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The future of airline aviation...

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Life imitates art is the saying. I think it is fair to say that a lot of times form is the essence of function (Bernoulli's principle)... and any fidelity of simulation is predicated upon the underlining systems and processes being simulated in the first place. For example, no one is going to come up with a 18-wheeler simulator in the same manner that PMDG/etc has produced airline simulators (yes I'm aware there is grass simulator, goat simulator, but those are largely jokes and not meant to be taken seriously) because simply said driving a truck is not as prestigious as flying a jumbo jet... so reality and simulation cannot be decoupled or divorced... one platform relies on the other.


So having said that, with the NEW PMDG 747 on the horizon and about to debut, I can't help but feel a bittersweet sort of nostalgia of it all. Firstly, not counting cargo, but just for passenger side of things, 747-400 is all but dead. No one really flies it that much anymore. (the real issue is that unlike the PMDG Douglas DC-6 Cloudmaster, I don't think that was the INTENT) And Boeing has toyed with deciding whether or not to cut production of the 747 altogether... After having basked in the PMDG 777 for so long, revisiting the new screenshots of the "new" 747 (and they look great, much much improved from the legacy 747 from back in 2005) I'm suddenly reminded of just how outdated the 744 really is... from the green monochrome of the DOS-era FMC/CDU to the flight deck design arch. reminding me of the interior of a 1980's Oldsmobile, etc... everything about the plane just seems so "old". The irony is that we can now have at our desktop PC a full simulation of the 744 and its avionic and computer systems and subsystems just underscores the absolute advancement of computing technology and how outdated the 744 really is....


In ten or twenty years from now will airline aviation still have a future in the sense of pilots and cockpits or will aviation be completely automated? It feels like we are on the brink of an AI exponential explosion in which self-driving cars, and so many other things are just on the horizon. Uber, Google and Baidu are all making their self driving cars. Elon Musk is making Hyper Loop to obsolete airplanes altogether. Now I hear that Amazon got FAA approval to start testing automated drone delivery of packages in order to cut down on costs/time and to get rid of middle man like Fedex/UPS/USPS /etc. Forget for a moment the fact that soon there will be "kits" that can retrofit existing 18-wheelers and make them fully drive autonomously - thus cannibalizing an entire trucking industry at large - pretty soon with the advancement of 3d printing and autonomous UAVs and sUAVs and things like VR/Hololens/Augmented reality, this may cut down on all forms of air travel altogether from leisure and pleasure to business and commute to transport of the just-in-time inventory logistics etc... once 3d printing can print themselves and computer AI can come up with even better AI themselves, then we could reach that singularity point of no return... In such a world, it would be hard to imagine that real life pilots will still be needed or that indeed there will even be need for a manned aircraft at all...


Given the proven potential in machine learning and deep learning as of late (this March a Google Deepmind AI program beat the world's strongest Go player, something most in the AI industry predicted was 10 to 20 years away and some predicted would never happen etc) by neural "training" on same sets, and having this same generalized AI technical applicable to a largest array of other tasks from playing games to designing shoes (Nike) it seems that no job is not replaceable by computers. IBM Watson for example can do better what doctors, lawyers, politicians and businessmen can do, making decisions that are optimized near perfection. Sure traveling saleman type problems are not NP complete, but when an AI can do it faster and better than humans, why would you let the human still do it?


So FAA is a bit slow to the scene with things like NextGen and using texts/tweets to update aircraft/pilots in multicast mode on the FMC/CDU as opposed to two-way radio system of communication, but in this day and age especially with the new 787 and 747-800 etc  the job of airline pilot is more systems administration than raw 'flying'. The real big picture is instead of needing a human to tie the loose ends together, if a trained AI can do it even better, then why not cut out the middle-man, so to speak?


Just look at the DJI Mavic for example, that thing can fly itself, auto-track, take selfies, and has a 7 km range, and small enough to fit into a pocket. It is also fly by wire, so that even if a prop falls out it can auto-compensate (better than TAC, etc) it can finds its own landing to go back home down to resolution of one inch, etc... with redundant GPS systems (and GLONASS) and integrated sonar, lidar, etc.... has real-time obstacle avoidance, can hold position in mid air steady enough to be used as a tripod and sports a 4k video camera, and so many things that make the automated in airbus/boeing seem almost pitiful in comparison...


Silicon valley predicts by 2020 self-driving cars will start to become mainstream. What implications for airline aviation?



Bo Chen

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Hi Bo,


Some interesting observations there- although automation is here and here to stay, a counterpart to all this glorious technology that brings us to a sober realization that we have a way to go yet:  Malaysia Flight 370, one of the single greatest aviation mysteries of all time.  A modern Boeing 777 flies into the night and simply vanishes.


The good news will be for folks who write the software for all these new systems.  On the down side, simply having a degree in generic programing doesn't cut it anymore - you need software engineers who also have advanced degrees in other disciplines in order to bring it all together.


As far as self-flying airplanes, such as passenger jets, I believe the technology exists to do this already but it doesn't yet pass the human "sniff-test".  Folks on board at 37,000 feet want to know someone is in charge of the aircraft who wants to live as badly as they do.  You can't program "out of the box thinking" and "raw passion" and "a fighting desire to live" into an algorithm.  People want these very qualities to exist within the people they've trusted their lives to.


Besides the quality of the algorithm in charge, there is always the worry about the sensors the algorithms rely upon.


A few cases of high level automation gone wrong were due to sensor malfunctions - the B-2 bomber crash on takeoff from Anderson AFB in Guam - due to water that had accumulated inside a sensor due to a recent storm.  In this case a component of the automation literally crashed the aircraft resulting in no loss of life (both pilots ejected) but complete loss of the aircraft.   There was also a case in the news a couple of months ago about one of Elon Musks' cars killing it's driver due to the inability of the sensor to determine open sky from the entire broadside of an 18 wheeler.


Our younger generation may find it easy to relax in self-driving cars, but I'm of the age where I'll never be comfortable with reading a book or watching TV while the car drives me to work.  I've had to take evasive action many times to avoid other driver's mistakes, and I'm not sure how the multitude of various situations like this could ever be programmed.   For instance, if you know you're going to crash and you have to decide whether to plow head-on into an 18 wheeler or drive off the edge of a bridge, which do you choose?  What would the computer do?  It probably isn't factoring in whether or not it knows if you can swim.


Mark Trainer

VFR Car Driver For Life

Mark Trainer


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