In less than 10 years, it’s likely that pilots will no longer crash short of the runway through CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) or lose control of their aircraft killing everyone on board. Why? Because the aircraft won’t let them, says Dr. Donough Wilson.

Research we carried out at Coventry University TechnoCentre defined the five separate reasons why aircraft accidents caused by pilot error continue to happen. It also pointed to the solution. Applied to aviation, the fourth industrial revolution has the power to finally eradicate CFIT and loss of control through pilot error from global airline operations.

The fourth ‘industrial airvolution’ and the core components of artificial intelligence, cyber-physical systems and aircraft-wide ‘Internet of Things’ connectivity are set to revolutionise aviation safety.

The human factor

The number-one issue in aviation safety is the human factor – the pilot, and it always has been. In extreme weather and other conditions where an accident trajectory can originate, the pilot’s cognitive capability can very rapidly diminish to become so confused, bewildered and overwhelmed that it completely ceases to function. When that happens, the pilot, literally, becomes ‘scared stiff’ and there’s nothing they can do about it.

No amount of training or additional new instruments or indicators can overcome more than 5 million years of human evolution. Once the ancient defence mechanism from our caveman ancestors fires into action, a disaster can frighteningly quickly follow. Sadly, the pilot is the weak point in the whole flight control process.

Despite this, aircraft and cockpit design philosophies tend to assume that no matter what the conditions, the pilot is always capable of clear, lucid, logical thought, and able to make sound decisions, but any analysis of major aviation accidents soon shows such a belief to be seriously erroneous. There’s a myth which persists in aviation that the pilot has to be there to take control should the technology go wrong. Yet I believe that the truth is the exact reverse because in practically all CFIT and loss of control accidents, it wasn’t the technology that made the mistake and caused the crash – it was the pilot.

“Technology doesn’t get frightened, emotionally overwhelmed or exhausted.”

It’s the human element in the control and decision-making process which has the inherent fatal weaknesses, not the technology. Technology doesn’t get frightened, emotionally overwhelmed or exhausted.

Re-evaluating decision-making

At VIVID/futureVision, we are proposing a total re-evaluation of the control and decision-making processes, with the aircraft itself, through its synthetic intelligence and cyber-physical connectivity, becoming a co-participant. The aircraft will have an interest – albeit artificial – in its own survival and the safe outcome of the flight.

“The aircraft will have an interest – albeit artificial – in its own survival and the safe outcome of the flight.”

The objective is not to remove the pilot from the process of flight but to remove pilot error. However, this re-evaluation and re-division of roles does open the way for viable single-pilot commercial passenger carrying operations, with the aircraft’s synthetic intelligence becoming the second crew member. People won’t accept pilotless aircraft – but they will accept smart, highly intelligent aircraft, and what makes it possible is the rapid developments in smart technologies.

Narrative-based flight

The advent of low-power cyber-physical data-streaming and event-driven monitoring systems means that every system and sub-system in the aircraft can interchange data across an aircraft-wide ‘Internet of Things’ network to the aircraft’s fourth industrial airvolution synthetic intelligence – its independent monitoring and overview system. In this way, the aircraft can give the pilots the exact information they need, exactly as they need it for the phase of flight they’re in – all fully processed, factored and presented in an easy-to-understand, totally congruent 3D form on a single, large-screen human/machine display interface. And with no requirement for any pilot interpretation, mental manipulation or calculations.

Enabling this new form of human/machine interface was the VIVID research discovery that the process of commercial flight – and much military flight – is narrative-based. There is a strict, linear sequence of events – even in a diversion or emergency scenario. Through each individual, distinct phase of the flight, there is a clear sequential narrative progression. So via various attitude and positional sensors, the aircraft already knows exactly where it is – three-dimensionally in the airspace.

The company route database, flight operations manual and other aviation databases on-board the aircraft already know exactly where the aircraft should be at any given point in the flight – so VIVID’s prime proposal is that the aircraft, in comparing a wide range of real-time navigation, attitude, performance and IoT systems data against stored information sources, can keep the flight exactly on track and exactly at the correct flight-level or altitude, no matter what the weather or other adverse conditions.

Towards “100% passenger safety”?

The key challenges here are not technological, they’re philosophical. This technology is emerging rapidly – some is already mature and exists in applications such as Formula 1 Grand Prix cars.

The challenge is getting people to break away from the flawed legacy thinking that ‘the pilot is always the best person to make the decision’. As accident investigations have shown, the pilot’s brain is often the problem. The fact is, human beings are fallible; we’re naturally prone to error. But technology isn’t, particularly with multiple redundancy systems which advancing technology provides. So the fourth industrial airvolution will not only create smart, highly efficient aircraft, it will create totally safe aircraft – and that’s the priority.

Although there will undoubtedly be bonuses in minimising noise, minimising fuel burn and maximising efficiency, these are all secondary to the primary challenge of delivering 100% passenger safety.

“Although there will undoubtedly be bonuses in minimising noise, minimising fuel burn and maximising efficiency, these are all secondary to the primary challenge of delivering 100% passenger safety.”

While it may at first seem strange for the aircraft to set up the Instrument Landing System, calculate all of the factors relative to the approach, and issue the pre-approach pilot’s briefing, that briefing will be 100% accurate and without any possibility of a hidden fatal error.

So if fourth industrial revolution technology applied to aviation really can eliminate the potential for fatal pilot error in mental calculations or lethally flawed control decisions, then the solution to aviation disasters really will be a ‘no brainer’.