No pilot? No problem!
November 19, 2019 4:46 PM   Subscribe

The debate about automated passenger aviation is decades old. What if the computer incorrectly overrides the pilot? What if the pilot's skills degrade through reliance on the robots? One scenario is easier to decide: on a single-pilot flight, what happens if that pilot is incapacitated? Garmin has just announced Emergency Autoland - a one-button-activated system that lands a light aircraft at the nearest airport without any human intervention. AVWeb tries it out. Mentour Pilot has opinions. PR video of plucky mom saving young daughter by big red button.
posted by Devonian (26 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Both Cirrus Aircraft and Piper Aircraft have announced they will be offering Garmin Autoland
I want to tell you both good luck. We're all counting on you.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:02 PM on November 19, 2019 [25 favorites]


There was no pilot in the PR video. Did she just ... leave?
posted by jacquilynne at 5:15 PM on November 19, 2019


This seems like such a weird feature to sell. Who's going to buy it? I imagine their market is anxious pilot spouses. OTOH most wives / husbands of pilots I know ended up learning to fly themselves. Many of them started thinking "I'll just learn enough to land in an emergency" and then found it so much fun they fly as much or as more as their partner.

The other related products are the parachute landing systems like Cirrus has been selling. But those are mostly intended to give you an option if the plane has a catastrophic mechanical failure. This autopilot requires a working airplane.

I guess it makes sense if you see this as a step along the path towards automating flight in general. If the machine can do this in an emergency, perhaps the machine could do this all the time too. And even little aircraft have had GPS + autopilots for 10 years now could do everything but the actual landing, putting you down from the last 200 feet. So the technology has been kind of coming along anyway. Still it must have taken a heroic effort to get this certified for installation in regular aircraft.
posted by Nelson at 5:25 PM on November 19, 2019 [9 favorites]


These companies see a huge potential market: people with money who do not have a pilot’s license.
posted by nickggully at 5:37 PM on November 19, 2019


Well, there goes all that flight simulator playing out the window. Guess the question changes from "could you possibly land a plane" to "can you press button".
posted by zengargoyle at 5:44 PM on November 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately general aviation for the masses had its apogee sometime in 1969 or 72 I would guess. Since then it is nothing but more and more money, less airports etc. This gizmo will be great for saving the wealthy from their own screw ups and heart attacks and will scratch a certain itch that a lot of people have for automation. I guess that is a good thing. Still, it really doesn't feel like progress except in the daunting field of paper work.
posted by Pembquist at 6:22 PM on November 19, 2019


Who's going to buy it? People who want to fly passengers in a single-pilot airplane.
posted by allegedly at 6:22 PM on November 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeah, It's going to be a tick box item for anyone upgrading to the Garmin platform - it's just software, so it can go on the menu at any price the company likes. I'd be surprised if it gets one use in five years, but it's not really there to solve a huge existing problem.

The platform has some other stuff which is arguably far more useful - like spotting hypoxia in the pilot and descending safely in stages until they recover. That's something that'd be good across the board, as depressurisation can and does knock out pilots in any size of aircraft.

I think it's the fact that this has got approval which is significant.
posted by Devonian at 7:05 PM on November 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


EMERGENCY AUTOLAND ACTIVATING

And I noticed that when she presses the red button, a green 🛬 lights up on the right side, but there is clearly the outline of a dimmed 🚫 on the other side.... yikes.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:57 PM on November 19, 2019


Well, there goes all that flight simulator playing out the window. Guess the question changes from "could you possibly land a plane" to "can you press button".

You still might get your chance. In fact, you can have mine because I hope I never, ever have to use it.

I've played a lot of flight sims too and I'm pretty sure I could land a single engine civil aviation plane as long as I had enough time to figure out where the basic controls are and familiarize myself with whatever they're using as a turn co-ordinator. I might even be able to to do it with paper maps.

Younger me would have been massively overconfident about being able to land something, but then again younger me liked to fly simulated Beechcraft Bonanzas and Supercubs upside down under river bridge spans and thread loops and Immelmans through infrastructure and bridges in ways that make older me a bit motion sick and dizzy.

Older me has done realistic sims with multiengine jumbos and thinks it's fucking bonkers sky-bus driving and turn co-ordination and waypoint management is a royal pain in the ass.

Older me is much less confident but still thinks it's worth a shot if we're all going to die anyway. How hard can it be? If I can ride a bicycle off road with no hands while rolling a joint I bet I can land a tail-dragger Supercub in a favorable wind. I love playing with those and landing them on cliffs and mesas and stuff in sims and pretending to be an extreme bush pilot!

Heck, in sims I like to try land planes upside down with no gear on a runway and see if I don't blow up or auger in.

Where's the nearest field? What's the tower frequency? Field altitude? What's the approach heading, what's the wind? What's our air temp? Is our altimeter corrected and calibrated? Throttle, flaps, rudder, yoke. What am I flying again? What's the stall speed? Landing speed? Let's do this.

We're probably going to die but at least I know what a landing flare and approach heading even is.
posted by loquacious at 8:08 PM on November 19, 2019 [7 favorites]


Who's going to buy it? People who want to fly passengers in a single-pilot airplane.

Mentaur pilot makes the point that aircraft such as those make by Cirrus or Piper Aircraft after often piloted by their owners. By the time you get old enough to afford a plane of this sort, you are normally reaching a stage in life where any passengers might give a little more thought than usual to the subject of the pilot's health.

Pilots already have an up-hill PR battle against those who believe (completely erroneously) that the existence of "auto-pilot" means their contribution is just decorative. Now they are going to have to explain the difference between an auto-land system for emergency use - versus the much greater complexity necessary for everyday use.
posted by rongorongo at 1:46 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


Devonian: "it's just software, so it can go on the menu at any price the company likes."

They should market a version that you can buy online, download & install after your pilot conks out. Surge pricing to apply, natch.
posted by chavenet at 2:15 AM on November 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


Well this would make the book Hatchet fairly boring.
posted by entropone at 4:21 AM on November 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


The communication with the outside world part of this seems pretty half-baked, unless there’s some undescribed way for ATC to override what autoland is doing or the situational (traffic, weather) data it’s relying upon. Especially until aircraft to aircraft collision avoidance is universal.

Can the tower tell the computer when it’s safe to land? When traffic is clear, when emergency equipment is ready, when enough fuel has been burned, etc?

I get that once a human pilot declares an emergency the tower is supposed to give them whatever they want and deconflict traffic, and during the emergency the pilot is not obliged to talk to the tower when they are busy trying to fly the plane, and the tower avoids asking the pilot too many questions, so theoretically auto land behaves like a pilot too busy or distressed to talk, but I’ve watched enough incident vids to know what sometimes tower intervention and advice is essential and decisions based on static maps and delayed weather data and etc may be wrong and create danger to other so not just the distressed craft and its passengers...
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think that this would be a great peace-of-mind item for non-pilot spouses and people flying their grandkids. Realistically, pilots have to pass a flight physical already so incapacitation should be rare. But if you’re dropping millions of bucks already, you can clearly afford it.

The issue of comms with ATC seems like a non-issue, since in the use case we’re assuming non-pilot and they wouldn’t know how to communicate anyway, would they? I think landing on a runway that’s closed for resurfacing in 3 percent of the cases would be better than the alternative.

Hopefully no one thinks this has anything to do with a full-time automated plane, either. This is the equivalent of an auto that can brake to a stop while remaining in the lane, not the mythical “auto driving system.” I haven’t flown for fifteen years. I wonder how many autopilots are linked to the ground steering and brakes? I’d guess “none, except on the demo Garmin planes,” though that can be fixed by spraying the planes with cash. Which is usually how stuff gets fixed on airplanes.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:26 AM on November 20, 2019


OK I went looking for real data.

According to the Nall report there were 10 accidents related to pilot incapacitation in non-commercial airplanes last year (the kinds of planes this system applies to). 7 of the 10 were fatal.

However.. all 10 were cases where any passengers seem likely to be impaired too. 3 were suicide. 2 were carbon monoxide. 2 were failure to use supplemental oxygen, 3 were drug-or-alcohol related. I guess the CO and O2 problems might be helped by an autoland if someone in the plane is still coherent enough to recognize the trouble they're in and push the magic button. Nothing you can do for the suicides though, and I suspect the drug-and-alcohol issues aren't going to be helped with an autoland system either.

FWIW back in 2008 there were 12 pilot incapacitation accidents, 7 fatal. Just a handful of these events a year and none of them seem to be the canonical "grandpa had a stroke" event.

The other piece of this is that it apparently is possible for an untrained person to be talked down into a landing. May bend the airplane, but that page lists 6 successful landings in 20 years. No idea if there were any failed landings...

loquacious I appreciate your knowledge from flight simulators, but have you ever tried it in a real small plane? It's remarkable how different it is. A lot of flying a small plane is the feel of the controls, the resistance in the rudders and yoke. Turn coordination is absolutely not a problem after about 3 hours training, you do it without thinking. OTOH getting the flare and airspeed right never gets entirely easy, particularly if there's much wind. Landing was the one part of my training where I didn't think playing with computer game simulators was much help at all.

What was helpful was the Crosswind landing simulator, a very limited landing simulator that lets you try landing in very challenging winds that wouldn't be safe in a real aircraft. That simulator put a lot of effort into getting the seat-of-the-pants feel right. OTOH it's not much of a videogame; the version I trained on had no computer graphics at all just some minimal indicator of where the runway was.
posted by Nelson at 7:02 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


The issue of comms with ATC seems like a non-issue, since in the use case we’re assuming non-pilot and they wouldn’t know how to communicate anyway, would they?

Can't watch the youtube vids at work so maybe this is covered but could the system, besides blindly landing the plane, also turn on some sort of speakerphone com system?
posted by Mitheral at 7:07 AM on November 20, 2019


ATC not being able to control the aircraft is a non-issue. If an emergency aircraft is coming in, ATC will make everything happen so that it can land when it needs to. If there's a fire on an aircraft, for example, then the rule is to get downstairs as quickly as possible, and in those circs ATC will do all the work to make sure that happens. Similarly if there's comms failure: if your aircraft loses all its radios, you can be sure that if you head for the airport you'll be able to land.

As I said, I think the more useful aspect of this platform is the automatic recovery from hypoxia - if the cabin loses pressure and O2 masks aren't donned, then the aircraft spots this and prompts the pilot to decrease altitude. If the pilot doesn't respond, the aircraft starts to descend on its own - I presume while squawking the appropriate emergency code so that ATC is aware. It levels off at a safe altitude and continues to prompt the pilot. This would have saved a number of lives in the past.
posted by Devonian at 7:55 AM on November 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


loquacious I appreciate your knowledge from flight simulators, but have you ever tried it in a real small plane? It's remarkable how different it is. A lot of flying a small plane is the feel of the controls, the resistance in the rudders and yoke.

Nope but I should be a natural at it. I can sail and kite surf/skate, which is a similar sort of thing that relies heavily on feel and sensing aero loads and vectors. I've also done some RC model aircraft and sailplane stuff. I would probably make a fine sailplane pilot.

You still don't want me to land the plane, though. I'll probably get us smoothly on the ground and then fuck it all up by locking up the breaks on roll out and finish it with a really nice prop strike and endo.
posted by loquacious at 8:10 AM on November 20, 2019


Can't watch the youtube vids at work so maybe this is covered but could the system, besides blindly landing the plane, also turn on some sort of speakerphone com system?

I noticed in the video that Emergency Noob Mode included dedicating one of the displays to a well-labeled Push To Talk button.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 8:44 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


As rongorongo mentioned, there's quite a few middle-aged doctors and executives who are flying their families around in their light planes. I'm sure a lot of them would like this kind of backup if they have a heart attack.

But I agree that if the pilot incapacitation detection works properly, that could be the real lifesaver, even in larger planes. I still remember them tracking Payton Stewart's plane across the US, and there was nothing anyone could do.
posted by tavella at 9:45 AM on November 20, 2019


I work near a small airport that has a flight school - they rent light aircraft to people learning to fly, and this seems like something they'd get for insurance/liability reasons if nothing else. A fair number of folks bring a friend along when they're racking up flight time based on my time hanging out in the waiting area (they also have a computerized testing center).
posted by momus_window at 1:46 PM on November 20, 2019


I think it's the fact that this has got approval which is significant.

To be fair the approval on this is pretty much a no-brainer. Once someone in the plane has pressed the OMG THERE'S NO PILOT button, almost any attempt the system can make to bring the aircraft down in a controlled landing is better than the alternative.

I haven't gone digging for the paperwork, but I would bet you a landing fee of your choice that one of the main points they will have had to demonstrate for approval is that the system is deliberately designed to prevent itself from being misused as a convenience feature - i.e. once you press the button, there is no way to prevent it squawking 7700, calling a Mayday on 121.5, telling the nearest tower in a cheesy robotic voice that you're incapacitated, and generally ensuring a large amount of paperwork will be ready on arrival.

Because otherwise you know damn well that some asshat is going to be sitting in there with his golf buddies, hands off with a drink in hand, telling them all about how awesome his new toy is, right as it descends through the blind spot of some poor sod below them because he's keeping an even shittier lookout than usual.
posted by automatronic at 4:18 PM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


To be fair the approval on this is pretty much a no-brainer. Once someone in the plane has pressed the OMG THERE'S NO PILOT button, almost any attempt the system can make to bring the aircraft down in a controlled landing is better than the alternative.


That makes sense. If it’s approved then much wiser heads than I have weighed the pros and cons of this system and new, hypothetical risks such as it being triggered in some highly congested urban airspace and/or targeting some busy airport with runways that can’t be quickly de-conflicted, or flying into the teeth of a storm to reach the closest runway when a safer airport is available, etc vs. the number of actual non-hypothetical fatal incidents it could have prevented and decided in its favor.

I noticed in the video that Emergency Noob Mode included dedicating one of the displays to a well-labeled Push To Talk button.

That makes a lot of sense. Some ability to force the radios to tune and open the mic or squelch might make sense too. Maybe some form of that exists, and I guess this is early days for systems like these. That sort of thing might require more regulation and standardization.

Thinking about what I’ve read and watched and understand about commonly fatal mistakes in general aviation, some kind of panic button for dealing with blundering into instrument conditions unintentionally would also be a useful system. I suppose saying “land this plane” is one way to deal with that, as the system should set a course and maintain an altitude that avoids terrain on the map? ....Or maybe GPS-coupled autopilots basically already provide this, and we’ll see less of those accidents as planes are updated with them?
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:51 AM on November 21, 2019


The approval aspect isn't so much that it would have been difficult to get, but that it's a very political decision. The argument against single pilot + more automation on large passenger jets is mostly incapacitation. The pilots know this, and if that is squared away then the economics of halving the cost of your pliot list are unanswerable. Most of the work has already been quietly done on that - I forget the name of the NASA programme that basically did pilotless commerical aviation under the guise of helping a single pilot when their fellow has gone crook, but it was delicately handled.

And once you're there, it's a lot easier to get to total automation.
posted by Devonian at 1:49 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


The Vision Jet has had envelope protection to deal with the VFR-into-IMC disorientation problem, including a big blue wing level button. I don't think it's enough to prevent a stall-spin crash at low altitude, but it should help with some of the other big killers in single pilot GA. Many other aircraft, including some relatively inexpensive (for a brand new certified plane, anyway) that use the G1000 and G3000 based systems have also had the envelope protection and wing leveling stuff for several years now, as has the emergency descent feature.

In terms of hardware, the only thing really new here is computer being able to lower the gear and change flap settings, if it even does the latter. All rest is pretty much software, which is apparently at least as good as a student pilot already (and has long been far better than many experienced pilots at certain tasks where biology makes it hard for humans)
posted by wierdo at 7:25 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


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