Will Industry 4.0 drive the pilots out of the cockpits?

Future control of commercial aircraft from the ground? / Image: Psibemetix.Inc.

With the fourth industrial revolution – the industry 4.0 – the interplay of man and machine changes dramatically. The symposium of the Research Network for Pilot Training (FHP), of the Technical University of Darmstadt, this year focussed on this topic.

Can, or will, the artificial intelligence drive the pilots out of the cockpits? How will Industry 4.0 affect the training of pilots and air traffic controllers and change their requirements profile? What about the security risks caused by digital automation, hardware and software failures, the effects of hacking and viruses, the automation scenarios and the cockpit constellations in the future? The following is an excerpt from the report about a two and a half day symposium in the Rheingau with scientists, pilots and training officers of airlines and the German air traffic control, who tried to find answers.

Artificial versus human intelligence

According to Professor Dr. Gerhard Faber, founder of the research network FHP, the former system operator becomes more and more a system supervisor. 

Pilots: system operators are increasingly becoming system monitorers/ Image: visionsblog.info

The irony of automation consists in taking the looped, tiring, imperfect human beeing out of the loop, replacing him with a ‘better’ automation system, then giving him the task of monitoring the non-disruptive technical system to function.

What can autonomous aviation systems do and where are their weaknesses and limitations? According to Airbus CEO Tom Enders, autonomous flying is easier than autonomous driving. However, this depends on the definition of autonomy, says Max Scheck, Lufthansa Cpt. A320, Master of Aeronautical Science and FHP board member in his lecture on ,Autonomous Flying´. The question as to when an aircraft is flying autonomously has been employing various organizations such as ICAO, EASA, FAA, NASA and others for some time. All agreed that a distinction should be made between autonomy and automation. Autonomy refers to deciding, automation to execute. An ICAO working group came to the conclusion that only one system capable of developing new alternative actions could fly autonomously, everything else is automation. However, as long as there are no autonomous systems, the ICAO Working Group believes that the human beeing still needs to retain the command power.

Airlines – pioneers of digitalization?

Keynote Speaker of the symposium was Professor Dr. Christoph Brützel, Professor of Aviation Management at the International University in Bad Honnef. He has been in the air transport sector for more than 30 years, at Lufthansa, LTU and A.T. Kearney.

Professor Dr. Christoph Brützel, Professor of Aviation Management at the International University of Bad Honnef / Photo: jwm

According to Professor Brützel, the airline industry, or rather the aviation management, could be described as a pioneer of industry 4.0, because industry 4.0 is intertwining and networking, horizontally and vertically. The interference-free synchronization of suppliers (airports, air traffic control, ground handling services, etc.) is indispensable if flights are to be launched and landed on time. Mission management, the permanent optimization of flight procedures based on real-time information, and System Wide Information Management (SWIM) as a key project of the air traffic management industry within the framework of the EU Single European Sky project, would mean high-potential opportunities. Through SWIM, Europe-wide flight, traffic and air data are being accessed and safety and efficiency are increased. About 50 years ago the introduction of computer reservation programs had begun. With Sabre and Amadeus, long before the triumph of the Internet, E-commerce had already entered the airline market. With Big Data from its own flight performance data and mileage programs, airlines are now trying to get even closer to the customer.

Aviation skills of the pilots no longer necessarily bound to their physical presence in the cockpit?

Airline management, according to Brützel, is therefore already a long industry 4.0, because at the moment of production, ie flight, is delivered. The main levers and consequences of Industrie 4.0 in air traffic lie in the effective and efficient distribution of competence and tasks in the tactical control and implementation of flights. In doing so, the chances of digitization to be used in the division of tasks between air traffic control and the airline as well as in between the ground and the ground with the airline itself.

Use of the opportunities of digitization for an effective and efficient distribution of competences and tasks in the control and execution of flights? / Picture: t-systems.com

Airframe and airframe data (SWIM) could also be processed directly on board in a less complex cruise flight navigation and separation with Airborne Separation Assurance Systems (ASAS), provided that a central European network management is provided. If the decision-making information relevant to safe flight performance were fully recorded and transmitted to the ground, the aviation skills of the pilots would no longer be bound to their physical presence in the cockpit. According to Brützel, the shifting of the pilot´s working place from the cockpit to the ground also offers both efficiency potentials both with regard to the security and coordination of mission management as well as efficiency potential – at least with regard to the saving of crew travel costs. With all these potentials, however, it is not an “either-or” scenario, it is a systematically planned, step-wise change for the sake of maintaining the highest security.

Heated discussion about the transfer of decision-making competencies in favor of efficiency from the cockpit to ground stations/Foto: jwm


There was then a heated discussion about the transfer of decision-making competencies in favor of efficiency from the cockpit to ground stations. It is now possible to digitize and record most of the relevant and actual information in the cockpit. Sensors that capture them, however, have no empathy, no social competence or skills like man, they could only measure. Therefore, at the moment man is still an important factor in the cockpit. The same conclusion, which also comes from the ICAO Working Group. The keynote speaker agreed with this, but he also kept in mind that the perception of the relevant competences did not necessarily require physical presence in the cockpit.

Lufthansa is reintroducing pilot training with EBT

An approach to meet the challenges of Industry 4.0 as part of the pilot recurrent training, or to recode the recurrent training and checking, is available at Lufthansa for the pilots of the Airbus A380-Fleet.

Lufthansa Airbus A380 / Photo: digitaly.pictures.de

It is described as Evidence-Based Training (EBT) and was presented by Christoph Uppenkamp, Lufthansa Senior First Officer A380 and Head of the Airbus A380-Training Department. According to Uppenkamp, the previous training requirements and the check system of the pilots were based on incidents and accidents from the early years of the jet flight, as aircraft were technically unreliable and possible faults were even more manageable. Certain maneuvers were trained again and again and could be covered in the available training time. Today’s jet generation has more complex and more reliable systems. An extensive data analysis on threats and errors confirms a shift from technical to interpersonal causes and requires different competencies than training repetitive maneuvers. Nine competences form the new basic framework by means of which threats and errors could be mastered. The design and concept of EBT training is based on scenarios and maneuvers that require and train these nine skills. The aim is to improve the quality and increase efficiency through individually adapted training. Lufthansa intends to introduce EBT into the  entire Lufthansa Group.

New players will stir up the aviation forcefully

Helga Kleisny, a graduate physicist, pilot and aviation journalist, dealt with the question how organizations and companies of aviation are prepared for the serious changes in general. She presented examples of rapid changes in various sectors, companies and the working world. Statements such as “you can not replace pilots and proven structures are very effective”, would have been successful in the first attempts of the industry to oust pilots through systems from the cockpits in the 90s of the past century. Today new, completely different players and factors emerged, which sooner or later would mix the aviation vigorously. Read more about this in Helga´s  interesting article on The Future of Aviation.Die Zukunft der Luftfahrt

Johanna Wenninger-Muhr

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