Will artificial intelligence replace human pilots?

Soon just a pilot in passenger jets?

In the cockpit, there is currently a double occupancy requirement. However, the European aviation authority EASA can imagine removing this obligation under certain technical conditions. At the beginning of the year, EASA boss Patrick Ky said in a question and answer session with the Aviation Press Club that the legal framework could be created in the relatively near future so that on long-haul flights only one seat in the cockpit has to be occupied as soon as the cruising altitude is reached . While one pilot has responsibility, the second could, for example, take a longer break without another person filling the empty space. Patrick Ky will only approve this if this one-pilot operation is safer than a two-pilot operation.

Trials are ongoing in freight transport

Occasionally, cargo planes fly in research projects with "single pilot cockpits". The German Aerospace Center has also been involved in these projects for years. At the end of February 2021, Fedex, together with the US aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky, began a series of tests with a turboprop (ATR 42) in which only one pilot and a lot of software were on board.

Pilots make mistakes, technology can fail

The world's two largest aviation groups, Airbus and Boeing, have been working on “Single Pilot Cockpit” technology for passenger aircraft for many years. The aim is to increase security, emphasize the corporations. It should be noted that most aircraft crashes are caused by pilot error. In more than half (58 percent) of all aircraft accidents worldwide, the person in the cockpit made mistakes. These include navigation errors, lack of fuel and errors during take-off and landing. If you only take into account the fatal accidents, 90 percent of the cases were due to human error. These statistics are very one-sided, however, because they do not even show how often people have avoided accidents, emphasizes Bernd Korn. He heads the Pilot Assistance department at the German Aerospace Center.

A person fights for his life, a machine does not

The cockpit pilots' association emphasizes that a person fights for his life more than a computer. And that could be decisive in case of doubt. In contrast to software, a pilot can also become tired and stressed. The technology to reduce the number of people in the cockpit can only be used if passengers give their trust:

Artificial intelligence in the cockpit

However, it is no longer just a question of whether passengers prefer to trust software or a person - but also artificial intelligence: Airbus presented cockpit software with artificial intelligence in May 2019. It is intended to largely replace the second crew member. According to the specialist magazine "Flugrevue", the system should be able to translate the instructions of the air traffic controllers into text. At the same time, special cameras should be able to recognize the signs on the taxiways and obstacles on the ground.

Airbus also wants to use the laser technology Lidar, which already mapped the surface of the moon during the Apollo mission and which is now scanning the environment in iPhone 12 models. In conjunction with infrared cameras, laser technology should also make it possible to land automatically at airports that do not have an instrument landing system (ILS).

How can a security agency approve software that is self-evolving?

How can the European aviation authority approve flight software with artificial intelligence? Ultimately, the software should learn in practice, so it is in a constant development and adaptation process. For Rachel Daeschler, who is responsible for such certifications at the European aviation authority, this will be - as she said in an interview with SWR - a challenge and a very special security check: “First of all, we have to see which areas of activity artificial intelligence is used for . It should rather not apply to the particularly critical functions. Second, we are developing new methods of approving such new software so that we can ensure that the security commitments are at least as high as the software we currently have on the plane. "

Intermediate stage: a remote co-pilot - pilot in the home office

A remote co-pilot could be an intermediate stage to a “single pilot cockpit”: That would be a pilot who supports the pilots in the machine from somewhere on the ground. So who works in the home office, so to speak. To do this, the data connections would have to be absolutely stable and protected from hacker attacks. A remote co-pilot would be responsible for several single pilot aircraft at the same time, explains Bernd Korn from the German Aerospace Center.