Somewhere in-between October and November 2019 Garmin, the manufacturer of avionics for mostly general, and business aviation presented the amazing system, that can be integrated to many if not all planes of the future. The emergency landing button can be used in case of pilot incapacitation, loss of situational awareness, etc. What does it do? It lands the plane itself. But wait – there’s more. It lands the aircraft on the airfield by itself. But there’s even more. It lands without any radio-based navigation aids. It also checks for the weather, nearby traffic, airstrip length, aircraft performance, it uses CPDLC and ADS-B transponder to alert the ATC. It’s hard to list all the things it does in one breath. This astonishing technology is so impressive, we decided to have a little fun, and go down a rabbit hole.
Recently we can see the advancements in technology used in aviation. Now even the smallest turboprop and executive jets are using autothrottles, have active side-stick technology with fly-by-wire, use synthetic vision, touch screens, WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System – that essentially uses GPS-data based glide path, localizer, and VNAV instead of traditional navaid's), etc. In many ways, and because of being used in a completely different manner, those jets are more advanced than some of the new-generation commercial aircraft.
That strikes a couple of questions. Should we expect this technology to migrate to the passenger planes, and since those computers and algorithms relieve pilots so much, could we see single-pilot commercial planes, commercial drones or AI-operated aircraft? It’s time for some wondering!
First of all, let us start with a little disclaimer – we are not theoretical scientists, philosophers or anything like that. But it’s safe to say, that at Avia Prime, owning JAT Tehnika, one of the very first MRO’s in the world, and with approximately 3 million man-hours spent in 2019, we know a thing or two about airplanes. More specifically – about aircraft maintenance and how many of their complex systems are working. So we are going to show you our view about the possible future of the aircraft, from the perspective of the MRO. With that in mind – let’s dig into it.
If you are into aviation, you have probably heard that money is the thing that makes airplanes fly. That’s very true – not only considering the prices of jet fuel, but also the costs behind operating the aircraft. With the fact that maintenance is consuming majority of revenues, there’s no way to evade it. Unlike other means of transportation, aircraft are checked thoroughly much more often than trains, buses or ships, because they contain much more complex systems and flies in possibly the toughest conditions. We have to remember that every complication to the systems means more hours spent on maintenance, thus equals more money.
We asked one of our Senior Engineers about the maintenance of the futuristic jetliner: “The systems have to provide non-verbal feedback to the pilots somehow. There’s a saying that pilots are seat-of-the-pants people meaning they need to know what is happening at the moment, preferably by feeling how the system works. Let me give you an example. Some of the newest, long-range business jets use fly-by-wire side sticks, but, unlike the commercial planes, they move together and provide feedback of the forces on flight controls, helping pilots not to exceed the envelope and see what the autopilot is doing. In other words – they are out of the pilots way and easy to control, but retain functions and advantages of the traditional mechanical control columns. The number of servos, linkages or other components making it just a tiny bit more comfortable for pilots and a bit lighter for the airplane doesn’t pay off for the operator. Henceforth, maintenance costs will be way higher.
If we think about single-pilot operated airliners, we understand that the pilot can’t safely fly the plane with the aircraft operating certain, critical systems behind the curtain. This is why all of these systems would have to manifest what is happening at the moment, so the expensive and complicated servos and links would have to be installed.”
What if we would change the way pilots operate the aircraft, so the systems would in fact run behind the curtain? - we asked.
Our engineer just said: “Well, even if so, there will be an issue of all this Big Data. New, advanced aircraft are already full of digital information that has to be stored, checked and guarded against hackers. We see the challenges with Big Data, while a lot of MRO’s, including ours, are working hard to address it. Besides, the system has to be reliable and free of bugs if it has to safely fly without any human input. So, form time to time, modern airliners just need a full electrical restart to clear their memory banks. Probably we are still talking at least 10 years from now.”
Talking to different people in our companies, we saw a pattern. The technology is available, but still not mature enough to be part of commercial aviation. We can summarize this by saying, that new products, applicable for general aviation are amazing, proven, life-saving and general amazing products, based on the newest technologies put into executive planes (glass-cockpit, autothrottles, ADS-B, CPDLC, WAAS, WX radars, etc.) However, it’s implementation into the big planes is either too costly or too revolutionary - at least for now.
The aviation industry, especially the commercial sector, adapts the technology that is mature, proven and even much more advanced than at the moment of being introduced. But does this mean we fly outdated technology today? Certainly not!
Most of the modern planes, like the A350, 787, A220, 777X or E2 are using the new technologies to support pilots and relieve their workload. For example, the GPS-based precision approaches (RNAV), are slowly taking over, with the new technology being implemented to further enhance the accuracy of navigation systems. Engine and System monitors are making flying safer and help to determine problems even while in the air, Automation supports the pilots, reducing human factor-based mistakes and fly-by-wire is making the passengers feel more comfortable. All of this is already available and widely used. The manifestation of it was a recent Airbus flight test, where all take-offs were performed by the plane itself. Up until then, take-off was the only thing that had to be manually performed.
We are truly astounded by the capabilities of modern, well-thought systems used in aviation. We can’t contain the excitement for the modern AI and machine learning capabilities. But - just like in a popular space soap-opera – if droids could think creatively, we all would be already gone. Machines - even the most complex - are still just executing the human programmed algorithms and scenarios. The creative thinking of a human is still the number one force that will take aviation forward. The new technologies are great, and who knows, maybe you already are, or will be, the one to invent something that will help people or make life easier. We maintain the man-made machines. Similarly you have to challenge yourself to keep your imagination and intelligence thriving.