Why Automate?

For a few months we’ve been writing and commenting on flight deck monitoring, automation bias, and how the human operator can adopt habits and patterns that keep them “in the loop” during high-risk/high-reliability operations on the modern flight deck. Hopefully we have drawn readers into a closer relationship with the equipment they operate. We want to use this post to pivot from Monitoring as a topic to something more fundamental, and focus on why we automate flight deck activities at all. Because understanding that dynamic makes it possible to build real expertise on the contemporary flight deck.

When an organization or individual makes a decision to obtain aircraft that include advanced avionics and flight controls, they are largely making an economic choice that favors economy of operations over less reliable and less efficient aircraft models. Secondary to this decision—in most cases—is the benefit of the automated cockpit for the flight crews, which is often viewed as a safety enhancement that is a byproduct of the overall equipment upgrade. It’s in this way the crews of modern aircraft are left to adapt to ever-increasingly capable and automated flight decks. Their decision to “automate” is different than the aircraft acquisition team’s, and comes right down to the actual engagement of autoflight, speed control, and decision-support systems that they find on the flight deck. For over a decade this has been our focus: elevating the engagement/disengagement decision to a level that goes beyond simply turning it on or off. The decision by flight crews “to automate or not” is made millions of times a day around the world. Our goal is to ensure that decision is always made for the right reason.

The act of “giving over control” of the aircraft flight path should be accompanied by a conscious decision (and often verbal alert to other crewmembers) that the pilot in control is delegating the most important flight deck function—aircraft control—to a subsystem of the aircraft. That decision most often enables the crew to engage in other activities, which most often take the form of operational decision making and overall supervision of systems whose complexities and capabilities grows every time a new aircraft rolls out of an assembly hangar. And so the reverse operation (when the autoflight systems are disengaged) should be the result of the clear conclusion that, it is better now for the safe operation of the aircraft that the pilot controls the flight path.

In talking about complicated systems like modern aircraft it is often said that oversimplification can lead crews to misunderstand the very system itself. In the case of the overall decision to automate it can be said that engagement means “I’m now going to supervise the autoflight and other systems in safely controlling the flight path” and disengagement means “It’s safer and more desirable now that the pilot controls the flight path with backup from the automated systems.”

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

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