Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pilot Shortage: Solved!

Automation may just mean less competition on the layover!

I jest with the title of this post, but only slightly. Automation is here, and in the future, jobs will be either heavily involved with automation or simply replaced by it.

This trend will present some new social problems concerning what to do with all the displaced workers as explained in this video. It's also the reason that efforts to increase the minimum wage will simultaneously succeed and fail at the same time: Those workers who remain will make more. The rest will make nothing.

The piloting profession is ripe for change due to automation. The pilot shortage is real and projected growth rates for the world's airlines far outstrip the projected numbers of pilots being produced. The replacement of pilots with automation is a long term goal of many stakeholders in commercial aviation.

This won't happen today or tomorrow, but it will happen eventually. Boeing's technology cycle runs about 15 to 20 years. The first generation of aircraft automation was introduced in the late 1970s followed by the 777 and 737NG technology introduced in the late 90s. The latest technology cycle for aircraft automation is the newly released 787 to be closely followed by the 737 Max aircraft.

Both of these new technology aircraft still need at least two pilots to be flown so we won't see single pilot airliners until at least the next technology cycle in perhaps 15 years from now at a minimum, but probably many more years than that.

But they're working on it.

In an article in C4ISR, a company called Aurora Flight Sciences has been contracted by DARPA to investigate the feasibility of an automated copilot:

C4ISR&Networks, January 12, 2015 
Aurora Flight Sciences has been awarded a $6 million DARPA contract to develop cockpit automation. 
The contract, for Phase I of DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, calls for Aurora to develop "an automated assistant capable of operating an aircraft from takeoff to landing, automatically executing the necessary flight and mission activities, checklists and procedures at the correct phases of flight while detecting and responding to contingencies," said a company news release. "At the same time, the human pilot would be continuously informed through an intuitive interface of which actions the automation is executing, and take back control if so desired." 
Aurora is collaborating with the National Robotics Engineering Center and Duke Engineering Research Institute. "The ability to reassign cockpit roles, allowing humans to perform tasks best suited to humans and automation to perform tasks best suited to automation, represents a potential paradigm shift compared to how flight operations are currently conducted," said Jessica Duda, Aurora's ALIAS program manager. "One of our key challenges is to develop a system that creates trust between the pilot and the automated assistant."

I am actually gratified to read in this article a recognition that future automation should find things for humans to do that they actually can do.

Today's deployment of automation is the worst of all possible worlds as bored pilots are expected to sit on their hands and watch the machine fly the airplane but be ready to jump in and save the day should the machine screw up.

This model is not working. Rusty, bored and distracted pilots are uniquely unqualified to monitor the performance of machines which nearly never screw up but when they do, do so in a big way.

Using the currently flawed model, we should expect to see more accidents such as the Air France crash into the Atlantic by confused pilots and crashes like the Asiana accident in San Francisco made by pilots who weren't competent to fly a simple approach in clear weather, but rather relied heavily on the automation to stay safe.

Automation is here to stay, and overall, that's a good thing. Like any new technology, it needs to be carefully deployed for the maximum benefit and should enhance human capabilities rather than replace them as the current technology attempts to do (poorly).


  1. Good article. I've worked many decades in industrial automation, and in military and airline aviation. NASA is thinking 15-years until airlines begin phasing out pilots from cockpits, I give it around 20-years. Either way, it is well within the career of any young person looking at a 45-year career. Their first 20-years will be all sacrifice and waiting for the payoff, which will be seriously in doubt. I don't see how the airline industry can possibly hope to attract enough new pilots to avoid a shortage and severe cutbacks in airline service. This may speed development and deployment of automation, making it closer to 15-years until airline pilots are getting replaced. Automation is unfortunately increasing the pilot shortage in the near and medium-term.

  2. Hi Sherman,

    I agree that while the pilot shortage is acute in the near term, the likely result may be an acceleration of the replacement of pilots by automation. This will discourage new entrants into the career field. I myself have a son at USAFA and have to painfully advise him to steer clear of aviation.


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