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Who’s flying the plane? The Pentagon explores remote operators in aircrafts

Government agencies are experimenting with replacing pilots with test robots.

Riva Lu, Contributing Writer

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Robots are taking over the world.

Government agencies are now experimenting with replacing pilots on cargo planes with robots, or remote operators, according to the New York Times last week. The robot would be like R2D2 from the Star Wars movie series and would have extremities that operate the existing human controls like the pilot’s yoke and pedals.

But this robot and its software would still be human inventions, subject to human error; only no one would be there to correct the mistake in real time.

For example, between 1985 and 1987, a computer-operated radiation therapy machine, Therac-25, injured at least six people by radiation overdose, according to professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nancy Leveson.

“I think remote operation might be a good idea,” sophomore computer engineer major Jacob Tighe said. “But if anything goes wrong between the signal from the remote and the plane, there is nothing you could do about it.”

One of the leading reasons why aviation experts are making changes in plane automations is because, according to the New York Times, a Germanwings co-pilot crashed a plane into a French mountain last month, killing 150 people.

The co-pilot of the flight was allegedly depressed and mentally ill. Though robots don’t experience emotions, putting them in charge of a highly combustible piece of machinery full of fragile human lives is not the best solution. Although technology is always advancing, it is not always perfect. If an iPhone 6 Plus can have glitches, what are the chances that an automated plane won’t have the same issues?

Most recently, an outage of the twin Flight Augmentation Computers contributed to the Dec. 28 AirAsia crash in Indonesia, according to Reuters in January.

“There need to be protections in order to ensure malware is not introduced at any point in the system,” said Professor Eric Besnard, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at California State University, Long Beach. “We need to get to a point where the reliability of such systems is better than the already very high reliability of commercial aircraft operations.”

Senior psychology major Daisy Serrano says that replacing co-pilots on cargo planes with robots is taking technology too far because there is no way to know when a robot is going to err.

“I would not trust a robot flying my plane,” Serrano said. “A robot does not have as good a judgment as a human pilot. We need to stop humanizing robots.”

Many modern aircrafts are already flown by a computer autopilot that tracks its position using motion sensors that correct the plane’s trajectory with GPS as needed, according to Slate Magazine last month.

“We, as a society, are likely to see a lot of transportation systems be computer controlled with humans less and less in the loop,” said Besnard. “Whether we like it or not, this is likely to be the case for cargo and passenger transport.”

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency at the Pentagon will be taking the next step in plane automation with the aircrew labor in cockpit automation system this summer, according to the New York Times.

“We are likely to see an evolution towards more and more automation on all systems,” said Besnard. “The difference being that we’ll just tell it where we want to go and the computer will do the flying.”

But if we let a computer do the flying, pilots will lose their jobs and people may lose their lives.

“A pilot on board an aircraft can see, feel, smell or hear many indications of an impending problem and begin to formulate a course of action before even sophisticated sensors and indicators provide positive indications of trouble,” the Airline Pilot Association wrote in a testimony to the Senate last month, according to the New York Times.

R2D2 might have been helpful in the films, but it does not belong in a cockpit where each year billions of human lives are at stake.

 

Riva Lu is a junior majoring in journalism.  

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