Boeing wants to transfer more control over its aircraft from pilots to computers. But is automation the answer?
After the crash of two 737 MAX aircraft within weeks of each other in 2019, Boeing determined to accelerate its push for more automation onboard, especially in the case of emergencies.
Incoming Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said:
“We are going to have to ultimately almost—almost—make these planes fly on their own.”
This was more direct than ex-CEO Dennis Muilenburg told Congress in October:
“We’re also going to take a look at the pilot-machine interface on our airplanes in designing that for the next generation, as technology is rapidly evolving. We are investing heavily in that area, future flight deck design.”
It’s not like automation is a new idea. Both Airbus and Boeing have adding more automation for years. Indeed, both planemakers have found that automating processes like engine adjustment and landing maneuvers actually increases safety. For three decades, Airbus has offered cockpit technology designed to prevent accidents. In fact, it could overrule pilots and unlike Boeing, could not be overrode.
But the irony is that the MAX crashed was tied to faulty automation; the MCAS system. And it is intuitive that pilots who let the computer fly the plane will lose the sort of manual skills that may be necessary in case the computer crashes. At the very least, it can make pilots much less decisive when emergencies occur, where every second counts.
Boeing has developed an electrically-powered cargo plane that does not require pilots onboard. That may be the prototype for future automated commercial flight.
Whenever I think of a fully-automated flight deck, I think back to the episode of TaleSpin below. I know, I know…yes, I am referencing a Disney cartoon. But this childhood cartoon was the first thing I thought of when reading about Boeing’s lofty automation goals.
Whether irrational or not, I will not fly on a machine that can lock out pilots. We’ve seen over and over that technology is not flawless. Humans are not either, of course, but I like the redundancy of having automation plus human override.
Are you prepared to board an aircraft without pilots in the cockpit or with some actions wholly restricted?