Would you trust an auto-pilot with your life?
A look at the role of auto-pilots in today’s flights
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 2018, 4.3 billion people worldwide travelled by plane. This figure shows that more than half of the world’s population took one of the 40 million scheduled flights that year.
People feel secure because even though flight accidents still happen, statistically, it is the safest mode of transport in existence at the moment. Passengers are relieved knowing that competent pilots are handling the aircraft, but very few realise or acknowledge the autopilot’s important role.
Some pilots claim that autopilots take care of up to 90% of the flight during regular trips. The pilot switches it on, sometime after takeoff, and it guides the aircraft through the pre-programmed route without direct assistance from him.
When the plane is close to its destination, it is usually switched off just before landing. In extreme cases, the autopilot can handle the arrival procedure using an Autoland system, enabling aeroplanes to land in weather conditions that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.
Even though passengers prefer to discount the autopilot’s role, in reality, achieving 40 million safe flights per year would be impossible without it. But today’s planes are not the same as those of a decade ago.
We have experienced giant technological leaps when it comes to today’s aeroplanes. The automation onboard a large transport passenger aircraft is increasing rapidly, with pilots spending more time monitoring and managing aircraft systems rather than flying the aircraft directly.
However, even though increased automation improved aeroplanes’ safety and efficiency, it has also increased complexity. In some instances, it is even making it harder for human pilots to understand precisely how the Artificial
Intelligence system installed on the plane is working ‘under the hood’. Furthermore, when the aircraft enters particular abnormal situations, the automation tends to break down, with the onboard pilots serving as the last line of hope.
A typical example of an abnormal situation is an aerodynamic stall. A stall occurs when the aircraft’s wing is not capable of lifting the aeroplane anymore. This situation happens because the plane’s speed is not fast enough compared to the wing’s angle.
The pressure above the wing gets so high that the aircraft loses vertical balance and starts falling due to gravity. You can quickly try it out when you’re driving a car. Stick your hand out from an open car window while it is moving with your palm facing down, thumb forward.
Feel the air moving smoothly over it. Now rotate your palm, raising your thumb, and let the air pressure on your palm push it up. Your hand is flying! Keep turning until the upward force stops, and you’ve essentially created a stall situation.
When an aircraft stalls, it essentially stops flying and begins to descend rapidly, with potentially catastrophic consequences unless the pilot takes corrective action. Even though a modern aircraft is equipped with automation procedures to prevent a stall or warn pilots of an impending stall, it can still happen.
Pilot overload due to an emergency, the failure of stall warning equipment or various combinations of errors can all mask the warning systems’ effectiveness, and a fully developed stall may occur without the pilot’s awareness.
Because of this, pilots undergo regular training to deal with such situations. Nevertheless, we all remember Air France Flight 447 in 2009, where 229 passengers lost their lives, proving that with all the safety features we have on board, these circumstances are still vulnerable to human error!
To help out pilots, the University of Malta embarked on The Smart Artificial Pilot (SmartAP) project to address this problem using Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques.
For this purpose, we are training AI algorithms to take over and automatically perform stall recovery manoeuvers in various situations. This technology has the potential to assist pilots in hazardous conditions and ultimately improve flight safety.
The SmartAP project is a collaboration between the Institute of Aerospace Technologies (IAT) and the Department of Artificial Intelligence (Faculty of ICT) at the University of Malta (UM), together with QuAero Ltd, a local aerospace consultancy company. IAT is leading the 36-month project, which is currently in its second year of execution.
The results obtained so far are very encouraging, and the AI is already managing to perform a stall recovery in certain situations. However, there is still a long way to go before fully automating the entire process. But there is no doubt that the future of aviation lies in the use of AI systems.
The complexity of the new aeroplanes is just too much for humans and only by automating most of their functionalities can we hope to make these metal birds fly safely.
Even though your next flight won’t be piloted entirely by an AI, you can feel safe and relax now, knowing that you’re not just in the pilot’s able hands. But most probably, there’s a computerised system, working silently in the background to ensure that you have a safe and pleasant journey.
SmartAP (R&I-2018–010-T) is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.