Do Computers Make Planes Less or More Safe?

Part 5: At What Point Do Pilots Become Redundant?

At what point, then, does the human being in the cockpit become completely redundant? Aerospace engineers have a lot of confidence in their abilities, as evidenced by the development of unmanned aircraft for the military. These so-called drones observe enemy territory, fire missiles at targets and will soon be used to bring in supplies. The "Global Hawk," for example, already has the range of a modern civilian short-haul aircraft.

After crossing the Atlantic, the windowless metal bird touched down at the Nordholz military airport near the North Sea town of Cuxhaven in Germany. The pilot was sitting at the joystick, but on a US Air Force base in California. "In 10 years, we will also have unmanned cargo aircraft in civil aviation," says Richard Deakin, a British manager at aircraft component producer Thales.

Engineers envision that aircraft would not be sent up into the air with no pilot at all. Instead, there would always be a person in the cockpit to keep passengers calm, like the conductor on a subway train. But is it really necessary to have two pilots in the cockpit? "Some airlines have already been asking manufacturers whether the one-man cockpit is doable," says Braun of the Cockpit pilots' union.

Based on the current logic of redundancy, one pilot would be as good as none. If he or she became incapacitated, the aircraft would have to be capable of landing entirely on its own. But what if remote control via a satellite becomes sufficiently reliable to safely land a plane in an emergency? Would the engineers feel confident enough to place the passengers in the hands of machines?

But there are also aircraft developers who favor technologies that would allow human beings to utilize their strengths during flight. "We need a reconciliation of man and machine," says DLR man Duda.

At the DLR's Institute of Flight Systems, engineers are developing an active sidestick that will allow both pilots to feel how the respective other pilot or the computer is controlling the plane at any given moment. The approach, dubbed "naturalistic flight deck," is also being investigated at Berlin Technical University's Aerospace Institute.

Advanced Imaging for the Future

At the institute, flight engineer Christian Berth and his team are experimenting with a display that projects the artificial horizon, altitude, position of the runway and the key flight data onto the cockpit window. Another option would be to completely replace the window with monitors and a wraparound projection. Berth wants to superimpose an infrared image of the approaching runway. "This would give the pilots perspective in the fog, enabling them to bring the aircraft down onto the runway using their own senses," says Berth. They would no longer have to stare down at the control panels, where the current landing system design merely provides the pilots with an abstract display of the plane's deviation from the optimal approach path.

A version of this imaging system is already installed in today's fighter jets and military transport aircraft. The airlines could also order the system, known as a head-up display, for civil passenger aircraft. "But many airlines shy away from the high cost," says a German pilot. "But the whole thing would be more intuitive, easier to understand quickly and easier to use automatically."

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