The lonely pilot

This first appeared as a Comment in the 21 May issue of Flight International

The press release about a big new European research programme did not spell it out as the objective, but it is as clear as daylight that the objective is a single-pilot flightdeck.

Called ACROSS (advanced cockpit for the reduction of stress and workload), a visit to the programme’s website provides a glimpse into the early stages of a project that pushes the boundaries of computing hardware, software and communications. “ACROSS will result in the design of a generic Multi-Processor Systems-on-a-Chip (MPSoC) and a first implementation in an FPGA [field programmable gate array],” it says. Read on and you enter the realms of artificial intelligence.

This multidisciplinary programme involves 26 European manufacturers, research agencies and universities, plus Boeing and Jeppesen, and is part of another European project, the Artemis Joint Undertaking.

So the programme is real, albeit in its early stages. But where do single-pilot flightdecks enter the equation? Partner company TriaGnoSys explains: “ACROSS will work toward solutions allowing reduced-crew operations in a limited number of well-defined conditions, such as long-haul flights or a crew member becoming incapacitated…. Finally, ACROSS will identify the remaining open issues for the implementation of potential single-pilot operations.”

Although there are few airline accidents now, they usually happen because the pilots have made a misjudgement or failed to cope with a situation they should have been able to manage. The resulting judgement that the pilots are the problem is actually a distorted perspective – rather like blaming the goalkeeper for all the the goals scored against his team.

It is pointless to argue against research enabling the single-pilot flightdeck. But the industry has to be very sure that the new systems can completely replace the functions of a second pilot. The second pilot monitors the other pilot’s actions and the results of his/her input, and intervenes if the results are not as intended; co-operates with the other pilot, especially when the workload is high; and takes over if the other pilot is incapacitated or has to leave the flightdeck.

But equally important, pilots – whether one or two – are supposed to be the system’s goalkeeper, taking over when the defences have failed. ACROSS has to persuade the industry the technology can take over and not fail itself. Meanwhile the human factors and skills issues for the solo pilot remain a whole other area.

Leave a Reply