autonomous pilot
I’ve previously written about the advent of autonomous vehicles: cars that drive themselves. With the tragic Germanwings crash this week – which was allegedly caused deliberately by the copilot – I’ve been wondering about the possible role of autonomous systems in commercial flights. If the technology exists to allow planes to fly by themselves, then why couldn’t a plane “refuse” to be crashed in the manner that the Airbus was in the Alps?

People may not yet be comfortable with the idea of pilotless airliners (give them time), but could an aircraft “sense” imminent danger and take evasive action to avoid crashing? Mercedes-Benz already employs such technical wizardry for their cars. Features like advanced radar systems that scan for problematic traffic flow and initiate braking to avoid collisions are already in use. Of course, a huge aircraft carrying hundreds of passengers at 500mph would present many more technical challenges. And what if the situation arose (think Captain Sullenberger’s crash-landing on the Hudson river) in which a controlled collision was necessary?

On preliminary cockpit audio from the Germanwings flight, alarms are sounding and audible warnings of “Terrain…Pull up!” can be heard. Surely an aircraft could be equipped to analyze a flight situation in the context of fully-functioning systems and non-threatening flight conditions to intelligently override a pilots actions. And perhaps in the case of a Hudson river landing scenario, a manual override of an autonomous system might only be initiated with the presence of two pilots.

I’m not an engineer and perhaps the technical hurdles and security challenges involved in creating such a system are too great. But I’ve learned to never underestimate what is possible.

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