Wednesday, February 17, 2016

If a Drone Hits a Plane, Who Pays?

drone crash liability
Drone ordering a drink at a cafe

You're probably thinking (to the extent that you think about this at all) that the owner of the drone probably pays. Or perhaps the drone pilot if negligence can be shown. Or maybe the drone manufacturer might be at fault if there was a malfunction in the drone. But how about the company that wrote the software that controls how the drone flies? Or the person who programmed the flight path?

You can bet that when one of these things flies into the engine of an airliner (notice I said when and not if)legions of lawyers will be battling over these questions in a legal melee. Because while most drones are just toys for backyard entertainment, they are only growing in size, weight and capabilities. But even the smallest drones can cause quite a bit of trouble if they tangle with an airplane or wander where they shouldn't.

The FAA has recently released guidelines for the operation of small drones defined as under 55 pounds. Included in the new rules is a requirement for drones to remain within visual line of sight (VLOS) of their operator. This requirement is sticking in the craw of commercial operators who wish to use drones for extensive operations such as powerline inspection or package delivery.

But assuming that these restrictions are eventually eased, a drone which flies on its own out of sight of an operator or without a human operator will need to have some autonomous functions. Things like navigation, collision avoidance, communications loss protocols and emergency landing capabilities would have to be built into any drone designed to work on its own. Each of these functions may be sourced from different manufacturers with their own software as they are on a plane. Here's where the liability fun really begins.

Robots Behaving Badly

Now think about the liability problems that would manifest were a driverless car or pilotless airliner to crash. The problem of liability for autonomous robots which operate around the public is a new one and is likely to prove difficult (though not impossible) to solve. Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins sums up the autonomous robot problem as it applies to driverless cars:

Those lusting after the self-driving car ought to pay attention to the Toyota litigation, which suggests that Software Sammy is not about to become everyman's personal chauffeur anytime soon. 
Toyota had been vigorously fighting hundreds of complaints that its cars are prone to unintended acceleration. Now it's moving toward a global settlement as a consequence of a single Oklahoma lawsuit that appears to establish that Toyota can't prevail if it can't prove a negative—that its software didn't go haywire in some untraceable and unreplicable manner.

Toyota lost a liability lawsuit here over an alleged yet unreproducible fault in its cruise control software (which wasn't even being used at the time). In this sort of legal climate, who wishes to risk their net worth making robots when a jury can be convinced that the inner workings of a computer are as mysterious and unpredictable as the dark arts in a Harry Potter film?

Where There is Human-Robot Interaction, There is Liability

In the aftermath of the crash of Asiana 214 in San Francisco on a clear and calm day, Asiana blamed the 777's autothrottle system for not maintaining the proper airspeed. They claimed that the pilots were led to believe that the system would maintain speed and were too late to correct the error when the system did not behave as they expected.

Here again is an argument over whether the people who designed the machine or the people who oversee the machine should shoulder ultimate liability. These sorts of lawsuits have been around for awhile but automation is adding an unpredictable dimension.

At some point in the not too distant future, we've been told to expect both single pilot and pilotless airliners. The problem is not the future vision of pilotless airliners (they're coming), but rather the transition period between human and autonomous control.  During the interim, a human may still be aboard the aircraft and perhaps even be called a pilot but he will just be there to oversee the computers which do the actual flying.

A "pilot" who never actually flies the airplane won't have the skills necessary to manually fly an airplane especially in an emergency or when the machine gives up. Jenkins again:

And soon, except for landing and takeoff, manual flying may be all but impossible in densely used airspace as controllers pack in planes more tightly and precisely to save fuel and time and to make way for a horde of unmanned vehicles. Already, even as the skies become safer, the greatest risk to passengers is pilots accidentally crashing well-functioning aircraft during those rarer and rarer parts of the flight when they are physically in control.

So if an airplane with a "system operator" aboard crashes due to computer failure, who is at fault? The "operator" who's not really a pilot in any real sense, the designer of the automation system itself, or the airline that decided that this was all a good idea to begin with?

It is beginning to appear as if the lawyers may actually have the final say over the engineers when it comes to the widespread deployment of robots for public consumption.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Electronic Flight Bags are Here

Electronic flight bag (EFB): the future of aviation data management
iPad EFB suction mounted in a 737

Have you noticed lately that when you see pilots walking through an airport terminal they rarely seem to be carrying flight bags anymore? You remember, those large black suitcases usually covered in stickers which pilots would have hooked onto their rollaboards? Yes, it is true that most pilots are no longer dragging these heavy albatrosses around, but there's a reason for this. Those suitcases have been replaced by a device that's come to be known as an electronic flight bag (EFB).

"Electronic flight bag" is a generic term for any device containing aviation data which is designed to be used in flight. Those ubiquitous flight cases that pilots used to carry around were filled with things like charts, approach plates and aircraft operating manuals. All of that data has now been digitized and loaded onto electronic flight bags. Now, instead of lugging around thirty pounds of paper, pilots need only carry a one pound device such as an iPad or Surface tablet.

The idea of using a separate electronic computer on board an aircraft dates back to the 1980s when programmable calculators became powerful enough to do airplane performance calculations. Those calculations had been previously done through the use of finely detailed graphs and charts but the process was susceptible to human error and was horrendously slow.

Back in the 1980s as a newly minted Air Force pilot flying the KC-135 aerial tanker, I disliked the "chase-through" charts so much that it was an easy decision for me to spend a few hundred dollars on an HP programmable calculator to do the takeoff data calculations. And believe me, that was serious money to a 2nd lieutenant.

Many airlines first adopted onboard computers for calculating performance data, but as the computing and memory capabilities of portable devices increased, it became easy to see that EFBs could do much more.

Lose Weight Today!

Even though the reduction of 60 or 70 pounds of weight between two pilots on the aircraft nearly justifies the expense of the devices, their benefit and potential extends far beyond mere weight reduction. Being information devices, EFBs have the potential to revolutionize the access that pilots have to things like real time ground based weather data as well as safety enhancements such as position location while taxiing using the device's GPS receiver.

An EFB can contain not only manuals for normal and non-normal operation of the aircraft, but the entire library of reference and training materials that were considered too bulky and not essential for daily carry. Communications from airline managements to their pilots have also been enhanced by the use of EFBs. Traditionally, bulletins, announcements and policy changes were distributed by paper placed in a pilot's mailbox at their base or through a read-before-fly book in the pilot lounge. Now with electronic updating, information can be pushed to the devices at any time during a trip or on a pilot's days off.

Obtaining real time weather information from ground based radar has never been possible while airborne, but that may be changing with the introduction of WiFi capable EFBs. The FAA still prohibits the use of any WiFi devices by pilots while flying, but should this restriction be eased, WiFi enabled EFBs will then have access to this data through the aircraft WiFi which will augment information from airborne radar displays. This will be especially helpful when trying to navigate around thunderstorms which can be opaque to aircraft radar.

Update Your Apps

There are many different devices and configurations of EFBs in use but the FAA requires that any EFB in use must be verified to have the latest version of any charts or approach plates to be used. As updates to aeronautical information occur weekly, various methods of making sure EFB apps and the information they display are current are employed. Several different devices and data configurations are also used by various airlines.

United, for instance, issues company provided iPads to its pilots which are locked so no personal apps or information can be added. Southwest reimbursed their pilots to purchase their own iPads which were then updated with the required EFB apps while still being unlocked for personal use. Delta made a decision to go with the Surface tablet from Microsoft and is currently petitioning the FAA for an exception to be made to cockpit WiFi prohibitions.

There are just as many mounting solutions with EFBs being mounted to control yokes, side panels or suction cupped to the cockpit window. Here's a particularly humorous tutorial on how to attach the "RAM" mount used by American Airlines:

Paperless is the Goal

The end goal of the EFB is to allow cockpits to become completely paperless. Many airlines still use paper for weather packages, Notams, dispatch releases and minimum equipment list (MEL) documentation. The future of the EFB is envisioned as being one stop shopping for any kind of information processing to be done in the cockpit. 

In the near future, pilots may see their dispatch release show up, check the weather, Notams and maintenance status of their aircraft and then add an alternate or fuel all through their WiFi connected EFB. I'm guessing, though, that we won't be approved to watch the game up front any time soon. Maybe just the highlights.

Happy flying!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Pilot Shortage in a Nutshell

A recent article (paywall) in the Wall Street Journal details the efforts of gas and oil pipeline companies to enlist drones in the inspection of their lines.

U.S. utilities see great potential in the use of remote-controlled drones to do the often-dangerous work of inspecting power lines and transmission towers but strict regulations have so far slowed adoption of the technology.

Pipeline inspection, along with other mundane flying such as banner towing or crop dusting has long been a staple of inexperienced pilots looking to build flying time. Pilots needing to build hours and gain experience would do these jobs for little pay in hopes of being eventually picked up by a commuter or cargo airline as a copilot. Then, after building hours and eventually making it to the left seat of a commuter or cargo aircraft an aspiring pilot could then hope to be hired on by a major airline.

Drones, coupled with new government regulations quintupling the numbers of hours required to even be hired by a commuter airline, have disrupted this process. Together, these two developments form an effective one-two punch to knock prospective pilots out of the game.

Cost savings and safety are the reasons why:

Utilities spend millions of dollars inspecting power lines, which are often in hard-to-reach places. The industry has been interested in the potential use of drones for years, but has been slower than European companies to adopt the technology because of U.S. regulatory restrictions.

Other entry level piloting jobs such as crop dusters are also at risk of being replace by drones:

Other industries, including oil and gas drillers, pipeline operators, construction companies, and agriculture are also investigating the use of drones to make inspection and mapping tasks faster, more accurate, safer and less costly.

Even renewable energy operators benefit from the use of drones:

"With wind turbines, you'll have a couple of guys hanging off the blades by a rope a couple hundred feet in the air to do inspections visually, at a cost upwards of $10,000 per site," Bordine said. "We can get the same results with a UAV for $300, without putting workers in danger."

What this means is that for a young person hoping to become a pilot, the journey will include borrowing the better part of $100K to pay for the flight time which was previously built by flying a banner tow or pipeline inspection aircraft. The military is also doing a much better job of retaining pilots through the use of long commitments in exchange for pilot training.

For those lucky enough to already have their ratings, these developments mean assured employment and increasing least until such time as automation eliminates pilots from airliners entirely.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Do Pilot Unions Have a PR Problem?

Southwest Airlines pilots walk the picket line in Dallas
Southwest pilots walk the picket line

Last week, the pilots of Southwest Airlines took to the streets outside of the airline's headquarters in Dallas to protest the lack of progress in their current negotiations. The union is not on strike, or even close to it, but is engaged in what is known as "informational picketing" to get their message out. Southwest Airlines' management and the pilots' union have been in negotiations since the pilots' contract became amendable in August of 2012.

If you'll recall, airlines are organized under the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Under the RLA, labor contracts never expire but become "amendable". Labor unions continue to work under the terms of the preceding contract until a new contract is negotiated.

The pilots' union at Southwest (SWAPA) contends that the airline has been dragging its feet in negotiations in order to extend the favorable terms of the preceding contract negotiated in leaner times. This standoff has continued for several years while the airline has been recording record profits. The airline, for its part, points out that a deal was reached with the union's negotiators last summer which included raises totalling 17.6% over the life of the contract. That deal was soundly voted down by the union membership.

So who's in the right? Has the airline been using the RLA to delay paying raises to its pilots, or have the pilots just gotten greedy in turning down a great offer by the company? Well, as per usual, it depends on with whom you speak. Each side passionately insists that their version of events is the correct one and that the other side is obfuscating. And also, as per usual, there is an element of both truth and falsehood in each narrative.

But my purpose here is not to adjudicate the differences between the two opposing sides, but rather to point out that pilot unions have a natural disadvantage when they attempt to take their case to the public though picketing and other public displays. The problem is that while many pilots in entry level jobs at commuter and cargo airlines do in fact make a very modest wage, by the time a pilot gets on board at a major airline, he or she is making decent coin. And on average, pilots at major airlines are solidly in the middle to upper middle class arena.

This presents a PR problem when trying to garner a sympathetic ear from a public who may feel that the picketing pilots' income is likely higher than their own. Taking any dispute over wages and benefits to the public inevitably invites an inquiry into and a judgement of what pilots actually make. And of course, helpful members of the press and airline managements are only all too willing to facilitate the discussion by providing actual numbers for public consumption.

Hence shortly after their picketing event, Southwest pilots were met by this headline in the Dallas Morning News:

 High pay, job security and profit-sharing — and Southwest pilots are picketing?

The article was somewhat misleading but not factually incorrect. But it is the pilots who have the burden of getting across their message that having no cost of living raises since 2012 is causing their real purchasing power to erode due to the effects of inflation. It's not an easy message to convey while trying to avoid the "greedy" label.

Another difficulty is that many members of the public don't understand the nature of the pilot profession. For instance, public perception of a pilot's work week may be that pilots have a lot of time off. Some do, but many in the public may not realize that pilots can be gone for weeks at a time and miss many family events and holidays that someone in a traditional job would not. But as with compensation, taking their case to the public invites kitchen table discussions of what pilots should be paid and how much they should work. These discussions will probably not end up favoring pilot demands for higher wages.

Lastly, many members of the public don't have a good understanding of unions and unionism in general. This is due to the fact that with only about six percent of the private work force being unionized today, very few Americans have any experience with unions. With the high water mark of union membership in the US having been reached back in the 1950s and on a steady decline ever since, unions may be thought of by the public as an anachronism in today's economy.

I personally don't get too worked up about any of this. My feeling is that the underlying economics more or less determines wage rates. With an ongoing and worsening world wide pilot shortage in progress, wage rates will inevitably increase as the big four major US airlines have to compete to hire from a dwindling pool of prospective pilots to replace huge numbers of retiring Vietnam era pilots.

And on the bright side, informational picketing allows some of the more enthusiastic members of the pilots' union to expend their energies organizing these outings. It seems to help reduce the discomfiture in some pilots which is being made worse by the length of the negotiations. And it actually looks like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I'll be working.