Thursday, June 22, 2017

Where are the Pilotless Airliners?

Peter Thiel, PayPal founder and tech evangelist, noted several years ago that "We wanted flying cars, but instead got 140 characters." He was, of course, talking about Twitter, but his larger point was that the technological advancements that seemed to be inevitable have—when they've even shown up— been underwhelming.

The pilotless airliner, like the driverless car, is one of those innovations that always seems to be close, but like a mirage in the desert, keeps receding into the distance. And it certainly isn't for lack of effort. DARPA has recently been testing a robot which occupies the space where a copilot sits on an airliner.

A recent headline proclaimed that this robot was able to fly (and land!) a 737. So that's that right? We can finally get on with the business of halving (or eliminating) our pilot force, solving the pilot shortage, and saving a ton of money to boot.

Well, I wouldn't be so quick to quit flight school and dust off that medical school application. We are still quite a ways away from single or no pilot airliners for a number of reasons. But first, I'd like to review where we've come from when it comes to cockpit automation and what we'll ultimately be asking our machines to do.

There was a time not too far removed when it took five or more crew members—in addition to flight attendants—to operate an airliner. Besides the two pilots up front, there were navigators to navigate, flight engineers to keep the engines running, and a radio operator to communicate. Over the years, these positions have been eliminated through the use of technology and automation.

The last airplane Boeing manufactured that had an engineer's panel in the cockpit was the 1960s era 727 which ceased production in 1984. Navigators and radio operators were eliminated decades earlier, replaced by inertial navigation systems and solid state radios.

Job Functions Were Consolidated, not Eliminated 

I think it important to note that none of the functions that those earlier crew members accomplished were actually eliminated, but rather consolidated into the job of pilot. Airplanes still needed to be navigated, engines needed to be started, monitored and kept running through fuel management, and radios still needed to be tuned and monitored. 

Automation has allowed pilots to assume all those duties while still flying the airplane. And as you've no doubt read somewhere on the internet, pilots only actually "fly" their airliners for just a few minutes per flight during takeoff and landing. For the most part this is true. I personally like to hand fly the jet more than most, but that is because I enjoy it. There is certainly no need to do so. For many, it is gear up, flaps up, autopilot on.

The dirty truth is the autopilot can fly better for longer than any human can. Sure, some pilots can fly a better final than "George" (the autopilot), but George doesn't get tired or rusty. This is a good thing, because it is that autopilot which frees up the two pilots to deal with things like a low oil pressure light during a diversion in bad weather.

Why Have Pilots at All?

Technology has eliminated all those other jobs on the airplane, and we have autopilots that routinely handle almost all the flying already, so what's the problem? Just make a machine that can handle the other three minutes of flying and we're done here.

This gets down to the fundamental reason pilots are really on the airplane, and that is decision making. The reason there are two pilots aboard? Collaboration and validation of the decision making process. Plus having two people up front has the added advantage that they help keep each other awake. (Laugh, but it will need to be addressed in a single pilot airliner.)

We will only need  to write some software that can handle the decisions that pilots are expected to make. This gets down to the question of things that machines do well versus the things that humans do well. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Pattern Recognition and Heuristics 

Computers are really good at tedious detail work such as, say, doing a spell check or a word find and replace on a blog post. What they're not so good at is deciding if you've buried the lede, or if your prose is somewhat leaden. That takes judgement, which is more difficult to code.

Have you ever wondered why all the fruits and vegetables in the supermarket have those little stickers on them used by the scanner? Why can't the scanner just look at a tomato and recognize it? The reason is that when you program the computer to recognize something that is "red" and "round" it will confuse tomatoes with apples (or red bell peppers). While humans will rarely mistake an apple for a tomato, getting a machine to routinely recognize the difference is more difficult, (and expensive) hence the stickers.

In short, humans are much better than machines at pattern recognition and heuristics, which is a fancy word for an educated guess or hunch. Humans are better decision makers in ambiguous situations. And many situations on an airliner can be ambiguous.

Canned Decision Making or AI

What is software other than prepackaged expertise and decisions? Automation is threatening whole sectors of the economy such as accounting because expertise and best practices can be distilled into code and sold to people who couldn't otherwise afford to hire a tireless expert. Accounting software, though, is unlikely to be presented a scenario which hasn't been preprogrammed. If it does come across such a situation, it would likely come to a halt state to await human intervention.

The software in a pilotless airplane would need to be either pre programmed with every possible scenario likely to ever be encountered, or to employ some sort of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of a machine to be able to process information which it hasn't specifically been programmed to handle, i.e. to learn. In short, it is canned judgement.

Advances in AI are being made all the time but it does have a way to go. Imagine a piece of software which would have the judgement to tell the difference between a need to do a gate return for a woman who'd left her purse in the gate area versus one whose husband had been seriously injured (or one of several million other scenarios). I can't imagine that either. 

So it seems apparent to me that we're going to need humans available to make decisions on or about airliners for the foreseeable future. The question arises as to how many humans are required, and if they should they actually be on the airplane.


Our current commercial airline transportation system consists of at least four people watching over your flight at any one time. Two or more pilots are up front, a dispatcher has planned your flight and keeps watch over things like destination weather and other operational concerns, while air traffic controllers keep your airplane away from all the other airplanes flying around.

All of these jobs are supposedly ripe for replacement through automation. Back in my military days my crew would come in the day before a scheduled flight and spend the entire day flight planning. Dispatchers today plan and oversee many dozens of flights per shift using sophisticated software tools. They become extremely busy, though, when many airplanes under their control have to divert in the case of bad weather in one location.

Similar automation and technology advancements are impacting the job of the air traffic controller as well. The FAA has proposed using advanced data tools to have a flight fully cleared and deconflicted from all other airborne traffic before it has even taken off. Controllers would only be available to intervene in the case of rapidly changing weather or other unpredictable contingencies such as aircraft emergencies.

Virtual Copilots

In the most likely interim single pilot scenario, one pilot aboard an airliner would be coupled with a "copilot" assistant on the ground connected through datalink. A decision would need to be made as to how many airborne planes would be assigned to each assistant. If the ratio is one to one, there would be little cost savings as assistants would likely make about as much as copilots currently do. Perhaps two to one or four to one. An optimal number will need to be found though this would open a new cost versus safety frontier that does not now exist.

These assistants would be only available for voice or text consultation given the current state of deployed technology. Robust telecommunications networks allowing for remote control of airliners along with control systems aboard airliners to allow such control, while technically feasible, currently do not exist and would require a sizeable investment in hardware and infrastructure to implement. This is certainly doable, but there is little evidence of any movement towards this future other than pure research.

The trend is unmistakable though. Fewer humans will, over time, be involved in watching over your flight, and this may work out just fine. The advantages of automation are manifest: lower costs and higher productivity being two of the greatest. A third metric, however, safety, may be the fly in the ointment.

Is It Safe?

2016 was a record year in US commercial aviation as there were no fatalities on any US commercial airline anywhere in the world. It is also the seventh straight year that this feat has been attained. In 2015 that worked out to 7.6 billion miles flown with a (non-fatal) accident rate of 0.155 per 100,000 flight hours. There are about 24,000 commercial flights per day in the US. Flying is extremely safe and this is not by accident.

The current state of safety in the airline industry has been achieved over the years through dogged research into human factors, technical standards, preventative maintenance, training, and accident investigations. Aviation policies and procedures for operators, controllers, and maintainers have years of development and history behind them. 

One of the best reasons to cheer the introduction of driverless cars is the promise of a reduction in the 35,000 annual US auto accident deaths. The promise of the pilotless airliner is mostly economic. Our commercial aviation system is already nearly as safe as can reasonably be accomplished short of parking airplanes.

The burden of proof from a safety point of view will be upon those wishing to introduce large changes into this system for marginal economic gains. Measured in defects per operations accomplished, matching the current safety record will be a challenge. Not impossible, but the bar is pretty high.

I personally find myself having to intervene multiple times a day to correct "errors" made by our current state of the art automation. My experience is not unique. Automation is not nearly as automatic as advertised. This record of course must improve before the system can be fully autonomous.

The current pilot shortage, one of the justifications for increasing automation, is a mostly self inflicted injury by the US aviation industry compounded by Congress. It will eventually work itself out through rising wages and ab initio training programs for prospective pilots. It should also be noted that the shortage is currently only a problem facing regional airlines. Major airlines are poaching all the pilots they need from the regionals and military for the time being. 

In Conclusion

To deflect the inevitable charge that I am merely a dinosaur expressing indignation at my own extinction, I'll say that I have every confidence that the goal of pilotless airliners will eventually be achieved given enough time and money. I also believe that it will not be nearly as cheap nor as easy as some acolytes of pilotless airplanes believe. If you'll notice, I haven't even touched on the acceptance of this idea by the flying public. I leave that for you, dear reader, to discuss in the comments. In any event, I'll be retired long before then.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The First Time the B-2 Bomber Flew was in the Belly of a C-5

B-2 wings
B-2 Wings being loaded at Boeing Field  (Photo - R Graves)

Not the whole bomber, mind you, but rather pieces of it. Big pieces, including the wings and the "cargo hold" otherwise known as the bomb bay structure were delivered for assembly by C-5 Galaxy airlift.

But first, a little background on the B-2 is in order. The B-2 Spirit, America's newest manned bomber was rolled out of the hangar at the Northrop facility at  Plant 42 in Palmdale, California on November 22, 1988. Echoing the design of Jack Northrop's YB-49 flying wing, the B-2 features computer flight controls to maintain the stability lacking in the earlier design along with advanced stealth structures and coatings designed to evade enemy radars.

As usual, the procurement program ended up being contentious. Starting with an initial planned buy of 132 aircraft, the number was later reduced to 75 aircraft, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, further reduced to only 20 aircraft. A test aircraft retained by Northrop was eventually delivered to the Air Force as an operational bomber to bring the total to 21 airframes. Including spare parts and other support, the final cost was nearly a billion dollars per delivered bomber. Adding in development, facilities, and procurement costs resulted in an astounding final cost of over two billion dollars per aircraft.

I am of course reminded of the Calvin Coolidge quote in regards to aircraft acquisition: "Why don't we buy just one airplane and let the pilots take turns flying it." He was more prescient than he knew.

The B-2 was assembled by Northrop in Palmdale, Ca, as I mentioned above, but as with any large acquisition program, much of the work was actually farmed out to many subcontractors who manufactured major parts of the aircraft. One of these subcontractors was the Boeing Corporation which had responsibility for the outboard portion of the wing, the aft center fuselage section, landing gears, fuel system and weapons delivery system.

Special Delivery

This work was carried out at the Boeing Military Airplanes Company facility located at Boeing Field in Seattle, Wa. How these large aircraft structures got from Seattle to Palmdale is where your humble narrator comes in. Rather than ship them via rail, which was perhaps the most cost efficient method, they were shipped via C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft. I don't know the reason for this, but it was probably due to secrecy and security considerations.

I was assigned to the crew that flew one of these missions back in 1993. It encompassed two days flying from Travis AFB to Boeing Field for pickup, and then on to Palmdale for delivery before returning to Travis. We laid over in Seattle.

One of the enlisted crewmembers on the trip was particularly resourceful and had arranged to get the entire crew a tour of both the Boeing facility and the Northrop assembly plant. This was no easy feat as the program, while not officially "black" (secret), still retained many of the security safeguards and procedures from the "black" days. This meant getting background clearance and customized ID badges. It turned out to be a real treat.

Plastic Model Kit

The inside of the plant appeared as you might expect with lots of large machinery laying about along with many technicians moving here and there. Entrance from any section of the factory to another required a keycard swipe and code entry which for 1993 was new and exotic. Right away though, it was obvious that something different was being built here.

The wings of the B-2 are not made of aluminum, but rather are constructed of resin impregnated graphite fiber. This was a new material used in aircraft construction which was first used by Airbus in the A320. The difference for Boeing was that while Airbus still used aluminum for the main structure of the wings on the A320, the entire structure of the B-2 wing is constructed of composite material.

And even though the technology involved in the manufacture of large composite structures is quite complex, I got the feeling I was watching a huge plastic model airplane being glued together. A huge jig which matched the shape of the wing was used to hold the cloth which was laid down by a computer controlled spool exactly where it was needed. Resin would then be applied, and the entire structure, which probably weighed several tons, was floated on air jets into a giant autoclave, which is a fancy word for oven.

It was there that it would cook until the resin and cloth were bonded. This formed an upper or lower skin panel of the wing which was then attached to composite "stringers" or beams to make up the wing structure.

Surprise Finding at Boeing Military

As we walked around, I couldn't help but notice a somewhat similar jig to that of the B-2 wing. It turned out to be for the tail of the new 777 project then undergoing. Like the Airbus, Boeing designed the horizontal stabilizer (or tail) of their new airplane using composites as well. Also interesting was that our guide was extremely reticent to talk about it when asked.

If you'll recall, back in that timeframe Boeing and Airbus were conducting a war of words over government subsidies to their respective industries. Boeing claimed that Airbus was able to undercut their pricing due to subsidies they received from their government owners, while Airbus countered that Boeing had similar advantages due to military contracts and technology transfers from military programs.

It makes sense to put all your large composite manufacturing projects in one location to avoid unnecessary duplication, but no doubt our guide may have been concerned about the optics of such an arrangement or had instructions to not discuss the subject.

Oxygen and Heart Monitors

In another part of the factory we then observed the wing being assembled. After the top and bottom skins had been attached to the stringers, workers would enter the wing structure to install wiring and plumbing. These workers were outfitted with oxygen masks and monitors to ensure that if they became incapacitated, they could be rescued quickly.

Our guide explained that in years gone by, an incapacitated worker might have been extracted by actually cutting into the aluminum wing skin. That wasn't happening on the billion dollar bomber, hence the monitors.

A Spy!

The next morning we were up early to preflight for our short flight from Seattle to Palmdale. As we got to the airplane, it was still being loaded with the B-2 wings which were tightly wrapped in tarps and attached to a travel framework. One of our contacts mentioned that in the "black" program days, the package would be augmented with extraneous pieces of styrofoam under the tarps to attempt to disguise the actual payload. The loading was also done at night. Neither of those precautions were necessary for our trip.

As we were in bright daylight and in view of the public, I asked for and received permission to take a few photos. In the process of so doing, another guard approached rapidly yelling for me to stop and wanting the film from my camera. The person who originally OK'd my reconnaissance intervened and I was allowed to remain out of custody with my camera film intact. That was just as well because there was no one else available to fly their bomber wings out that day.

Fred Soils the Boeing Ramp

As the loadmasters were busy closing up the nose of the airplane and securing our load, one of our APUs decided to blow a hydraulic line and dump some of the contents of the system onto the Boeing ramp. This got everyone quite excited. The folks at Boeing, being in a civilian organization under the auspices of the EPA and other government busybodies, were very concerned about a "hazardous fluid spill."

Now I've seen my share of hydraulic spills from the C-5 over the years and this one was relatively modest and quickly handled by a few shovelfuls of oil dry onto the offending puddle. In between snide comments by the Boeing personnel questioning the parentage of  Lockheed design engineers, the spill was cleaned up and the leak was secured.

Off We Go!

Other than being somewhat bulky, the wings didn't weigh much so our airplane was rather lightly loaded. The flight from Seattle to Palmdale is only a few hours so the fuel load was light as well. The leg was mine and Fred (the C-5) was just as anxious as we were to depart and quickly leapt into the sky.

After an uneventful flight to Palmdale we were ready to unload our precious cargo and enjoy another tour, this time of the Northrop assembly plant. Many of the same security protocols were in place here but we were not permitted down onto the factory floor. Instead we got to observe from a raised catwalk.

This factory did in fact look quite similar to any auto or aircraft assembly plant except that there were B-2 bombers in the line instead of 737s or cars. We did get to speak with one of the B-2 program test pilots whose name escapes me after the decades. This gentleman told us that he had also worked on the C-5 flight test program and relayed interesting factoids such as the B-2 having more wing area than that of the C-5.

Northrop B-2 Assembly plant in Palmdale, Ca (Photo - R Graves)

One Last Story

That was the end of our B-2 adventure but I wanted to relay one more bit of B-2 lore. On that day back in 1988 when the B-2 was first rolled out of the Northrop plant for public viewing, the Air Force took extensive steps to ensure that the back of the airplane would not be publicly visible. Shielding the engine exhaust from radar was considered a difficult problem to solve and the intent was apparently to conceal the exact design.

An enterprising editor at Aviation Week magazine named Mike Dornheim noted, however, that the Air Force had neglected to close the airspace over Palmdale that day. Dornheim rented a Cessna and along with a photographer got complete photos of the entire B-2 which were featured prominently in the magazine the following week.

But one has to question the need for all the secrecy, as it was later noted that the stylized star design painted on the ramp for that occasion was actually made using silhouettes of the bomber.

Overhead shot of B-2 rollout
Overhead photo taken by Aviation Week editor

B-2 logo star is made up of five B-2 silhouettes
B-2 Rollout. The star is made of
B-2 silhouettes.