Pilot association AIPA sound warning about new auto-pilot system
Exclusive: A pilots association is concerned about the impact pioneering autopilot technology could have on jobs and airline safety.
Tony Lucas, president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, believes Airbus’ new DragonFly system, which will be able to change flight plans and make landings, will force aviation into a “fundamental rethink”. The veteran Qantas captain claimed the Airbus technology was “absolutely about cost” “savings for airlines, and could be aimed at solving a global pilot shortage by reducing the number of pilots on the flight deck to one person. DragonFly- sensors on the nose of an Airbus plane can help guide and land a plane.(Airbus / Herve Gousse)
Airbus refuted both of these scenarios when 9news.com.au put those claims to them.
A spokesman for the planemaker, which posted a profit of $6.8 billion last year, said the DragonFly system aims to “explore and mature technologies that have the potential to improve pilot assistance and enhance safety.” .
“It is not designed to replace or reduce the number of crew members, but as a backup system in the event of pilot incapacitation,” the spokesperson said.
“The research is ongoing and there is currently no timeline for when such a system could be certified for installation on production aircraft.”
Using sensors modeled on the vision capabilities of nature’s dragonfly, the Airbus system can diagnose a mechanical problem, autonomously redirect an aircraft’s course in an emergency, perform an automatic landing and return an aircraft to and from a terminal taxi.
Airbus is testing this ground-breaking technology on A350-1000 test aircraft, the same model aircraft Qantas will operate on its much-discussed, multi-billion-dollar project Sunrise from 2025.
Qantas placed an order with Airbus for 12 of the A350-1000s last year.
These highly efficient, Rolls-Royce powered jets will transport 238 passengers from Sydney to any city on the planet, non-stop.
“New types of aircraft make new things possible,” Qantas Group boss Alan Joyce said at the announcement.
Airbus is currently testing a new system called DragonFly, which uses cameras to enable planes to fly without pilots and land on their own in emergencies. (Adobe Stock)
Project Sunrise will be launched with the first delivery of the A350-1000s at the end of 2025.
The 12 Airbus aircraft will be delivered to Qantas over three years, but there is no suggestion at the moment that they will be equipped with DragonFly.
Qantas declined to comment on the DragonFly technology, and what it could mean for its crews, when approached by 9news.com.au.
“I think commercial airlines will take a serious look at it,” Lucas said.
The national carrier’s safety record is a source of pride and the envy of many airlines in the aviation industry, as it has never had a fatal accident involving one of its airliners.
Global pilot shortage
More than 40 countries have approached the United Nations body that sets aviation standards, asking for their help in making single-pilot flights a safe reality.
The European Union’s aviation safety agency is reportedly keen on solo flights.
“One aspect of (DragonFly) is the natural human curiosity of ‘can we do this? Is it possible?’ And that’s part of it,” Lucas said.
“However, I think the other part of it is absolutely about cost.
“There is currently a global pilot shortage, not so much in Australia for a variety of different reasons, although certain segments in Australia are certainly suffering from a pilot shortage.
“And the pilot shortage is only expected to get worse.”
Do you know more? Are you a concerned pilot? Email: [email protected]
The world’s worst passports for 2023 revealed
He said any carriers that might use the system to cut pilots in the future would be “short-sighted.”
In three of Qantas’ most high-profile near misses over the past 15 years, Lucas said autopilot systems were knocked offline, and it was only the actions of an experienced multi-pilot flight deck that averted potential disaster.
Aviation is an industry where hard lessons are written in blood over the decades,” he said.
“We often discover, through mistakes, where things work and don’t work.”
AIPA president and Qantas A330 captain Tony Lucas said replacing a co-pilot with a computer would reduce flight safety. (Supply)
There was no doubt, he said, that automation improvements on aircraft over the past 50 years had been excellent and had greatly improved safety.
“But automation has always been designed to support a pilot team in operating that aircraft efficiently,” he said.
“In the end, the decisions are still made by a pilot team.”
Australia’s air safety watchdog, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), said it was monitoring developments closely.
A spokesman for the agency told 9news.com.au it “has not developed a view on the proposal and is monitoring international developments”.
“It is likely that the matter will be handled by the International Civil Aviation Organization as a global initiative,” they said.
Airbus, the world’s second largest aircraft manufacturer, told 9news.com.au the project would support “even safer and more efficient operations” on future aircraft systems.
Airbus said DragonFly ‘could be a game-changer when it comes to decommissioning emergency operations’. (Getty/Sean Gallup)
According to Airbus, if pilots can no longer control the plane, an on-board computer will quickly detect the problem and select an airport to divert the plane to.
The system will assess weather conditions and restricted flight areas
Airbus said DragonFly-enhanced aircraft can land at any airport in the world, even if that runway is not equipped with the necessary ground technology.
The new system is supported by sensors that improve the view of a runway, powerful computer vision algorithms and new guidance calculation.
“DragonFly can be a game changer when it comes to decommissioning emergency operations,” the company said in a recent blog post.
However, Lucas is not convinced.
He claimed that he frequently landed at Sydney Airport in cross and headwind conditions that automated systems could not cope with, and would refuse to land.
“Accident statistics will always show occasions when the pilots may not have gotten it quite right,” he said.
“But what the accident statistics don’t show are the times when pilots got an airplane back from a time where the automation couldn’t handle it.”
Sign up here to receive our daily newsletters and news releases, sent straight to your inbox.