The impact of advances in automation on aviation safety

24 January 2019

Is the balance right between automated functionality and human intervention? By Joe Taccetta, Executive Vice President, JLT Specialty USA

Technology plays a central role in the aviation sector, from flight tracking to flight management, but recent accidents have raised concerns over whether the sector is not only keeping pace with technological advancements, but, more importantly, over the balance between automated functionality and human intervention.

There can be little doubt that greater automation has improved aviation safety. 

After the introduction of the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) in the 1980s, we saw the introduction of the ground-based satellite navigation system Automatic

Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which is now being upgraded to introduce space- based flight tracking – providing an ability to update aircraft positions every minute. 

However, while ADS-B is now mandatory for instrument flight rules (IFR) category aircraft in Australian airspace and will be for some aircraft in the US and Europe shortly, it is not presently used by all.

The case is now stronger than ever before for ADS-B to be given global acceptance and be recognised as the gold standard.

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The enhanced ability to locate aircraft in distress will reduce costs associated with search and rescue operations and provide valuable information on avoiding tragedies in the future.

In terms of global action, there has been movement. The global aeronautical distress and safety system (GADSS), which establishes standards and recommended practices for flight tracking by aircraft operators, took effect in November. 

It has now been adopted by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and allows operators to track their aircraft position every 15 minutes during normal operations and, by 2021, every minute if an aircraft is in distress.

Complexities in the cockpit

However, it is in the cockpit that automation to minimise pilot workload and increase safety has been most rampant and the statistics suggest the safety rate has increased dramatically. 

However, there have been losses which indicate that when automation doesn’t function as it should, pilots can become overwhelmed and lack situational awareness.

These complex cockpit systems place different pressures on the pilot in terms of oversight and the understanding of systems.

As technology advances and the workload of the pilot changes, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on training on cockpit management – especially on when and how to override new flight systems. 

It is imperative pilots have acute situational awareness of their environment and when, for example, to override flight management systems in the appropriate circumstance to avert a disaster.

Technology is also having a major impact on engines – with many now worth more than £20 million each – and airframes, such as on the new B787 and A350, with the knock-on effect that ground losses such as bumps and scrapes, which used to be seen as attritional, are now increasingly expensive and having a massive impact on quantum.

In the final analysis, as the airline sector digests and embraces the introduction of complex technical developments intended to enhance safety in the airframe, tracking and flight management, this must be matched by enhanced levels of training and discipline – both in the cockpit and in ground handling. 

For more information please contact Joe Taccetta, Executive Vice President on +1 212-510-1885