Germanwings crash to speed up era of robotic pilots

The Germanwings plane crash into the French Alps has concentrated the minds of aviation experts over the number of pilots needed to fly commercial craft.

Rescue workers work at the crash site near Seyne-les-Alpes, France, Monday, March 30, 2015. European investigators are focusing on the psychological state of a 27-year-old German co-pilot who prosecutors say deliberately flew a Germanwings plane carrying 150 people into a mountain.

Rescue workers work at the crash site near Seyne-les-Alpes, France, Monday, March 30, 2015. European investigators are focusing on the psychological state of a 27-year-old German co-pilot who prosecutors say deliberately flew a Germanwings plane carrying 150 people into a mountain. Image by (AP Photo/Claude Paris, Pool)

The problems with screening of cockpit personnel - as instanced by the co-pilot's Andreas Lubitz deliberate crashing of the plane - has given rise to a worldwide debate on how best to insure the safety of passengers. It has led to experts seriously revisiting the idea of replacing - where possible - human pilots with robots or remote operators.

The New York Times service reports the manager of the safe autonomous system operations project at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Parial Kopardekar, claims that the aviation industry is now more willing than ever to put research and development money into the idea of using robots to pilot and co-pilot planes.

It was pointed out that commercial aviation was already heavily automated as airlines carried 838.4 million passengers on more than 8.5 million flights.

Undated image taken from Facebook of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz in San Francisco California. Image by PA.

Undated image taken from Facebook of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz in San Francisco California. Image by PA.

Software systems too are used in the landing of commercial aircraft. A recent study showed that pilots only spent 3.5 minutes manually operating Airbus planes while pilots on Boeing 777s said they spend only seven minutes manually piloting.

The NY Times also highlighted the increasing amount of investment by the Pentagon in robot aircraft.

Up to two years ago, there were more than 11,000 drones which are almost always remotely piloted, rather than autonomous. Later this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon research organisation, will endeavor to go a step further in the automation of planes by using the Aircrew Labour In-Cockpit Automation System, (ALIAS).

This will flight test a robot which can be quickly installed in military aircraft to act as co-pilot. This onboard robot will be able to fulfil the functions of speaking, listening, manipulating the flight controls while also reading instruments.

Related content