Will robots rescue, or threaten, the airline industry?
Yesterday it was reported that US airlines were suffering a “staggering pilot shortage”.
Passenger and cargo airlines around the world are expected to buy 41,000 new airliners between 2017 and 2036. And they will need 637,000 new pilots to fly them, according to a forecast from Boeing released this week. That staggering figure is matched only by how many will leave the profession in the next decade — particularly in the U.S.
Retirements at U.S. airlines will start to rise precipitously starting in 2021 as the current crop of pilots turns 65, the mandated age of retirement. More than 42% of active U.S. airline pilots at the biggest carriers will retire over the next 10 years, about 22,000, according to a recent report by Cowen & Company.
In the next 20 years, airlines in North America are going to need 117,000 new pilots, Boeing estimates. And the farm team for training and recruitment in the U.S. — the military and regional carriers — are already struggling to find and keep aviators.
The coming retirements exceed the active U.S. regional airline pilots corps, which stands around 19,000.
Without enough pilots, the amount airlines can fly will be capped. And an acute shortage may wreak havoc on air travel, grounding planes and reducing air service to some cities if routes are cut or curtailed.
It’s already happening.
Last month, Horizon Air, the regional arm of Alaska Airlines, said it was canceling 6% of its schedule — more than 300 flights — from August to September because it doesn’t have the pilots. And Republic Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016 in part because it was “grounding aircraft due to a lack of pilot resources”.
There’s more at the link.
This pilot shortage has been developing for several years, and airlines and the military have been devoting a lot of time and attention to dealing with it. Perhaps the best-known technological approach is DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). The program “envisions a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft, enabling operation with reduced onboard crew”. An early iteration was flight-tested last year.
Yesterday, a turboprop plane took off from a small airport in Virginia that from the outside, looked fairly unremarkable.
But inside the cockpit, in the right seat, a robot with spindly metal tubes and rods for arms and legs and a claw hand grasping the throttle, was doing the flying.
The demonstration was part of a government and industry collaboration that is attempting to replace the second human pilot in two-person flight crews with robot co-pilots that never tire, get bored, feel stressed out or become distracted.
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Sophisticated computers flying planes aren’t new.
But the ALIAS robot goes steps further.
For example, an array of cameras allows the robot to see all the cockpit instruments and read the gauges.
It can recognise whether switches are in the on or off position, and can flip them to the desired position.
And it learns not only from its experience flying the plane, but also from the entire history of flight in that type of plane.
The robot ‘can do everything a human can do’ except look out the window, Langford said.
But give the programme time and maybe the robot can be adapted to do that too, he said.
The programme’s leaders even envision a day when planes and helicopters, large and small, will fly people and cargo without any human pilot on board.
The programme, known as Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and run by Aurora Flight Sciences, a private contractor.
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Elements of the ALIAS technology could be adopted within the next five years, officials said, much the way automakers are gradually adding automated safety features that are the building blocks of self-driving technology to cars today.
Again, more at the link.
Here’s a video clip of the ALIAS system being demonstrated on a helicopter and a light aircraft. I suggest watching it in full-screen mode, to see the smaller inset videos to best advantage.
There’s even a possibility that aircraft might fly without co-pilots at all. Instead, multiple aircraft might have a single pilot, with all of them being assisted by ALIAS-type systems in case of emergency, directed by a controller on the ground.
NASA is exploring a related possibility: moving the co-pilot out of the cockpit on commercial flights, and instead using a single remote operator to serve as co-pilot for multiple aircraft.
In this scenario, a ground controller might operate as a dispatcher managing a dozen or more flights simultaneously. It would be possible for the ground controller to “beam” into individual planes when needed and to land a plane remotely in the event that the pilot became incapacitated — or worse.
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The potential savings from the move to more autonomous aircraft and air traffic control systems is enormous.
In 2007, a research report for NASA estimated that the labor costs related to the co-pilot position alone in the world’s passenger aircraft amounted to billions of dollars annually.
Automating that job may save money.
More at the link.
Here’s another video, showing the ALIAS hardware and software controlling a Boeing 737-800NG simulator. It’s a very short step from this, to putting it aboard a real airliner (replacing the co-pilot’s seat) and taking it flying.
Of course, this automation technology might also pose a real threat to airline operations as they’re currently structured, because it can be applied to other modes of transport as well. Karl Denninger hypothesizes:
Prediction: Within 10 years every single airline will be reduced to carriers that operate routes consisting entirely of flights of more than 1,000 miles, most over water.
Because self-driving cars.
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Look folks, most cars today can be retrofitted … Show me a $500 Lidar array that can do the job and suddenly that $2,500 retrofit becomes not only possible it’s easy and it’s an option roughly equivalent in cost to a leather seating package on new vehicles. At that point the “take rate” will be 90%.
Today I can drive from my home to Atlanta in about 5 hours. All-in, including “mandatory” 1 hour pre-take-off airport arrival requirements it takes me almost 4 hours assuming no weather or schedule delays to fly that same route … Actual operating cost of said autonomous vehicle is materially cheaper than the flight is and I can take a nearly-unlimited amount of cargo with me at no additional cost … The day I can get into the car at midnight in the back where I have equipped half the fold-down rear seat and trunk into a comfortable place to sleep, push the button, go to sleep and wake up at 6:00 AM (1 hour time zone shift) in Atlanta in time for two espressos before a business meeting Delta is bankrupt.
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Folks, there is no business model for the airlines as they exist today once this becomes rationally expensive … Not only is this more-convenient and “on demand” rather than on someone else’s schedule nobody gets bumped, nobody gets groped, there’s no “extra fee and insult” garbage the airline industry has turned into a maze of and it’s cheaper on top of it.
The airlines have cut their own throats, in short, and technology is about to kill them all, with the exception of 3,000 mile flights and over-water segments where you simply can’t do it any other reasonable way. That’s a fraction of their current capacity and operating schedule and I’m going to enjoy watching them all burn in bankruptcy court.
More at the link.
I must admit, the thought of being able to avoid almost all airline travel is a very welcome one. I long ago grew sick and tired of airlines handling me as if I was a cow on the way to the slaughterhouse, cramming me into an aluminum tube with minimal space or facilities (not to mention the TSA treating me with utter disrespect in the process!). I hope Mr. Denninger is right.
Hat tip to
Its not only the airline industry that is working in this area.
The railroads have been working at it for years under the guise of Positive Train Control. Whenever an accident occurs, the media and politicians immediately screech for PTC. Using government subsidies to research and develope the system that may reduce the accident that so far are the result of having one person on the engine. Most of the wrecks on the tube are either Metro (or equilivant) train with operators only on the engine or Amtrak. What is the common factor…one person operators.
While accidents will always happen, using the call for PTC to develope a system that leads to one major change…crew reduction to one member. Cost saving and reduction of workforce while having a ready excuse for incidents. PTC is a control and a restriction while reducing personnel costs. The crew will still be blamed for any occurrences, be that one man or two.
The development costs and research time along with the government monies could be much better spent on a work/rest program, call windows, scheduled days off, fatigue reduction programs that would be much more effective in incident reduction.
Spoken as a Locomotive Engineer with over twenty years service.