put our R&D money into that,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of the safe autonomous system operations project atNASA’s Ames Research Center.

In 2014, airlines carried 838.4 million passengers on more than 8.5 million flights. Commercial aviation is already heavily automated. Modern aircraft are generally flown by a computer autopilot that tracks its position using motion sensors and dead reckoning, corrected as necessary by GPS. Software systems are also used to land commercial aircraft.

In a recent survey of airline pilots, those operating Boeing 777s reported that they spent just seven minutes manually piloting their planes in a typical flight. Pilots operating Airbus planes spent half that time.

And commercial planes are becoming smarter all the time. “An Airbus airliner knows enough not to fly into a mountain,” said David Mindell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics and astronautics professor. “It has a warning system that tells a pilot. But it doesn’t take over.”

Such a system could take over, if permitted. Already, the Pentagon has deployed automated piloting software in F-16 fighter jets. The Auto Collision Ground Avoidance System reportedly saved a plane and pilot in November during a combat mission against Islamic State forces.

The Pentagon has invested heavily in robot aircraft. As of 2013, there were more than 11,000 drones in the military arsenal. But drones are almost always remotely piloted, rather than autonomous. Indeed, more than 150 humans are involved in the average combat mission flown by a drone.

This summer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon research organization, will take the next step in plane automation with the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, or Alias. Sometime this year, the agency will begin flight testing a robot that can be quickly installed in the right seat of military aircraft to act as the co-pilot. The portable onboard robot will be able to speak, listen, manipulate flight controls and read instruments.

The machine, a bit like R2D2, will have many of the skills of a human pilot, including the ability to land the plane and to take off. It will assist the human pilot on routine flights and be able to take over the flight in emergency situations.

A number of aerospace companies and universities, in three competing teams, are working with Darpa to develop the robot. The agency plans for the robot co-pilot to be “visually aware” in the cockpit and to be able to control the aircraft by manipulating equipment built for human hands, such as the pilot’s yoke and pedals, as well as the various knobs, toggles and buttons.

Ideally, the robots will rely on voice recognition technologies and speech synthesis to communicate with human pilots and flight controllers.

“This is really about how we can foster a new kind of automation structured around augmenting the human,” said Daniel Patt, a program manager in Darpa’s Tactical Technology Office.

NASA is exploring a related possibility: moving the co-pilot out of the cockpit on commercial flights, and instead using a single remote operator to serve as co-pilot for multiple aircraft.

In this scenario, a ground controller might operate as a dispatcher managing a dozen or more flights simultaneously. It would be possible for the ground controller to “beam” into individual planes when needed and to land a plane remotely in the event that the pilot became incapacitated — or worse.

What the Germanwings crash “has done has elevated the question of should there or not be ways to externally control commercial aircraft,” said Mary Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University and a former Navy F-18 pilot, who is a researcher on the Darpa project.

“Could we have a single-pilot aircraft with the ability to remotely control the aircraft from the ground that is safer than today’s systems? The answer is yes.”

NASA would like to see fewer humans guiding planes on the ground, too. This month, in a research laboratory here, agency officials ran a simulation of new software intended to bring more automation to the nation’s air traffic control system, specifically to help with congestion and spacing of aircraft.

Last month at the NASA Ames facility, retired air traffic controllers and commercial pilots sat at air traffic control terminals and helped scientists test the system as it simulated air traffic arriving in Phoenix.

The software, known as Terminal Sequencing and Spacing, can coordinate the speed and separation of hundreds of aircraft simultaneously to improve the flow of planes landing at airports. Ultimately, NASA says, it may be able to increase the density of air traffic in the nation’s skies by as much as 20 percent — with fewer human controllers.

Indeed, the potential savings from the move to more autonomous aircraft and air traffic control systems is enormous. In 2007, a research report for NASA estimated that the labor costs related to the co-pilot position alone in the world’s passenger aircraft amounted to billions of dollars annually.

Automating that job may save money. But will passengers ever set foot on plane piloted by robots, or humans thousands of miles from the cockpit?

“You need humans where you have humans,” said Dr. Cummings. “If you have a bunch of humans on an aircraft, you’re going to need a Captain Kirk on the plane. I don’t ever see commercial transportation going over to drones.”

In written testimony submitted to the Senate last month, the Air Line Pilots Association warned, “It is vitally important that the pressure to capitalize on the technology not lead to an incomplete safety analysis of the aircraft and operations.”