Networks and blogdom are abuzz about Google’s “Robo-Car” that is being tested in the automotive purgatory known as Southern California. The auto world is in the early stages of thinking machines drive better than humans. The ineptitude on the nation’s highways makes the theory plausible. With cellphone, iPods, iPads, nail polishing, men shaving or lunch many vehicles are already self piloting without the benefit of technology and have the accident rate to prove it.
We in the aviation business are much too sophisticated for this foolishness – We’ve had autopilots for at least half a century and the later models can handle about 98% of the flight. Could we go that last 2% to make it totally automatic?
There’s a new moniker – the optionally piloted vehicle. (I’ve often felt that way after some of my less-than-stellar-flights. Perhaps a better description is marginally piloted vehicle (MPV)). The Army and Navy have been interested in the concept for some time. Helicopters and a Cessna Skymasters (!) are in testing. Aurora Flight Sciences is said to be working with two GA aircraft - The Diamondstar DA40 and the Twin Star DA-42. They can be flown conventionally or controlled from the ground with a remote control module added to the standard system. (Wonder if a gunship option could be added to deal with traffic pattern misbehavior – I digress.)
In military or commercial applications (not necessarily involving passengers) think of the productivity gains. Fatigue ceases to be an issue – except possible for the mechanics who have to maintain the beastie.
Now take this a step further. Suppose the typical GA aircraft were so equipped and a marginally qualified pilot got into weather beyond their ability. The pilot pushes a button and says to the aircraft ” OK – you’ve got the controls. ” Then one of two things might happen – The aircraft being fully self contained, and knowing most things about most things, would look for the nearest suitable airport taking into account runway, approach procedure, available fuel, surface wind etc – go there and land.
The second way might be for the pilot to hand control over to a ground- based UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) pilot who would guide the machine remotely to a safe landing.
Both Garmin and Avidyne have both recently introduced autopilots that sense unusual attitudes and recover the aircraft to straight and level flight so this is technically quite feasible. Since the skill level is quite high for IFR flight and MPV are quite a challenge from utility, safety and training aspects is this a reasonable concept?
Space Odyssey fans will recall that the HAL 9000 computer has never maid a misteak.
There was a request for more information on last week’s blog - the EASA-US”discussion regarding pilot – maintenance certifications procedures: http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2009/03/16/323783/us-proposals-could-hit-easa-faa-pact.html